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Devolution of powers

"Within current political and constitutional situation, a pragmatic way forward is to address grievances and demands for new provinces"

Recently, the foreign minister submitted the constitutional amendment bill for the creation of the South Punjab province, bringing the debate on the creation of new provinces. Why do such acts only serve political interests and nothing else? Pakistan’s four provinces have 31 divisions (administrative units) with seven in Sindh, nine in Punjab, eight in Balochistan, and seven in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; Islamabad is the capital territory and two autonomous territories Azad Kashmir with three and Gilgit-Baltistan has three divisions. The debate for a separate province in Sindh (i.e. South Sindh or Karachi), Hazara and South Punjab exist. This write-up is an effort to take up the case of Karachi and discuss arguments in favour and against new provinces and also a pragmatic and possible way forward for the 37 divisions with devolution of power and constitutional protection to the local government system.

Soon after independence, on 23 July 1948, Karachi was given the status of federal capital territory. In 1955, the one-unit system was introduced merging the four western provinces into a single unit, called West Pakistan and East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan. From 1 July 1961 to 1 July 1969, Karachi was part of West Pakistan province. In 1970, the one-unit scheme was abolished, and Karachi was made the capital of the Sindh province. After independence, families migrating from India to Pakistan settled in Karachi. The city always had a unique status of trade and commerce, port city, urban character and presence of diverse communities who migrate within for economic reasons and better life.

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Today, Karachi Division in Sindh comprises of seven districts, i.e. East, West, South, Centre, Korangi, Malir and Kemari. From the very beginning, being the capital, the city had a federal flavour and its dwellers, mainly migrants serving in top bureaucratic positions; enjoyed being part of the ruling elite.

With the shifting of the federal capital from Karachi to Islamabad in 1967, began the sense of deprivation. The introduction of the quota system by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Linguistic Bill in 1972, resulted in breeding a sense of isolation and discrimination. However, the residents didn’t opt for ethnic identity till 1987. The rest is history and I leave it to the reader’s opinion as to why the ethnic identity of migrants took roots in urban centres of Sindh and the voting pattern is evidence of this mandate in all consecutive elections since 1987.

Thus began the era of ethnic Mohajir power politics of urban centres of Sindh and the rivalry with the ethnic Sindhi politics – more the product of the urban-rural divide. Karachi as a separate province is without any doubt the most popular muted demand discussed with a view to the right to rule and ownership to manage and utilise the resources and services for the city. The argument in favour is mainly that the income generated through taxes and economic activities of the city is spent elsewhere but not in the city.

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The city’s education once its hallmark has deteriorated and so have other social sectors such as health, public transport, and municipal services. The shout out for the new province becomes stronger when one looks at the composition of the Sindh Assembly where the majority of seats are from rural Sindh and urban areas especially Karachi feels deprived and unable to gain a majority. Therefore, the control over resources, finances and their distribution remains with the representatives of rural Sindh. Karachiites feel cheated in census reports of their true number. The correct population number would mean more provincial assembly seats, at least double (40 to 45 more seats) for Karachi Division.

The Census 2017 shows Karachi’s population at one crore 60 lacs (16 million), whereas the claim for the population of Karachi is around three crores (30 million), a fact that has been acknowledged by former president Asif Ali Zardari in the National Assembly on 31st October 2018. What does it mean? That even if the resources are distributed as per the current census, Karachi remains short of funds as all development works and provisions will be budgeted for half the population.

The city residents feel frustrated, politically isolated and discriminated against to wish for a separate province to run their own affairs. Another argument in favour is more administrative than political, a mega city of this size, population and economic importance are difficult to manage under a provincial government. Karachi being the main earner of Sindh generating and contributing around 95% of revenue, is the major lifeline for the Sindh province.

Our constitution allows the creation of new provinces; however, it is next to impossible difficult to meet the stringent criteria. In the current composition of the Sindh Assembly, it is highly unlikely that it can ever happen. Article 239(4) of the constitution makes it mandatory to have a two-thirds majority in that provincial assembly as well as a two-thirds majority in the parliament for the creation of new provinces.

A pragmatic and realistic way forward, within the current political and constitutional situation, is to address the grievances and demands for new provinces through devolution of administrative, financial, and political powers to the elected empowered local governments at the divisional and district level as per the spirit of the Article 140A of the constitution. This will help neutralise and ease frustration and resentment and allow representatives of the local government the share in power and authority for the resolution of common daily problems. However, the arrogance and political expediency have till now prevented the successive provincial governments to devolve their administrative and financial powers to the grassroots level and third tier of the government. Democracy has not and will not flourish in Pakistan until the time we provide a sense of participation in governance in this democratic system to the common people. Therefore, this subject should now be taken up at the federal level by the parliament.

A consensus must be developed amongst all major political parties to ensure and provide constitutional protection to the local governments as the third tier of the state government. India did it in 1992 through constitutional amendments 73 & 74. Having the third tier of the government with constitutional protection will engage the political leadership of national, provincial, regional, and local level parties in running the affairs of the state at local level. This will provide them with the space and sense of participation in ruling the province and an opportunity to plan and serve their constituencies. Local issues will be prioritised, and the popularity of political parties will righty depend on the performances of their elected mayors, district chairpersons, union council chairpersons and councillors. Local leadership from the poor, middle class, working class, farmers, labour class and minorities will have an opportunity to raise and resolve issues of their localities, communities, and groups. Those performing exceptionally well will also gain knowledge and experience of problems faced by common citizens and when elevated to provincial and national assemblies will be better placed to legislate for the benefit of the people.

The political sensitivity of only discussing Karachi as a separate province is merely a political slogan mostly used as a proxy for agitation, and pressure tactics and not a pragmatic one. The slogan of Sindhudesh though has little public support but does exist, use of ‘Sindh card’ as and when talk of new administrative units begins, against the use of ‘Mohajir card.’ We mustn’t shy away from acknowledging that the creation of new provinces for administrative purposes is the way forward. Therefore, there must be a national debate by political leadership to engage and develop a national consensus. We don’t see ruling parties planning to develop new cities, upgrade the ones in the province with urban planning and tackle backwardness to benefit the locals and prevent migration to ease the overburdened mega city and its collapsing infrastructure. The nation’s social contract with the state makes the state responsible for the welfare of its citizens, the contracted party, for all the above and more.

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