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A raw deal for South Punjab

June 01, 2015


THE Shahbaz Sharif government’s scanty investment in developing South Punjab — the sub-region containing the vast majority of the province’s poor people — during the current year is scandalous.

This is in stark contrast to the government’s tall claims of boosting its development funding for the region to 36pc — exceeding its share of 32pc in the province’s population — of the core provincial development budget of Rs290bn this year.

According to official numbers, the Punjab government has spent less than 40pc, or Rs40bn, of the total funds of Rs104bn allocated for development in the province’s poorest sub-region in the first 10 months of this fiscal.

The money utilised so far in South Punjab forms less than one-third of the total funds of Rs119bn if the allocation made in the non-core development programme, or ‘below-the-line’ projects are also added to the tally.

Officials blame the inordinate delays in the start of work on mega projects in the region on the late finalisation of their plans and the low utilisation of funds. But they add that development spending in the region would go up to Rs60bn by the close of the financial year on June 30.

“There is no lack of good intent on the part of the government. The chief minister himself is extremely keen to see the area develop fast,” noted an economist, who refused to be identified because he has been ‘working with’ the government.

The gap between the allocations and the utilisation of funds will continue to exist no matter which party is ruling the province as long as a local government system is not put in place to take care of the development needs of the people at the district level — a PML-N MNA from South Punjab

“The problem is that the administrative machinery in South Punjab is not as efficient as it is in the rest of the province. Besides, you don’t find sufficient political pressure on the government for development from within the region,” he said.

No recent study on the level of poverty and deprivation in the region is available, but the work done on the topic by economists like Dr Ali Cheema in the past provides sufficient evidence to establish that the southern districts of the province are the most poverty-ridden areas. It also delineates the north-south developmental divide in the province, with North Punjab standing out in terms of its higher development.

A ranking of the 35 provincial districts by development shows that the least developed ones are in the southern parts of the province. And except for Multan, no southern district matches the level of development of the other districts in the central and northern parts of the province.

Dr Cheema’s 2008 study showed that high poverty was mostly clustered in 14 districts of the southern and western regions of the province, which he dubbed as ‘crescent of endemic poverty’.

The low level of development has led to strong deprivations in South Punjab, leading in the past to a weak but consistent demand for a separate province for the Seraiki-speaking population.

“Development is essentially political. Because of its weak support base in the southern parts of the province, the PML-N has consistently neglected the area during its long stay in power in Punjab, which has intensified deprivations in the area,” argued a Lahore School of Economics (LSE) professor who wanted to stay anonymous.

Quoting a 2012 study — The Punjab Story, by the Institute of Public Policy — the professor contended that “South Punjab didn’t always lag behind the central and northern Punjab”.

“In the 1970s, Multan and Rahim Yar Khan were ranked 4th and 6th in Punjab. This indicates that the southern parts of the province were massively neglected later on in the provision of economic infrastructure and public service delivery, resulting in the steep decline in their development ranking.”

He said an analysis of the development spending record of the last five years shows that the Shahbaz Sharif government’s focus on development in South Punjab has always been erratic.

“There exists a wide gap between the size of the development funds the government announces in its budget for the region and what it actually spends on the area. For example, it pulled out a huge amount of money from the allocations for South Punjab before the 2013 elections to complete the Metro Bus project in Lahore.”

A PML-N MNA from the area, who requested anonymity, partly agreed with the professor. “Indeed, there is a wide gap between the government’s claims of development in South Punjab and the reality. But it is also incorrect to say that the provincial government hasn’t done anything for the region. We have a better road infrastructure and better education and healthcare facilities today than ever before.”

He, however, conceded that the government had lagged in executing mega projects like the construction of new universities, which it had announced in the budget for the present fiscal year. “Even the Metro Bus project in Multan started very late.”

He believes that no provincial government can ever consume all the funds it sets aside for development unless it has an effective local government to help it.

“The gap between official claims and reality and the allocations and the utilisation of funds will continue to exist no matter who or which party is ruling the province as long as a local government system is not put in place to take care of the development needs of the people from different regions at the district level.”

Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, June 1st, 2015

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