Pakistan’s Provinces Pandora’s Box – By Niaz Murtaza


President Zardari : The Chief architect of the devolution of powers and provincial autonomy

Does Pakistan need more provinces and if so should they be formed ethnically or administratively?

These vexing questions are taxing the wits of perplexed Pakistani policy-makers today. A quick glance across Pakistan reveals several anomalies and misbalances. Punjab constitutes around 50% of its population while Balochistan covers around 40% of its landmass. Although the present provinces reflect Pakistan’s historical ethnic profile well, as captured brilliantly by the creative ‘Pakistan’ acronym in Urdu, each province today contains large, increasingly restless minorities. The 6 million+ Baloch have a province but the 15 million Seraiki do not.

Moreover, beyond provinces, Pakistan also has four special-status regions, some administrative and ethnic oddities and others international conflict flashpoints: Gilgit-Baltisan (GB), FATA, Kashmir and Islamabad. Clearly, Pakistan’s current cut of the pie makes mixed administrative or ethnic sense.

Unsurprisingly, a plethora of province-hood claims have emerged recently. GB and the Seraiki, Hazara and the Balochistan Pashtun belts have long staked their provincial claims. FATA and Bahawalpur have recently joined the band-wagon, and graffiti writings, reminiscent of the 1990s decade, have reappeared on Karachi’s walls. However, fearful of the stress that they may exert on the untested foundations of nascent Pakistani nationhood, the Pakistani state has exhibited little finesse in dealing maturely with these festering claims. It has attempted to cure ethnic diversity, by expecting people to wear only Pakistani identity badges and discard all sub-identity badges, through a combination of bland lecturing and corporal punishment, like an old-fashioned school principal.

These unnatural attempts have naturally further strengthened sub-identities and have even often weakened the commitment to Pakistani identity, most notably for the Bengalis. However, ethnic diversities, being inerasable components of the human genome, cannot be cured and hence must be endured. In fact, they must be celebrated and managed creatively to convert disparate doses of colors and music notes into colorful rainbows and musical symphonies.

What criteria should Pakistan apply to deal fairly with these competing claims? Outside of communist imagination (an oxymoron), administrative criteria alone make little sense. In fact, even the ex-USSR, the unchallenged doyen of bland bureaucratic designs, maintained its republics ethnically. Even administratively, political units are most effective when held together by the glue of ethnic realities. However, ethnic aspirations must also recognize administrative and political realities. An example of the application of this combination of criteria is Pakistan itself. While the highly concentrated Muslim populations at the two ends of India achieved independence, the highly dispersed Muslim populations elsewhere did not.

Thus, any new province must be crafted around ethnic aspirations but not every ethnic aspiration justifies a province. An identity group’s population size; internal cohesion and homogeneity; extent of exclusive concentration in a region and the geographical size of that region must also be analyzed. The group’s degree of cultural differentiation from the dominant provincial ethnic group; economic status compared with the latter; level and length of political, economic and cultural marginalization and the length of historical links with its current abode must be analyzed too. Finally, the impact of a new province on the degree of equality of geographical and population sizes across all provinces must also be analyzed.

Space limitations do not allow a detailed application of these criteria to each provincial claim listed earlier. However, in brief, the Seraiki belt probably has the strongest claims on almost every criterion. The big question there is the extent to which the movement for a province represents a widespread demand rather than merely self-serving power plays by politicians. In Pakistan, ethnic grievances have generally resulted in the emergence of popular ethnic parties, for example the ANP, Awami League, the MQM and the many Baloch nationalist parties. This has not happened in the Seraiki belt where Seraiki parties demanding a separate province have failed to attract voters. Thus, a grass-roots inquiry about people’s preferences is important. Beyond its benefits for the Seraiki, a Seraiki province will enhance population balance across provinces nationally and reduce domination by one province. Even today, the chances of such domination are reduced by the fact that Punjab does not vote en bloc, in which case it could have truly dominated the government perpetually. However, because of the natural internal cleavages, it divides its vote between the PPP and PML roughly along the north-south lines.

Although GB has a small population, its case on other criteria is strong. Currently, it has its own representative council but no representation in Pakistan’s national assembly because of its links with the Kashmir issue. The Balochistan Pashtun belt also scores high on most criteria and will enhance geographical inter-provincial balances. However, it would be unwise to even broach that issue until the more sensitive Baloch grievances are resolved. Ironically, it is not a Pakistani ethnic group demanding a province but one that already has it which harbors the severest grievances. Thus, new provinces are not a panacea but just the starting points. A genuine decentralization of power to the provinces is also necessary.

Not only are new provinces not a panacea, they are also not the only tool available to enhance minority rights. This is an important fact to remember, for ultimately some demands for new provinces will be rejected. While the cost-inefficient and politically complex option of a province is not an automatic right for every ethnic group, having equitable rights is. Hence, the issue of new provinces must be recast and expanded into the issue of ensuring equitable rights for all groups through different options, only one of them being new provinces. Some such options include provincial senates, strengthening of district and division governments, electoral system changes, power sharing and political, economic and cultural affirmative action programs. The appropriate solution for each group depends on their status on the criteria listed above. Thus, the key to success lies in the ability of the government to undertake a transparent and constructive dialogue based on objective criteria.

The writer works as a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley. This article recently appeared in Dawn.



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