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The Case For New Provinces

By: Amir Zia
Published: December 1, 2017
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For most mainstream political parties, the creation of new provinces in Pakistan is not an option at all. Nonetheless, there are some powerful voices who have been increasingly advocating this cause.

Those seeking the creation of new provinces in Pakistan, believe that it would improve governance, devolve power to the grassroots level and help deal with the challenge of narrow provincialism and ethnic-based politics. That’s the reason they cite for the formation of new provinces along administrative lines rather than ethnic considerations.

However, implementing any such decision is easier said than done because of the sensitivities involved. For the old guard politicians, whose vested interests are solidly linked to the existing order, it is a firm ‘no’ as they maintain that Pakistan comprises the federating units, which decided to join Pakistan at the time of independence. They hold provincial boundaries as sacred.

But it is also true that the existing political order has failed to resolve basic contradictions of the country, including the settlement of issues pertaining to the distribution of resources, the devolution of power or providing a corruption-free and pro-people government.

In other countries, the creation of new administrative units is not considered taboo. New challenges and changing circumstances keep introducing innovative ideas and new solutions. Can this be done in Pakistan? Does Pakistan need new provinces? And the billion dollar question; how can new provinces be created?

Given Pakistan’s polarised politics, dominated by the Panama and ‘Aqama’ scandals, such issues are not high on the agenda of the majority of big players.

General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, talks to Narratives on why Pakistan needs new provinces. Narratives presents extracts from his interview.

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A number of times, you have said that one of your regrets remains that you did not create new provinces. Why do you think new provinces are needed in Pakistan?

Any structure of governance should ensure maximum decentralisation. This is vital not just for Pakistan, but in any country focused on the welfare and well-being of its citizens.

In Pakistan, creating new provinces is necessary because it’s the demand of the people. There are two sets of problems. The first one is related to Punjab, which unfortunately is the actual bone of contention. Punjab is the largest province in terms of population, which results in its dominance in the country’s politics.

As a result, smaller provinces have developed a sense of deprivation and they often unnecessarily accuse Punjab of exploiting the country’s resources. Even the Pakistan Army is often labelled Punjab’s army, which is an incorrect perception.

The second issue is that many people tend to view the problems being faced by them from an ethnic point of view, though we should see it from Pakistan’s perspective. This simply means bringing an improvement in governance.

Another key dilemma for Pakistan is that because of four huge and powerful provinces, the centre, or federation, has become weak. I believe that the centre should be powerful, while provinces should be administratively strong for efficient governance. This is possible only if we have more provinces. Creating new provinces is not a big undertaking, but we should keep in mind the sensitivities. For this, a think tank must be set up to examine the issue minutely and thoroughly.

When you were in power, what prevented you from creating new provinces?

When I took charge, I had other pressing issues; fixing the economy, for example, was a big challenge at that time. Then came 9/11 (terrorist strikes in the US), which diverted our attention from other key issues.

If we had taken up the issue of creating new provinces at that time, which I understand is very sensitive, I wouldn’t have been able to turn the economy around. But countries that are unable to deal with such sensitive issues lag behind in the race of progress and development. I realise we should have tackled this issue as well, but since there was so much to do, I thought it appropriate to avoid it at that time.

There’s a lot of resistance to this idea from small nationalist groups as well as traditional political parties. How do you suggest executing such a plan?

I realise the sensitivity of the issue. It can be resolved if an interim government with a strong backing of the Supreme Court and the army is empowered to amend the Constitution. But it should be done ensuring that there are no ethnic divisions, which would lead to disputes. New provinces should be carved out on administrative lines.

Do you think provincial boundaries are sacred as some ethnic and sub-nationalist forces tend to perceive?

Indeed there are sensitivities and sentiment involved. Take Sindh, for example. Stakeholders there think that Karachi should not be given the status of a separate province, which is right. While Sindh’s grievances are justified, we have to think how the province can be divided into smaller units without triggering ethnic rivalries. The same goes for other provinces.

Dr Tahir-ul Qadri once suggested that new provinces be created on the basis of existing divisions. This he believes will help devolution of power to grassroots level. Is it a workable solution? 

Yes, this is one of the solutions. But just one person cannot solve the matter. We need to have input from all quarters before making any decision.

Will smaller provinces help curb provincialism and result in better governance, given the fact that these two issues have remained a bane in our politics?

You are absolutely right. If we have more provinces, the utilisation of funds will be much more effective and the people of that area will certainly benefit economically. This would lead to their overall prosperity and well-being. At the same time, the centre will also become strong.

After the 18th Amendment, education along with other key departments, has also been handed over to the provinces. As a result each province now has its own curriculum. Don’t you think the centre should keep a few departments, such as education, under its control which is vital for national cohesion?

When I formed the district governments under the local government system, we decided that the primary and secondary level education would be run by the district governments. A councillor at the district level would be in charge of everything – teachers’ postings, their recruitment, school attendance, while the province would be responsible for college education. The Higher Education Commission would look after university education. Our education system was in very good shape by virtue of these measures.

Currently one province – Punjab – decides who gains power at the centre. Will new provinces help change this pattern?

Absolutely. And that’s precisely the reason why smaller provinces crib against Punjab.  So if we are not heeding the grievances of other provinces, then we are behaving like ostriches. Unfortunately, our political leadership is blind and deaf to such bitter realities.

A debate is raging these days about FATA’s (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Your thoughts on this issue?

We should not have a piecemeal approach to this issue. We have to resolve the issue of new provinces once and for all. Going by its geography, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a long province which runs from Pakistan’s frontier with China, Chitral and going down to Zhob in Balochistan. Those who say that FATA should become a province are not being practical. It starts from Bajaur Agency and goes through seven agencies, up to South Waziristan. However, the need of the hour is to make more provinces and deal with this issue in one go.

Have you identified the forces in favour of crafting new provinces?

Frankly, I haven’t identified such forces in detail, let alone establishing contacts with any party on this issue. But in hindsight, I believe I should’ve done that . . . it’s an important issue and must be discussed and debated at the national level.

One of the major achievements of your government was setting up of an empowered local government system, but this reform has been undone by the major political parties. Why do our traditional parties stand opposed to powerful local bodies?

Because of personal vested interests of MNAs and MPAs. Politicians get billions of rupees worth of funds in the name of development for their constituencies, and they have often used or pocketed at least a big chunk for themselves. We, in contrast, granted councillors administrative, political, and, most importantly, financial authority. When we decentralised the system, public sector development funds were given directly to the 110 districts. In developed countries like the United States and England, mayors are empowered and run the show, but sadly in Pakistan they have been made powerless.

About the Author
Amir Zia
has worked for some of the leading national and internal media organizations in a career spanning more than 25 years and is counted among some of the highly regarded professionals of Pakistan’s media industry