In a landmark decision, the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir has promulgated the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974 on June 1, 2018, which has immensely empowered the government in Muzaffarabad, enabling it to take major decisions regarding its economic uplift and smooth running of the day-to-day matters.
In fact, a long political battle was waged to get rid of the all-powerful and unaccountable Kashmir Council, largely dominated by the federal bureaucracy, indirectly calling the shots in the region since 1974.
The amended constitution has clipped all legislative, administrative and financial powers of the Kashmir Council and entrusted all significant powers to AJK government and the Assembly to run the administration, make laws and collect revenues.
Some of the opposition parties expressed their apprehensions that it might lead to provincialising the region and consequently opening doors for more direct intervention from Islamabad. Pakistan People’s Party’s AJK chapter and Muslim Conference joined hands to oppose these amendments and boycotted the Assembly session wherein this law was approved.
However, people across AJK are celebrating the devolution of powers from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad, which is characterised as a hard-earned victory. The 18th Amendment in the 1973 Constitutional of Pakistan which devolved all major powers to provinces, triggered a debate in AJK.
Politicians and civil society actors underlined the dire need to bring forth radical changes in the AJK’s constitution in order to empower the elected government and reduce federal government’s powers which are being used in the name of the Kashmir Council. Barring a few exceptions, all political parties came up with a consensus document and got it approved by the Assembly in June 2015 but to no avail.
Obtaining fiscal and administrative autonomy from the federal government was a painstaking and meticulous task. Since 2015, several committees have deliberated on the question of empowerment. However, the current Prime Minister of AJK, Raja Farooq Haider Khan, broke a long silence and vigorously led the campaign of empowerment, raising the issue at all decision-making as well as public forums.
It was a long-held view in Islamabad that local politicians do not have the courage to stand up for public rights and limit unnecessary intrusions in domestic administrative matters. The current prime minister while talking to TNS recalled his journey in an interesting way. He stated, “I had to face the wrath of civilian bureaucracy at every stage. Even my own party colleagues called it a mission impossible and hardly offered essential political support. My team and I fought inch by inch, that is how we achieved our goal.”
Former prime ministers of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi have been travelling to Azad Kashmir frequently, engaging with the leadership of the region and the general public. This enabled them to gauge the public pulse. They were willing to yield their authority to the local administration since long but the bureaucracy created hurdles at every step and tried hard to keep its control over AJK’s resources and administration. Ironically, its colonial attitude has not changed yet, according to an insider.
A few sections of the AJK’s constitution required prior approval from the federal cabinet before tabling the amendment bill in the Assembly. In February this year, it was decided that the federal cabinet would approve the proposed amendments but it did not get through due to opposition from the bureaucracy till Pakistan Muslim Leagues-N’s last days in power arrived.
Nawaz Sharif, who was favouring the reforms and empowerment of AJK, finally used his political clout to rescue the pro-Azad Kashmir lobby. This swiftly cleared the roadblocks. The federal cabinet, in its last late night session, approved a comprehensive decentralisation plan for Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
What has changed?
Besides relegating the Kashmir Council to an advisory body, AJK got immense fiscal autonomy. The fund consolidated by the Kashmir Council has been merged into AJK’s consolidated fund. Its employees, assets and liabilities have been transferred to the AJK Government. The Accountant General Office comes under AJK’s authority now.
All taxes, including land revenue, will be collected by AJK authorities. Besides, the Kashmir Council’s developmental wing is no longer allowed to conduct developmental schemes in AJK which was synonymous with running a parallel administration aimed at undermining the local government.
To preserve the natural resources of AJK, it has been made conditional that no new project can be initiated without obtaining prior permission from the AJK Assembly. Wapda has to pay water usage charges to AJK at the rate fixed for Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Additionally, the AJK government is entitled to consume the locally produced electricity.
Most of the revenue generating departments, such as power generation, tourism, income tax and social welfare, now operate under the supervision of the AJK government. 32 subjects would now fall exclusively under the jurisdiction of the government of Pakistan. Besides, AJK Assembly would be eligible to legislate on 22 subjects with the consent of the federal government.
The federal government has also made a public pledge that AJK would be given observer status in the National Finance Commission (NFC), Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) and Indus River System Authority (IRSA). However, a full membership status cannot be awarded as AJK is not officially part of Pakistan according to the Constitution. Nevertheless, it would open up new avenues for AJK to benefit from the anticipated prosperity, springing from the projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In the past, the Chief Election Commissioner was supposed to single-handedly conduct polls not only in Azad Kashmir but also in the four provinces of Pakistan where 12 seats reserved for the Kashmiri refugees are located. The proposed 3-member Election Commission has been overhauled, aimed at making it a vibrant and operational body.
To strengthen grass roots politics and participatory democracy, holding of regular local government elections has been made mandatory. The strength of the cabinet ministers and advisers has also been restricted which is a plausible development.
All the basic human rights, including the right to information, fair trial and right to education have been incorporated in the constitution.
There is a sense that these reforms will help the AJK government enhance its governance structures, offer speedy justice, provide upgraded services delivery and take all major decisions at the local level, instead of looking for approval from Islamabad.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution has successfully unlocked the 44-year-long legislative logjam. It can be hoped that a few more amendments of the same nature would come to address the flaws which are being pointed out by the opposition parties and legal wizards.