Development is essentially political, though on surface, it often appears as something that is neutral, benign, innocuous and technical. Politics is about power and control; so is development.
Thus the aptness of the Punjab government’s decision to allocate Rs119 billion for the ‘development of South Punjab’ in its annual budget 2014-15 cannot be appraised without knowing the elements of politics, power and control involved in the decision and its implications.
To begin with, let us see the political context against which the decision has been taken.
The developments like mega irrigation projects, massive land allotment to non-local settlers and the lion’s share of non-locals in government jobs and business, which started under the patronage of colonial time and intensified after Independence, have created a strong sense of deprivation and marginalisation among the local people in the South-western parts of Punjab. This very sense of deprivation gave way to Seraiki ethno-linguistic assertions in the area.
The politics of identity, whether based on sex, ancestry, geography, language, culture, religion or any other marker, involves ‘otherisation’ for affirmation of the identity in question. In the case of Seraiki identity politics, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and its leadership represent the ‘other’ of Seraiki identity.
Given the fact that it has a weak support base in the Seraiki-speaking area of South-western Punjab, the PML-N has consistently neglected the area during its long stay in power in Punjab. In turn, this neglect has further intensified the existing sense of deprivation among the local people.
However, the PML-N realised the graveness of the situation very late when the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) raised the question of Seraiki province during its last tenure (2008-13). The PML-N has been a strong opponent of Seraiki province.
However, under the pressure mounted by the PPP, the then PML-N government had to pass a resolution in the Punjab Assembly for creation of new provinces in Punjab in May 2012. Later, the Senate passed a bill for creation of Bahawalpur Janoobi Punjab province in March 2013.
Against this political backdrop, the PML-N government’s recent decision to earmark 36 per cent of its total provincial budget (2014-15) for the development of South Punjab cannot be taken at face value. Rather it can be read as a political move to diffuse the demand for Seraiki province by consolidating and expanding its existing power base in the area through development.
For the development of South Punjab, the PML-N government has introduced a package, comprising metro bus service for Multan, Daanish schools in Fort Munro and Taunsa, renovation and restoration of Sulemanki Barrage and Pakpattan canal, dual carriageway from Bahawalpur to Hasilpur, solar park in Bahawalpur, upgradation of district headquarter hospitals in Vehari, Multan, Muzaffargarh and Dera Ghazi Khan, and opening of some new educational and health institutions.
The PML-N leadership and a section of press have been making us believe that the increased budgetary allocations for what they love to call ‘South Punjab’ will usher in a new era of ‘development’ in an otherwise underdeveloped or backward area.
Let us put first things first. Budgetary allocations are arbitrary in their nature. Every year a significant amount of budget allocated for South Punjab remains unspent and some months before the closure of fiscal year it is transferred to the account of development schemes in upper Punjab.
Many development schemes are announced; funds are allocated against them and for reasons best known to people at the helm of affairs, they never see the light of the day.
In the absence of any public oversight, who can guarantee 100 per cent spending against funds allocated for the development of South Punjab this fiscal year?
Intra-provincial distribution of resources through constitutional mechanisms like Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) can help somehow to reduce such kind of financial arbitrariness. Why is the PML-N government reluctant to constitute the PFC and make funds for ‘development of South Punjab’ available through it?
Secondly, there are issues relating to prioritisation of problems and prescriptions for their solutions. Who has the decision-making power to set these development and budget-related priorities? How did the PML-N government come to know that transportation is the top most problem faced by the citizens of Multan and they need nothing other than a mega project of metro bus for their beloved city?
The budgetary priorities set for the development of South Punjab by the provincial government brazenly deny the agency of local people. In setting the development priorities, the people have been typically seen as hapless victims or passive recipients, who know nothing about the grave situation they are trapped in or they can do nothing for improving their lot.
The development priorities set in the Punjab government’s annual budget 2014-15 do not reflect the major problems of South Punjab. The area is vulnerable to disasters like drought and flood. Cancer, skin, eye and respiratory diseases are quite common due to concentration of the dirty industry and excessive use of pesticides in the area. The budgetary priorities do not envisage any protection from these disasters and diseases to the local population.
A deteriorating state of education services is another major problem of the area. There are severe issues of access and quality of education. Moreover, the Punjab government’s initiative to privatise education through Punjab Education Foundation has been reducing the ability of the poor to access quality education. Establishment of just two Daanish schools in Fort Munro and Taunsa will do no good to improve the state of education in the area.
The development schemes are generally considered to be equally beneficial for all. However in reality, they often tend to benefit the powerful sections of the society more than the poor and weak. And sometimes, they benefit a few at the cost of many.
Renovation and restoration of Sulemanki Barrage and Pakpattan Canal are likely to be more beneficial for the settlers in the canal irrigated areas than the landless locals. Similarly, dual carriageway from Bahawalpur to Hasilpur will tend to benefit the business community of settlers more than the locals.
Such kind of development planning may help the PML-N consolidate its power base among the settler community in the Seraiki-speaking part of South-Western Punjab but it will accentuate the existing unequal power relations between the two ethnic communities.
Underdevelopment is one dimension of deprivation among the Seraiki people. Neglect of the Seraiki language and culture is another aspect of their grievance. In its annual budget 2014-15, the Punjab government has not allocated a single penny for the development of Seraiki language and culture.
If seen from the perspective of Seraiki-speaking people, the development package introduced by the PML-N government sounds quite inappropriate and outlandish. It is a poorly scripted drama which is likely to be performed even poorly.
To what extent this development drama can help the PML-N government in eliminating the demand for Seraiki province is, however, a question to be answered by history.