Fencing the tribal areas

04 Dec 2017


FOR better border management, Pakistan security forces are fencing the country’s border with Afghanistan — rather, they have almost completed the job. This will not only regulate the movement of people and goods but will also check infiltration of militants from across the border.

As much as fencing was needed for security reasons, it will no doubt contribute to the tribal people’s economic hardships. This is a major change in the lives of the tribes living astride the border, and should have been properly planned with clearly identified steps to offset the ensuing hardships. It is pertinent to note that although there is subsistence agriculture and livestock activity, most of the economic activity in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) was in some way related to cross-border trade with Afghanistan. An already impoverished people, ravaged by years of war, instead of getting support and relief are further trounced into extinction without any remedial measures prior to fencing.

Without getting into the politics of the Durand Line and easement rights, it is suffice to say that Fata is the poorest area in the country. More than 70 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line. There are no economic opportunities; no apparent development activity taking place; colleges have been closed for ages; and, above all, the people have no rights. The rights given to all Pakistanis by the Constitution and those committed through international instruments are brazenly denied to Fata’s people. Whatever little economic activity there was has been dismantled by the ongoing militancy.

Focusing on border management alone at the expense of economic development will backfire.

But this is not all; the people of Fata have nowhere to go to register their grievances. They have been abandoned by the state and its institutions. The Supreme Court is ready to fix the prices of tomatoes but does not appear to be prepared to protect the rights of the tribal people. The president and the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — nominated as guardians by the Constitution — are adding insult to injury by not even trying to understand the plight of the tribes.

It is in this state of affairs that the government decided to fence the border with Afghanistan. With businesses demolished and trade with Afghanistan made difficult, if not disallowed, we are moving towards disaster. With poverty already sky-high, fencing the border will drag Fata further down. As the saying goes, ‘they prefer stealing to begging’. A vulnerable people will become more vulnerable and easy prey for anti-social elements to use for their nefarious designs.

The status of Fata wasn’t very clear until the 1973 Constitution declared it a part of Pakistan, removing all ambiguities. Fata was a special entity. Many laws were not extended to it, including the Customs Act, and hence to take anything into or out of down-country Pakistan one needed special permission of the political agent. The Customs Act was extended to Fata in the 1980s, of course without the tribes’ consent. Once the act was extended, these permits should have been discontinued — but they continued and their rates kept on increasing, becoming a great source of revenue for the Fata administration.

Under the local government act in the provinces, all districts levied zila tax. The zila tax was collected at the entry/exit of each district and the rates of taxes for all items were fixed and properly displayed. To make it transparent, the collection was auctioned in open bidding in which anyone could participate. In the 1990s, the government replaced the zila tax with general sales tax. Share of all the districts in the GST collected was fixed equivalent to their last year earnings of zila tax. GST is collected on site of production/distribution, hence no one is exempted. Like the rest of the country, the people of Fata also pay GST on all items — but unlike the districts where collection of zila tax was discontinued, tax collection at the entry point of tribal agencies continues. The GST was to replace the zila tax, but in Fata it is in addition to the agency tax. Thus Fata’s people end up paying the tax/cess twice.

The funds collected through the issue of permits are un-auditable and are spent on undefined administrative functions. The amount collected is huge, and it’s no secret that to get posted as political agent one literally has to bid a price. Throughout the world food items are subsidised, but in Fata, to our bad luck, it is a major source of earning for the administration.

The need to regulate movement on the border cannot be denied, but fencing the border without proper planning and taking remedial measures the government has practically turned Fata into one huge refugee camp. The government should have made alternate arrangements for the livelihoods of Fata’s people in general, and the tribes astride the border in particular, before starting fencing. It should have discontinued the permits and other collections; it should have invested in mega projects to generate economic activity; and should have amended the anti-development law, the Frontier Crimes Regulation. Without alternate economic activity, the government is pushing an already desperate Fata into an inconsolable situation.

My plea to the president, as the executive authority of the federation over Fata, is to stop the illegal collections of the local administration forthwith. The budget already allocated to every agency should suffice for administrative duties; if not, they should take up the case with the finance division for additional funds. My request to the prime minister would be to nominate a chief executive officer without further delay, so that whatever investment is to be made in Fata materialises as early as possible. A new office takes time to establish, and there is a long list of approvals from various forums before a project can be initiated.

It is pertinent to note that none of the above requires any constitutional amendments. I strongly believe that providing economic opportunities will in itself go a long way towards reducing militancy.

The writer is a former bureaucrat and author of Cheegha, The Call.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2017