THE case for a separate province comprising south Punjab was always a slow burning fuse that has now exploded.
The creation of a south Punjab province has now been adopted as official policy by the ruling party and its allies in the centre. The ruling party in Punjab, the PML-N, has now also endorsed the demand, albeit with a proviso for a separate Bahawalpur province as well.
The issue is clouded in numerous misconceptions, which must be cleared. The demand for a south Punjab province cannot be predicated on an ethnic or linguistic basis. This is because, while the demand for a south Punjab province has been historically raised by the Seraiki-speaking population, there are large pockets of Punjabi- and Balochi-speaking population in south Punjab and Bahawalnagar is a Punjabi majority district.
The current tug of war over south Punjab is motivated by considerations of electoral expediency. The PML-N’s power base is upper Punjab, which accounts for two-thirds of the population of the province. As such, PML-N is expected to continue to emerge as the ruling party under the current configuration.
The PPP and its ally, the PML-Q, are electorally stronger in south Punjab and hope to form a government in the new province. The PML-N has tried to counter the PPP by adding the demand for a Bahawalpur province. This move threatens to act as a spoiler in the emerging situation, with potentially dangerous consequences.
The only rationale for a Bahawalpur province is that it was a princely state. But then there were other such states as well — Swat, Khairpur, Kalat, etc.
If all former princely states are to be granted the status of provinces, there will be tiny, fiscally unviable provinces located within the boundaries of other provinces. The result will be political and administrative mayhem.
The creation of a south Punjab province offers gains for Punjab as well. Currently, each of the provinces command about 25 per cent of seats in the Senate. With the new province, the provinces’ share will be reduced to 20 per cent of seats each.
What is Punjab today will command 40 per cent of seats. And it cannot and should not be assumed that, having split from Punjab, the south Punjab province will always take a stand in opposition to Punjab. In fact, with the large and influential Punjabi population in south Punjab, it is likely that south Punjab’s stand on many issues will be in sync with that of Punjab, especially on water issues.
The demand for a south Punjab province has a political basis, rooted in a sense of cultural identity and a sense of economic grievance. While the former emanates from the Seraiki language — a fully developed language in its own right — the latter is what provides the steam for the movement. Various sections of the population in south Punjab have always complained of neglect by what is referred to as Takht-i-Lahore.
It appears that there is a marked north-south developmental divide in Punjab, with south Punjab standing out clearly in terms of its relatively low development level.
A ranking of the 34 districts of Punjab by development level shows that the least developed districts in Punjab are in the southern part of the province, while — with the sole exception of Multan — none of the southern Punjab districts appear among the most developed districts.
And Multan district, home to the largest city of southern Punjab, ranks as the 12th most developed. In other words, 11 other districts in Punjab — all in upper Punjab — are relatively more developed than Multan.
Of the 34 districts, Lahore in upper Punjab ranks as the most developed. Being the capital of the province, this is understandable. However, Sialkot, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Gujrat, Jhelum, Sheikhupura and Toba Tek Singh — all in upper Punjab — follow as relatively high on development scores.
By contrast, Rajanpur in south Punjab ranks as the least developed, followed by Muzaffargarh, D.G. Khan, Layyah, Lodhran, Bhakkar, Pakpattan, Rahimyar Khan and Bahawalpur — all in southern Punjab.
Lahore ranks first in rural as well as urban development, followed by Gujranwala as the second most developed district in terms of rural development and Faisalabad as the most developed in terms of urban development.
Rajanpur ranks 34th as the least developed district in terms of rural as well as urban development, followed by Dera Ghazi Khan as the second least developed in terms of rural development and Lodhran as the least developed in terms of urban development.
Needless to point out, Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad are in upper Punjab and Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Lodhran are in southern Punjab.
South Punjab districts not only rank low in terms of development indicators, but also with respect to certain key indicators, particularly employment. The ranking of districts by rural employment opportunities shows that Pakpattan, Rajanpur and D.G. Khan — all in southern Punjab — suffer from the highest unemployment, while Lahore, Sheikhupura and Gujranwala — all in upper Punjab — experience the least unemployment.
With respect to urban employment opportunities, Mianwali, Rajanpur and Layyah — all in southern Punjab — suffer from the highest unemployment, while Kasur, Faisalabad and Lahore — all in upper Punjab — experience the least unemployment.
Grievances related to deprivation apart, there are strategic gains nationally from the creation of the south Punjab province. Currently, the federation is unbalanced, with Punjab alone comprising the majority and all the rest of the provinces combined constituting a minority.
The bifurcation of Punjab will create a degree of balance interprovincially. Of course, upper Punjab will continue to be the largest province, with about 40 per cent of the national population; but the fact that it will command less than 50 per cent of the seats in parliament will serve to allay much of the apprehensions that the currently smaller provinces suffer from.
In fact, divisive terminologies — big brother and smaller provinces — will tend to disappear from the political discourse and the federation will emerge as a more stable entity.
The writer is an economist and former head of the Benazir Income Support Programme.