Updated Mar 30, 2018 10:46am

Obfuscating Balochistan

Tahir Mehdi

THE southern border of NA-272 Gwadar-cum-Lasbela, in the newly delimitated electoral constituencies, comprises the entire 800-kilometre-long coastline of Balochistan, starting from Karachi and stretching up to Iran at the western end of Gwadar district.

The geographical area of NA-270, encompassing four central Balochistan districts, Panjgur, Washuk, Kharan and Awaran, is a staggering 94,452 square kilometres. This is bigger than the area of KP and almost half that of the entire Punjab province.

NA-270 is, obviously, an extremely vast constituency. But the population living in it is exactly equal to the provincial average for a seat. That means it is demarcated in accordance with the law. There is nothing illegal about it. But is it ok?

The population density in this constituency is eight persons per square kilometre while in Central Karachi district (NA 253-256), 43,000 people live in the same area. Can the people living in these two exercise their political rights with equal ease? In practice, political processes in such vast constituencies remain limited to the areas with the highest concentration of population, and the people living on the margins, in thinly spread-out localities, become ‘unfeasible’ for political actors.

The numerical equality of constituencies does not always result in equal suffrage.

We witnessed this in the elections to non-Muslim seats prior to 2002, when the entire country, or the province, was declared a single multi-member constituency. Candidates from Faisalabad and Lahore would mostly win on the four Christian seats in the National Assembly; these areas have the highest concentration of members of this community. Christians living elsewhere in the country thus lost all political value.

Constituency delimitation is not an exercise in geometry, neither is it an arithmetical problem to be solved. Though it requires both skills, it is about making people’s representation possible in forums that make important decisions about their lives and well-being.

The numerical equality of constituencies has been stressed upon far too much by election experts and advocated vigorously by civil society organisations; they have given no thought to its subtle implications for political representation or to our specific ground realities. The numerical equality of constituencies does not always result in equal suffrage. If it is taken too literally, it can, in fact, turn into a tool for marginalisation and exclusion.

The UK Constituency Act 2011 has also considered area as an important factor in delimitation and allowed a constituency to breach the lower limit of the population quota if its area exceeds 12,000 sq kms. Pakistan, too, has legally allowed the population number in Fata constituencies to be half that of the national average. This special treatment is accorded to the area to compensate for ‘the representation deficit’ that it suffers for not being a part of a provincial assembly.

More importantly, Elections Act 2017 specifies “facilities of communication and public convenience” as a guiding principle of delimitation. The same, however, found no mention in the election rules. The act also asks the Election Commission “… to reduce the distance preferably to one kilometre between a polling station and the voters assigned to it”.

What distance would a person have to cover in order to cast his/her vote in the 1.000-kilometre-long NA-272?

There is gaping hole in the law, the rules and their application when it comes to delimitation in Balochistan, which is directly linked to the issue of representation.

Read: Balochistan seeks increase in assemblies’ seats

The fact that the most unequal constituencies in Balochistan are also the ones inhabited by the Baloch population can only add insult to injury. Here is an overview.

The population of Quetta district has tripled since the last census. Like most provincial capitals, Quetta is multiethnic — the previous census showed that the Baloch counted as just a quarter of the population. It used to have one whole seat and a quarter of another in its neighbourhood. Now, it has been given three whole seats which is in accordance with its share in the population. The seat population is almost equivalent to the provincial average. This also means that the two additional seats the province got from the national pool this time have gone to this district.

Pakhtun-majority northern districts of Balochistan shared four national seats in the previous delimitation and it has remained the same. The average population in these, too, is exactly equal to the provincial average.

However, the average population of six seats (NA-259, 268-272) that are predominantly Baloch exceeds the provincial quota by 16 per cent. These are also the largest in area.

For example, the constituency that starts from the doorsteps of Quetta and stretches up to the western most point of the country, covering a huge area of 63,000 sq kms, has 40pc more inhabitants than the provincial average. NA-268 Mastung-cum-Chaghai-cum-Kalat-cum-Shaheed Sikandarabad-cum-Nushki is one of seven constituencies with a population exceeding one million.

The combined impact of both factors will negatively impact the representative character of candidates elected from here.

If the total population of these six seats is simply divided by the provincial quota, the answer is seven. That means this area deserved to have seven seats in the National Assembly, not six. Where has that one seat gone? To Nasirabad division, which has been given three seats although its share comes to 2.1. This has resulted in seats with population numbers far below the provincial average. NA-262 Kacchi-cum-Jhal Magsi is the smallest constituency in the country with a population equal to half the provincial average. Another constituency in this division, NA-260 Nasirabad, is the fifth smallest constituency of the country, smaller than the provincial average by 37pc. This constituency is home to current National Assembly member and former prime minister Zafarullah Jamali.

It is clear that one seat has been moved from a predominantly Baloch area to Nasirabad division where Balochi speakers constitute about half the population. The other half consists of Sindhis and Seraikis.

This doesn’t align with the purported policy of mainstreaming the Baloch in the country’s politics. It is actually likely to strengthen the Baloch narrative of deprivation and increase their alienation. The political solution to what ails Balochistan lies in facilitating electoral politics in the province, and certainly not in obfuscating it.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2018

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