The latest announcement of internal autonomy for the Northern Areas (renamed Gilgit-Baltistan) under the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance 2009 has come under criticism from some quarters regarding its implications. Kashmiri leaders including Azad Kashmir's former PM Sardar Atiq Ahmed Khan have expressed concern about these areas' future status in the Kashmir dispute. However it is also being said that the unanimous Cabinet decision which remains short of granting the areas provincial status does not alter the status of these areas in the context of the Kashmir dispute; but is an attempt to redress the longstanding demands of the local people and is consistent with the requirement of decentralisation. While the critics' concerns are misplaced, one thing is quite obvious and that is that the decision has been overwhelmingly welcomed by the local people. It would facilitate the execution of development works there as well as solution of the local problems. The areas will have their own consolidated fund which will be voted on by the Legislative Assembly and in turn approved by the Cabinet. PM Gilani, while briefing the media about the ratification of the Cabinet of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance 2009, said that it was based on the recommendations of a high-powered committee constituted with the mandate of preparing a reform package for the northern areas. Later, the PM also met the Northern Areas Council and notables of the areas. Mr Gilani spelled out some of the salient features of the ordinance: elections to the legislative assembly and the chief minister coming November, composition of the assembly, appointment of the acting governor, etc. However, at the outset the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009 has been received with mixed reviews. Firstly, that it was not discussed by the National Assembly. The fact is that Gilgit-Baltistan as the northern-most entity in the disputed territory of Kashmir is not constitutionally earmarked and reforms in the area have generally been brought about directly without lengthy debates in the National Assembly. So it is in line with traditional practice. The absence of a High Court in Gilgit-Baltistan means the locals will have to go to Islamabad to seek justice. Moreover the status of Gilgit-Baltistan also has not been determined within the constitutional framework and only seeks to grant the region with internal autonomy like that of AJK. The lack of a high court may be redressed by the fact of greater judicial autonomy. Under the Ordinance, a 'supreme appellate court' shall be headed by a chief judge who will be appointed by the chairman of the council on the advice of the governor. Other judges shall be appointed by the chairman on the advice of the governor after seeking views of the chief judge. The number of judges has been increased from three to five and the tenure of the present judges of the Supreme Judiciary has been protected in the ordinance. The new set up will also have a public service commission, a chief election commissioner and an auditor general. The establishment of a public service commission for the area ensures greater job opportunities for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. As to the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan, the problem has to be seen in the international context because of the Kashmir issue. Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan was not merged into Pakistan properly because the fear was that it could undermine our claim on Kashmir and it was not merged into AJK because it could complicate a settlement on the area. If, for example, Gilgit-Baltistan is made a full-fledged province within the constitutional framework of Pakistan, India could perhaps argue that the state it has carved out of the disputed area, IHK, is also a legitimate entity and that it is a settled issue. This, then, is the government's dilemma; acting on the desire to see to it that all the people who live in Pakistan have the same constitutional rights versus potentially further complicating an already intractable problem like the Kashmir issue. What the government has done is to try and occupy the middle ground by moving towards replicating the AJK template of governance in Gilgit-Baltistan and empowering the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. It is certainly not ideal but it at least opens the door to further changes down the road once the new system is operational. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan deserve all their rights; however, realistically, that goal can only be achieved incrementally. The writer is special assistant to the CM Sindh for Press and Media E-mail: