ISLAMABAD - The much-talked-about China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), trumpeted as a harbinger of prosperity, particularly by ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has fallen victim to controversies as well as conspiracies with some politicians dubbing the project more contentious than Kalabagh Dam.

The corridor project running from Kashgar in Xinjiang province in China to Gwadar Port in Balochistan was signed between Beijing and Islamabad on May 22, 2013, aimed at focusing on linkages between western region of China and Pakistan.

It will connect East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia and benefit the whole region, according to a brief prepared jointly by Planning Commission of Pakistan and National Development Reform Commission of China.

Opposition political parties, particularly Awami National Party (ANP), accused the PML-N government of altering the original route that stretched from Gwadar to Zhob to DI Khan, touching neglected southern areas of KP like Kohat and Karak.

During a multi-party conference in Islamabad this month, ANP Chief Asfandyar Wali Khan who read a hurriedly-written note, prepared by Senator Afrasiab Khattak, lambasted the government for secretly changing the route of the economic corridor, diverting its major portions to pass through Punjab at the cost of smaller provinces.

“Let me make it clear that if any alteration is made in the original route, we will make the project more controversial than Kalabagh Dam. We are not against the venture, but against the move that only Punjab will reap its benefits,” the ANP chief had told the gathering amid slogan, “No to alternate route”.

When The Nation approached officials in the Planning Commission about what changes have exactly been made in the project, they declined to comment on the record, but the officials associated with the CPEC desk said the new routes were being designed to connect Lahore and other cities of Punjab before running through Hazara division.

Federal Planning and Reforms Minister Ahsan Iqbal did not reply to a question sent on his cell phone about any change in the route though he has reached out to leaders of political parties in an effort to take them into confidence on the corridor project and allay their concerns.

Federal Communications Minister Hakeem Baloch, however, told this reporter that he too had learnt from other sources about alteration in the original route, adding the controversy could convert into a wider conspiracy, shelving the project if concerns of political parties were not removed.

The minister, however, failed to throw light on the new route that would pass through cities in the Punjab, arguing that he had been unable to perform his ministerial assignments for two weeks on account of being busy with his family issues.

Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Sheikh Aftab who also answers questions related to the Ministry of Communications on the floor of the house told The Nation that 90 percent of road infrastructure under the CPEC was being financed by China and only 10 percent was funded by Pakistan. “I think China considers it feasible to construct the corridor along cities in the Punjab, but I am not sure about the exact map of the new route. Political parties should not make the project disputed,” the minister said.

But Senator Haji Adeel of ANP who claims he was the man who unearthed the alteration in the initial route told this reporter that China should intervene and pressurise Pakistani rulers to stick to the original route if it really wanted to achieve long-term objectives of the ancient Silk Route.

“We welcome the project but not at the cost of Pashtun and Baloch communities. Any change in the original route will make the project more controversial than Kalabagh Dam as, unlike the proposed reservoir, the project involves large territories and much more people,” Adeel added.

Not only politicians but non-partisan experts believe that the corridor is of vital importance and vulnerable to multi-faceted challenges and conspiracies, keeping in view the geo-political location of Pakistan at a time when other regional players too want access to warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

“I think China, being an economic super power in the region, should make it sure that the corridor does not fall victim to controversies. Beijing should make it sure that the route passes through neglected territories in Balochistan and KP,” Professor Ijaz Khan of Department of International Relations (IR), University of Peshawar, told The Nation on Wednesday.

He suggested the corridor should be welcomed by all stakeholders in Pakistan. He feared neglecting the downtrodden people and backward areas in Balochistan and KP would be a serious blow to the objectives of the corridor.

“If the route cannot pass through Peshawar, DI Khan and Pishin through Baloch territory to Gwadar, it cannot pass through Pakistan. No further debate on it. The Kashgar-Gwadar route issue is very vital for the people of KP, Balochistan and the entire Pakistan. It must touch their territories, otherwise the government must leave it,” Dr Ijaz said.

According to Senator Afrasiab Khattak, CPEC is not the sole entry to landlocked Central Asian states, quoting a Chinese expert that the United States in 2012 officially pushed forward New Silk Road Plan which intended to take Afghanistan as its foothold for building infrastructure in order to connect Central Asia with South Asia.

Similarly, he said Chahbahar Port in Iran was another option to connect to Central Asia. “But why should our government commit blunder by making changes in the original route? Let the corridor pass through the neglected areas as envisaged in the original feasibility report,” Senator Khattak asserted.