PAKISTAN needs new provinces. But the PML-N’s recent bill to create two new provinces in Punjab serves only its own electoral gains. So it’s crucial to have rational criteria to address national aims given the intense politics and high costs involved. To develop such criteria, one must review their status and role in federations.
In three-tiered federations, federal setups deal with limited issues like currency, defence, trade, foreign affairs, internal coordination etc. Provinces develop the main domestic policies on health, education, local safety and other basic needs and ensure inter-district coordination while districts deliver public services.
Since provinces are the main units for directly ensuring people’s welfare, they are given broad legislative, administrative and fiscal powers. Being closer to the people than federal rulers, they are more accountable. But dividing states into provinces helps only if the latter have adequate capacity and money. Smaller provinces increase accountability, but may not ensure adequate capacity and financial sources if those are not spread evenly.
Even in homogenous states, provinces can’t be made just by placing a grid on the map. Their size must optimise the trade-off between accountability and capacity-finance. Diverse states like Pakistan have historical ethnic regions too. These ethnicities usually have strong identity aspirations and historical conflicts that justify using ethnic regions as provinces. Some say ethnic provinces fan ethnic tensions and create endless demands for new provinces. But Pakistani and South Asian experiences show that such provinces reduce conflicts. Since our current provinces are based on ethnicity, making new ones administratively will cause inconsistency.
Not all aspirations deserve a province.
Finally, while Pakistan is said to have some three dozen ethnicities, only four are large enough to demand new provinces, one in each province: Seraiki, Hindko, Mohajir (more a political rather than ethnic identity) and Balochistan’s Pakhtuns.
In contrast, the administrative idea is to convert existing divisions into provinces to reduce ethnic fissures. This will create 26 provinces at high cost. A false charge against the 18th Amendment is that the four provinces lack capacity. But with several provinces, many will certainly lack capacity and finances and rely on the federal government.
Policy formulation will be done either federally, causing over-centralisation, or by the provinces separately, causing policy confusion across nearby areas. Ignoring ethnic aspirations for administrative efficiency will undermine it too in the long-term as suppressing the former leads to conflict. Ethnic identities, being inerasable etches on the human DNA, cannot be cured and hence must be endured. In fact, they must be managed creatively to convert disparate colours and music notes into brilliant rainbows and symphonies.
Thus, all new provinces must be created around ethnic aspirations — but not all aspirations deserve a province. An ethnic group’s numerical and area size, length of presence in the area and economic disparity in the province must be seen too. And the impact of a new province on economic, political, numerical and area equality across all provinces must be taken into account.
A review of our district progress rankings shows that Mohajirs, Hindko and Balochistan’s Pakhtuns are actually richer than their respective majorities. The Hindko and Pakhtun are also small, number and area-wise. The Mohajirs and most other Karachi permanent residents are more recent arrivals. Making a non-capital city into a province is uncommon globally and would be inconsistent with the urban-rural make-up of other provinces.
The Seraiki are perhaps the only group with high scores on all the criteria. A Seraiki province will enhance population and political balance across all provinces, and reduce Punjab’s growing dominance. Being more similar politico-economically to the smaller provinces, the province may vote differently than Punjab. But its name must reflect the Seraiki culture, as with other provinces.
The big issue is whether a Seraiki province is a popular demand and not just of self-serving politicians. Ethnic gripes usually produce popular ethnic parties, but such parties are absent in the Seraiki belt. Thus, an inquiry into people’s wishes is crucial. GB and AJK too deserve provisional provincial status based on these criteria.
While the complex option of a province is not a basic right for every ethnicity, having equity is. So the issue of new provinces must be recast into the broader issue of giving equal rights to all groups. Other options include provincial senates, strong local bodies and affirmative action programmes. But the key to effectively reconfiguring Pakistan geographically lies in undertaking a transparent dialogue based on an objective criteria.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.