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Gerrymandering of districts

November 07, 2017

THE government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa notified the creation of a new district in August this year. The new district, Kolai Palas, was a sub-division of Kohistan that is one of the less populated districts of the province.

Kohistan district has one seat in the National Assembly and three in the provincial legislature. The mountainous area is one of the most conservative pockets of the country that regularly reports extremely low turnouts and zero participation of women in the public and political spheres.

Kolai Palas has one seat in the KP Assembly (PK 62 Kohistan 2). Owing to its small population and low turnout, the successful candidate, who belonged to the JUI-F, polled just 3,590 votes in elections 2013.

Why then has this small area been upgraded to an independent sub-provincial administrative unit? The question becomes more perplexing considering that many other areas of the same province with similar geographic and demographic features remain at the level of union councils.

New administrative units are created on the pretext of ‘popular demand’.

The answer can only be found in politics — ethnic, clan and party politics. The JUI-F MPA elected from Kolai Palas joined the PTI in March this year and resigned from his seat as a result. Then a local jirga decided in favour of another PTI leader, Zargul Khan, who got elected unopposed the next month on the promise of getting the area upgraded to a district.

Four months into office, he turned the local dream into a reality. Zargul now plans to contest the national Kohistan seat in the next general elections. He can bank on his highly obliged voters from Kolai Palas to win the bigger seat that currently is with the PML-N. A new unit means new government jobs and bestowing these on a section of the population is a sure way of cementing one’s political power.

Zargul is also the PTI head for Hazara region that includes Kolai Palas. The region is the only stronghold of the PML-N that is the PTI’s rival in KP. Four of the seven national and nine of the 20 provincial seats of the region are with the PML-N.

Zargul is not a local of Kolai Palas but from the neighbouring Torghar district where his brother Zaringul Khan is a JUI-F MPA. Torghar too has a very small population deserving just 0.6 of a seat.

The Gul brothers are a wealthy family. Zargul has successfully combined his political ambitions with local demands and party expediencies and made the right move at the right time to consolidate his power. That’s how a new district is born.

But it’s not always the ambitious individuals that lead the process, as ethno-linguistic interests with wider cross-party appeal can also drive such moves.

Take the example of Tank tehsil of Dera Ismail Khan district. When Tank was upgraded to a district in 1992, its population was just a quarter of D.I. Khan district. Paharpur tehsil of the same district also had almost the same population but 80 per cent of its inhabitants were Seraiki while Pakhtuns had the same percentage in Tank. The Pakhtuns thus were given a clear advantage over Seraikis.

D.I. Khan had one seat in the National Assembly. As the total number of seats was raised in 2002, the old district of Dera qualified for two seats. But Tank had already been carved out of it and automatically became the candidate for the second seat. However, Tank’s population fell way short of the benchmark for a national seat; the district was thus combined with select adjacent areas of Dera to create the new constituency which has a majority of Pashto speakers.

Pakhtuns were 29pc of the old district of Dera Ismail Khan while Seraiki speakers were 66pc but thanks to Tank tehsil becoming a district, only one of the two national seats of the area now has a Seraiki majority. In other words, had Tank not been declared a district, it was likely that both Dera seats would have had a Seraiki majority.

The decimation of Dera district along ethno-linguistic lines continued later. The creation of two new tehsils, Darabin and Paroa, reduced the population of old Kulachi tehsil from 159,000 to just 67,000 (1998 census) but it is now a Pashto-majority tehsil with a claim to a separate seat in the provincial assembly.

It is evident that certain Pakhtun political interests have been at work to extract maximum representation from Dera where they were a minority and their not-so-secret route to that goal has been the creation of new administrative units.

The phenomenon is not limited to KP. The story of the formation of Sherani district in Balochistan, Hafizabad in Punjab and a number of new districts and talukas in Sindh over the past decade or so is no different.

The new administrative units are created on the pretext of ‘popular demand’ but certainly not all such demands are met. Another argument is that the smaller units are good as they make governance structures more accessible to people. But the counter-argument is that if going small is the way forward, why do it selectively? The administration of Gujranwala district has to deal with the constituents of 23 parliamentarians (seven MNAs and 14 MPAs) while that of Hafizabad is responsible for just that of five. So why not divide Gujranwala further into four or five districts to offer its inhabitants the same access that people of Hafizabad have?

More importantly, there is a whole local government system to meet the same objective; why not make it more effective and efficient instead of taking a parallel route and that too in a clandestine, almost conspiratorial manner?

As the limits of electoral constituencies are dictated by the administrative boundaries, the arbitrary creation of new administrative units causes substantial distortions on the political representation map. This translates into voters in some areas getting higher weightage in our electoral system than others.

At core is the fact that while there are rules for delimiting electoral constituencies, there exist none for creating new administrative units. The former have to go through a process of public scrutiny but the latter just requires an executive order. This is why the creation of new units has become the favourite route to gerrymandering of political constituencies. A solution to it must be found.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2017