THE controversy that surrounds the Punjab government’s plans regarding the future of an administratively and financially autonomous south Punjab is not likely to go away with the withdrawal of notifications that reportedly rolled back the powers to be devolved to the people of this area. It is likely that the people will increase their focus on each step the provincial PTI government will take to empower, or disempower, the residents of south Punjab through the delegation, or otherwise, of authority to the small bureaucratic set-up created in the name of a separate secretariat. The latter had been regarded as the first step towards a full-fledged south Punjab province. The other day, Chief Minister Usman Buzdar said that “human error” was responsible for the controversial notifications. One notification had “erroneously” taken back the order issued in September to administratively separate the province’s three divisions — Multan, Bahawalpur and D.G. Khan — with split secretariats at the divisional headquarters of Multan and Bahawalpur. The other amended the rules of business for south Punjab, limiting the authority of the officers appointed in the south Punjab secretariat. The chief minister also announced the formation of a ministerial committee that is supposed to come up with recommendations for reinforcing the separate administrative set-ups for the southern districts and devolving more functions and departments to improve governance and resolve problems at the local level.
The PTI had won the majority of seats in the national and provincial legislatures from south Punjab in the 2018 elections on the promise of creating a new Janoobi Punjab province. Although it ring-fenced the share of the southern districts in the provincial development budget in accordance with their population, the administration continues to delay bringing the issue of the new province to the legislature for Punjab’s division into two parts. Not only did it take the Buzdar administration two years to set up a separate secretariat for the region, the officers working there have limited powers to take administrative or financial decisions in their jurisdiction. This has led to frustration even within the ranks of the ruling party. Indeed, the division of a province is never easy and requires much political give and take and several changes in the country’s constitutional and legal framework. But a fully functional and independent south Punjab secretariat equipped with complete administrative and financial powers could be the first effective step if the intentions are honest.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2021