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Of new provinces

August 10, 2011

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IT is now quite clear that the country’s political gladiators are readying themselves for another spectacular battle, this time on the issue of the creation of new provinces.

While the PPP and PML-N have been sounding out their allies and supporters, the PML-Q has jumped the gun and submitted a resolution in the Punjab Assembly for constituting the southern Punjab districts into a separate province. While taking this step, the party, now a member of the ruling coalition at the centre, has tried to distinguish itself from the PPP’s stand by refraining from calling the proposed province Seraiki and arguing that the move is dictated by administrative reasons.

Although no principle stands in the way of creating new administrative units if the people of the territories concerned, a sizable majority if not all of them, demand it. Yet, the problems such demands raise need not be ignored. These problems have been identified more than once and their reiteration should not be out of place.

The first difficulty is the tendency among our overworked political leaders to ideologise every issue. The traditional custodians of the Islamic ideology or the Pakistan ideology, or both, will surely oppose the idea of dividing any province on a linguistic or an ethnic basis. They are so obsessed with their notions of the millat that the existence of Muslim nations within the great millat is anathema to them. It is with difficulty that they tolerate the existence of units in the federation of Pakistan, and off and on their yearning for turning this country into a highly centralised unitary state comes out into the open.

These ideologues are hopelessly behind the times. Ethnic and linguistic identities continue to provide strong motivation for movements for political autonomy all over the world, more so wherever states have not been able to justly accommodate the diverse intra-nation groups and interests within the state structure. In the subcontinent, all movements for provincial status, including those for the separation of Sindh from Bombay and the elevation of the then North-Western Frontier Province to a full governor’s province, had their roots in the people’s ethnic and linguistic aspirations, though reference to the people’s belief was also sometimes made.

The same can be said about the Indian experiences in this regard — the division of the East Punjab of 1947 into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh and the birth of Jharkand out of the womb of Bihar and the emergence of the province of Uttarkhand out of the all-powerful Uttar Pradesh.

It is perhaps time our political leaders reappraised their notions of unity on the basis of shared belief alone and learnt to deal with political issues as matters of political adjustment. They will serve Pakistan better by seeking unity in diversity instead of closing their eyes to the pluralist nature of our society.

True, many prominent members of Punjab’s intelligentsia do not accept Seraiki as anything more than a dialect of Punjabi, nor do they concede the Seraiki people’s claim to be a distinctly separate ethnic community. Controversies on these points have been going on for decades. Do these issues have a decisive bearing on the present Seraiki demand?

What matters today perhaps more than anything else is the fact of the Seraiki people’s poverty and deprivation. They are the traditional grain-producers of the region and they have been starving for centuries. Unlike the people of central and northern Punjab they have not gone into business or services and now they want to have their share of both. That is legitimate politics on the basis of a community’s socio-economic interests.

Incidentally, what will be the fate of the Punjab’s Provincially Administered Tribal Area in D.G. Khan District where some of the country’s poorest and utterly neglected people live? Why cannot these Balochi-speaking people be united with Balochistan in accordance with their wishes they had expressed many years ago?

The promoters of the Seraiki province are likely to have some problem with the people who have been demanding the revival of the former Bahawalpur state as a separate unit. Unless the PPP can find a way to take these people along, the split in Seraiki ranks could cause it considerable difficulties.

We may now look at some of the problems that need to be addressed.

First, the impact of the creation of new provinces on the status of the Senate ought to be examined. Today Balochistan and Sindh hold 25 per cent of seats/power each in the Senate (Islamabad excluded). If Gilgit-Baltistan is recognised as a province and the Hazara and Seraiki provinces are created the share of these provinces (along with that of the leftover Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in the Senate will be reduced from 25 to around 14 per cent. The balance of power among the units of the federation could be upset whether or not the Seraikis and Hazarawals side with Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa respectively.

Secondly, if the new provinces are to have as top-heavy administrations as the provinces today the country’s non-productive expenditure, which has already crossed all reasonable limits, will rise further and create unmanageable economic crises.Thirdly, Pakistan has just embarked on an experiment to build a federation of duly empowered units. There is considerable anxiety whether the provinces have the capacity to benefit from the administrative and financial powers they have acquired. The question can more justifiably be raised about the capacity of the proposed new provinces.

Quite obviously there is need for a thorough debate on the proposals to create new provinces. Maybe Pakistan now needs a lean administrative superstructure in each province — smaller assemblies and secretariats and a radical pruning of the plumage of power. The day may not be far off when the provinces could need their own constitutions and their own plans to generate resources instead of banking on their shares of the divisible pool.

The debate on the subject has thrown up two points of view. According to one, talk of new provinces and their autonomy will be relevant only if the state can beat off the challenge from the extremists who believe neither in provinces nor in a democratic constitution. The other argument is that satisfying various communities’ aspirations for empowerment and autonomy will make the state stronger and enable it to defeat the militants. Only time will tell which of the two views will guarantee the people a happier future.