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Devolution’s critics

June 27, 2019

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THE din surrounding devolution is once again growing louder, with federal minister Dr Fehmida Mirza being the latest to draw attention to the landmark 18th Constitutional Amendment which transformed centre-province relations in 2010. Dr Mirza on Tuesday lashed out at the PPP for its alleged failure to implement the amendment in Sindh where it has ruled for years. She said that, although its purpose was to end the sense of deprivation among the smaller provinces, it had regretfully failed to achieve the objective. Dr Mirza also hit out at the PPP for criticising efforts to roll back the amendment when the party is allegedly not working towards its implementation in Sindh.

There are several truths to consider when it comes to the 18th Amendment. First, it was a colossal step in Pakistan’s history in that it boldly overhauled the 1973 Constitution to truly turn the country into a federation. In doing so, as Dr Mirza pointed it, it also decentralised power to transfer autonomy — hence, funds — to the provinces in order to make the provision of services such as health, education, sanitation, social welfare etc more effective (this aspect, in fact, has formed the basis for heated debates today). Second, the effort in favour of its reversal basically hinges on the argument that the amendment diverts too much money to the provinces and leaves very little for the federal government, a view that makes little sense considering how impractical it is for the centre to be involved in delivering local social services. The logic behind the rollback debate is also weak on the premise that giving powers back to the federal government will not automatically translate into more funds for the centre. So if the finances remain the same — as would expenditure — why is there a considerable push by certain quarters to take powers away from the provinces?

The answer is that, ultimately, the issue is one of lack of trust between the centre and the provinces. The cash-strapped incumbent government, whose coffers are practically empty after mass spending on debt servicing and defence, is desperate for greater control of finances and is, therefore, building a case to undo the amendment despite its democratic framework. To address this trust deficit and discourage naysayers, it is the responsibility of all provincial governments to make good on their duty to deliver services to citizens — a responsibility which the PPP has been accused of abandoning in the last decade despite being granted autonomy. The state of basics such as transport, education, health and sanitation paints a sorry picture across Sindh, a reality which allows public support for a case against the 18th Amendment, thus giving credence to the detractors’ views. To reinforce the importance of devolved power, the provinces must show results, or risk facing a campaign that undermines a historic achievement.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2019