The debate on provinces

Published June 4, 2011

ASSERTIONS to the contrary notwithstanding, governance in Pakistan remains attuned to political symbolism and personal ambitions. The movement for the creation of more provinces is a manifestation of both.

A former Abbasid prince who has not been able to find, perhaps never sought, a place in politics has teamed up with some of his former subjects to demand a provincial status for Bahawalpur — apparently viewing himself as the constitutional governor and his spokesman as executive head of the province. Nostalgia and ambition apart, there is little else either in language, race or culture to set apart the former state from its neighbours.Once personal ambitions are realised, an eloquent case will surely be made out one day to put an end to the usurpation of the land by ‘settlers’, and other demands, like job quotas, to be pressed. There is no plausible case for making Bahawalpur a province. The common man in no way would stand to gain.

Hazara, the other less enthusiastic aspirant for provincial status, was but a district in colonial times and remained so for a number of years after independence. The only irritant in public life then consisted of numerous anonymous complaints directed against officials and an equal number of special police dispatches reporting vitriol spewed by the clerics on each other.

Most deputy commissioners of Hazara thought that splitting it even into four districts to make it a division was unnecessary.

Provincial status was a far cry. During the 1972 census when the Hazarawals living in Karachi came up complaining that they had not been counted in full, the deputy commissioner asked their leaders about their number as estimated by themselves.

They could not say what the exact number was but insisted that they were more in Karachi than in Hazara.

Hazara has a linguistic identity of its own and is also separated from the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by the Indus. It has always occupied a dominant place in the politics of the province. If the country is now heading from the One Unit of 1955 to more than four provinces, Hazara would have as good a case to be one province as any other territory.

When in the Punjab Assembly of 1950s Mr Mumtaz Daultana eloquently spoke of the cultural and economic homogeneity of West Pakistan to make it one unit, the cynical comment heard was that the Congress could not have made out a more convincing case for the unity of the Indo-Gangetic plain of northwest India. For today’s Pakistan to be a unitary state, an advocate would be hard to find even in Punjab. The dominant sentiment in the other provinces, more particularly in Sindh and Balochistan, appears to be for a confederation.

Splitting the country into more provinces within the existing constitutional framework, however, makes neither economic nor political sense. In fact, it would undermine the demand for provincial autonomy. Four provinces can be somewhat autonomous but not six or eight.

Despite all the fanfare surrounding the 18th and 19th amendments and enhanced allocation under the NFC award, the provinces have gained pretty little and the common man nothing at all. It can be usefully argued that if the whole country were to have just one government, billions would be saved to rehabilitate and expand the public services — highways, railways, airlines, electricity, telecommunications, etc. — that are federal but serve the people in all four provinces and beyond.

The savings in administrative costs could be diverted to public welfare. The secretariat of West Pakistan, those who served there in the 1960s would bear out, was smaller in size than the secretariat of the smallest province of today. The secretariat in Lahore had just five cars. Now each department has more than that number.

Pakistan has destroyed its railways, barrages and canals, hospitals and schools by diverting its resources to sustain large and wasteful governments, assemblies and cabinets while the national debt mounts. Our tax-to-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the world. If government economists were to faithfully work out the ratio of our administrative cost to national income it surely would be among the highest.

Increasingly, one sees little purpose in the existence of the provincial legislatures, ministries and secretariats. Hardly any law or policy is peculiar to a province. Both apply uniformly across the country. It was best illustrated by the local government and police laws of 2001-02 which were thought out and drafted at the centre but enacted verbatim by the provincial assemblies.

What the provinces need is not legislatures and secretariats but executive authority and a network of directly elected regional administrators to enforce it. The elected heads should be assisted by permanent civil servants in the regulatory affairs and by elected councillors in development. The regulatory, civic and developmental functions should be kept apart to avoid the kind of conflicts that plagued Musharraf’s devolution plan.

The question that could dominate the next election campaign is whether the country should have more provinces or none at all. A unitary government would be less interfering. Memories fade but survivors from the previous generation of politicians and bureaucrats would testify that the West Pakistan government left local officials alone. At the same time, it was much less partisan than the governments of today. Now it will not be a provincial but a national government. One distant and skeletal central government would enable the elected regional and local institutions to grow in the service of the people.



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