February issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 8 years ago

A debate on the creation of new provinces was sparked off by the MQM, who tabled the 20th Constitutional Amendment Bill in the National Assembly recently. The bill aims at facilitating the creation of new provinces in the Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa provinces, as well as abolition of Article 293 (4) of the Constitution that reads: “The bill to amend the Consitution, which would have the effect of altering the limits of a province, shall not be presented to the president for assent unless it has been passed by the provincial assembly of that province by two-thirds majority of its total members.” The party enjoys the full support of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and, to a great extent, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to create separate Seraiki and Hazara provinces.

Both the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and the Awami National Party (ANP) stand to lose in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Punjab respectively, if this were to happen. But the PML-N cannot afford to oppose the Seraiki province as it may end up losing political support in the upcoming elections. However, President Asif Ali Zardari has offered maximum support to the PML-N in the next general elections, especially in Southern Punjab, if it supports the passage of the bill in the assembly.

The supporters of the Seraiki movement are upbeat about the latest developments, whereas Sindhi nationalists warn of dire consequences for their province if the tabled bill becomes an act. They believe that by striking down the condition of acquiring the provincial government’s approval with two-thirds majority, in order to change provincial boundaries, Sindh will be left at the mercy of the federal government which is dominated by non-Sindhi parliamentarians.

Newsline spoke to various stakeholders to guage their views on the creation of new provinces.

The demand for the Hazara province appears to be based on ethnic, linguistic and administrative grounds. Zarbuland Khan, a member of the supreme council of the Tehreek Suba Hazara (TSH), Kohistan, believes that renaming the NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — a nomenclature based purely on ethnicity — has provided strong justification to demand a separate province based on an ethnic composition, since approximately 60—65% of the people of Hazara region are non-Pakhtuns.

“It’s easy for us now to counter the propaganda of those who oppose divisions on the basis of ethnicity,” says Zarbuland. ‘If the Pakhtuns can have a province named after them, why can’t we?”

In Zarbuland’s view, administrative issues and the discriminatory treatment of the Hazara region by the KP government are also major reasons behind this demand. He says Hazara comprises five districts, has all the major dams including Tarbela, within its territorial jurisdiction but it does not get the royalty it deserves. Even though the worth of mineral reserves and forests in the Hazara district is in trillions, the government does not spend even a fraction of what it earns from these reserves on the region. Zarbuland contends that the KP government’s share in the sale and tax proceeds of forest wood produced in Kohistan is approximately Rs 10 billion but its expenditure on the district is negligible.

Seraiki_province02-12He describes the region as the most difficult for people to live in due to its considerable distance from settled areas, its tough terrain, little or no opportunities to earn a livelihood and a lack of health and educational facilities.

The nearest hospital available to the people of Kohistan is in Mansehra, so that in the case of an emergency most patients end up dying on the road.

The situation, he says, will continue to remain dire, till the Kohistanis themselves are given control of their resources. Additionally, since the provincial capital, Peshawar, is located at a distance of 600 km, it is difficult to travel to, especially since the area is hilly and it takes over 10 hours to get there. In case of a smaller provincial unit being carved out, the provincial capital should be within a radius of 200 km, he adds. To rectify these issues Zarbulund suggests that Mansehra would be the ideal capital for the Hazara province due to its proximity to Abbottabad, Haripur and Battagram, and also because it is just three hours from Kohistan.

According to a study of the Pakistan Institution of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), a long-prevailing sentiment of the Seraiki movement was stirred during 2009 “upon purported disclosure of economic discrimination against their rightful share in social development. In June 2009, the National Assembly was informed in the question hour that out of a Rs 20 billion loan obtained from the World Bank by the Ministry of Communications to construct mega roads in the country, not a single project was launched in Southern Punjab.” Following this research, many parliamentarians raised the demand for a separate Seraiki province.

Khawaja Ghulam Fareed Koreja, Chairman, Seraikistan Qaumi Movement, who is based in Kot Mithan, contends that most of the area that comprises the demanded Seraiki province was never part of Punjab; it was an addition made more than a hundred years ago during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Khawaja justifies the demand for a separate province and says the populace can no longer remain victims of neglect of the upper Punjab leadership. He argues that a region which produces 80% of the country’s cotton, 70% of its wheat, 60% of its sugarcane, 30% of its oil and gas, 80% of its mangoes and 100% of its uranium, contributes vastly to the economy and should not be featured last on government’s priority list. A huge population from this region is settled abroad, especially in the UAE and Kuwait, and regularly remits precious foreign exchange.

Khawaja also laments the fact that while the Indus River flows 700 km through the Seraiki region, the canals there remain dry and have to plead their case every time they need to obtain water for irrigation. He squarely places the blame on the rulers for not affixing any job quotas for the region, for allocating less than 5% of the total development budget of Punjab to the area and for deliberately bringing settlers to the area by providing huge tracts of land to retired servicemen, thus depriving locals of the right to own their own property. Khawaja also cites the example of the gas-producing district of Rajanpur, with a population of two million, which does not have any natural gas available for its residents, despite its close proximity to Sui.

These claims are challenged by opponents of the Seraiki province. They maintain that Seraiki politicians, including sardars and nawabs, have always held top offices in the government that include the current prime minister, who is also from the region. “If the Seraiki region is so backward, why don’t the people hold their leaders accountable?”

They insist that the Seraiki leadership has never prioritised the uplift of their people. Writing about the origins and politics of the Seraiki province, political analyst Shafqat Tanvir Mirza states that the Wattoos, Khosas, Legharis, Mazaris and the Nawabs of Bahawalpur joined PPP after the fall of Dhaka to save their fiefdoms from becoming casualties of Bhutto’s land reforms.

Incidentally, it’s not just people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab, who oppose the bill. Sindhi nationalists recently held a shutter-down strike in the interior of Sindh to register their protest against the bill. Dr Safdar Sarki, Chairman, Jiye Sindh Tehreek, believes the bill deprives the provinces of the right to have a say in their re-demarcation or bifurcation. “Today they are focusing on Hazara and Seraikistan, tomorrow it could be Sindh,” he says. He quotes Prime Minister Gilani, who said recently that Multan was the capital of Sindh in the past. “Sindh has already lost a lot of its land and cannot afford to forgo any more,” he says.

While the debate rages on, with each side posing arguments and counter-arguments, Sarki maintains that if the MQM is so keen to decentralise and break-up administrative units, then it should support the idea of dividing Karachi into five sub-divisions instead of retaining it as one unit.

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Let’s Break Up.”