By Air Commodore (Retd) Khalid Iqbal
This was the least suitable time for opening the Pandora’s Box regarding creation of new provinces; yet it has opened at a time when there is no worthwhile mass movement supporting the issue. If the process of creating new provinces gets triggered in an arbitrary way, no matter from where we may start and how we proceed, within a decade Pakistan will end up with a dozen plus provinces.
Issue of new provinces has become a hotly debated one. It has started with Punjab but may not begin or end there. While supporting the creation of new provinces may appear an easy way out for the politicians, it is going to be a difficult task to actually carve them out. Once the genie is out it will not be possible to force it back into the bottle. Like creation of new districts, addition of provinces would become a political appeasement tool in a run up to each election. At the end of the day, country is likely to end up having a provincial map very close to an existing administrative entity called ‘Division’.
There are several underlying factors that contribute to demanding new provinces. Ethnic identities within the provinces have become politicised and hence turned twitchy. Disproportionate allocation of resources within each province has created perception of deprivation in all the provinces.
Syndrome for more provinces is country wide. It is most intense in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa; where it got jump started as a by-product of renaming of the province. Boards are put up in some areas of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa calling such parts of the province as Hazara; it depicts a distinct feeling. People of Bahawalpur are quick to recall their ‘state’ era; ecstatic memories of yesteryears still fascinate them. Interestingly, overly politicised drive for Seraiki province is not supported by a worthwhile public movement.
Ongoing ping-pong in Sindh between ‘Commissionerate’ and ‘Local Government’ systems has amply highlighted the de’facto division of Sindh on urban-rural lines; alongside equally strong sentiment to prevent it. FATA has also been mutely voicing for provincial status. Pushtun population of Baluchistan, which is around 50%, has traditionally been uncomfortable with the current demarcation of Baluchistan, and there have been talks about a separate entity.
With general elections only one and a half years away, there would be more demands for new provinces as political parties consider it a tool to gain popularity among the people. Weaker parties in each province are expected to play the new province card to fascinate the voters among minority ethnic groups; however, there could be a blowback effect as well, because opposition by the majority communities may gravely hurt the electoral tally of such parties.
As of now, these demands are at the level of wish-lists, yet having the potential of setting in motion a process aimed at remapping all existing provinces.
Notwithstanding the pitfalls, country does need more provinces. Hence, it would be appropriate to make a virtue out of this necessity and accomplish this task in an orderly way so that it is a win-win situation for the entire nation.
There is a need to take the holistic view of the matter and take into consideration its implications on vital issues like National Finance Commission Award, water sharing and economic viability of new entities in the context of 18th Constitutional Amendment. Provincial autonomy under the 18th Amendment is unprecedented; this one notch devolution needs to be carried forth to sub-provincial levels down to division and district. Unfortunately, every province tends to centralize the administrative, financial and political power in the hands of the chief ministers. It is ironic that local government system has flourished under military rulers and civilian administrations have traditionally been shy of holding local bodies’ elections.
It would be prudent to not to set any datelines for formulation of provinces until all implications have been adequately gauged and preventive measures are taken to contain the impact of negative fallouts. Political expediency should not be allowed to become the driving factor; otherwise fierce turf battles would start and at the end of day everyone would be bruised and would harbour the feeling of betrayal on one account or the other.
India created its first province on linguistic grounds. Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh came to existence in 1952. Under this precedence, a number of new states emerged on the Indian map in 1956. The process continued; India now has nearly two dozen states, while it inherited a single digit tally at the time of independence.
Cultural commonalities should be duly considered while forming the provinces; however such elements should not be the sole criteria. Administrative and financial viability should be the underwriting raison d’être within which intrinsic cultural values may by adjusted. Linguistics would figure out again and again in the debates and there should be no obstructions in their way as some of the provinces may eventually emerge on this account provided they meet the remaining criteria as well. For example, since Seraiki is spoken in all four provinces in Pakistan, it would be a mockery of the process to create a province of 100 million people of Punjab in the name of Seraiki alone.
A lot of work remains to be done before the constitutional process could be triggered. Any jumping the gun approach would make creation of new provinces a pipe dream. Procedure for creating new provinces is circuitous and laborious because at a given time no political party or alliance is likely to muster two third majorities simultaneously in provincial assemblies and at the two houses of federal parliament. New provinces would entail addition in non-developmental expenditure, this would surely take care of problems of the people and promote harmonious relationship among different communities of the country. Additional administrative expenditure could be minimized by restricting the size of the provincial government and the bureaucracy.
Key political parties have differing perspectives on the issue, though none of them is publicly opposing the idea of having more provinces. Hence, a holistic approach embodying national consensus needs to be developed outside the provincial assemblies and the federal parliament before the constitutional process should be triggered as a formality. It indeed requires a much larger consensus among the competing mainstream political parties. Otherwise, no province would ever be formed and the entire nation may be subjected to a sort of emotional pressure cooker without a safety valve.