On September 21, Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions (Safron), Lt General (Retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, told the National Assembly that implementation of the eagerly-awaited reforms in the troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) would begin in the next 10 days.
In response to strong criticism of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led federal government by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and some Fata lawmakers for delaying the reforms in Fata, he gave an assurance that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi would make a policy statement on the issue soon.
The prime minister, still learning on the job after being unexpectedly chosen by deposed premier Nawaz Sharif, has yet to make the policy statement on Fata. The delay would create doubts about the government’s commitment to bring reforms in Fata as the process has already taken more than two years.
However, the first steps have finally been taken for introducing reforms in Fata through legislation in the parliament. Though a political consensus hasn’t yet been reached on many issues considering the opposition by the PML-N’s allies — Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s PkMAP — to Fata’s merger with KP, the federal government has decided to start introducing those reforms that are largely acceptable to all stakeholders or are less controversial.
The government’s refusal to seek the opinion of the people of Fata about the future status of their tribal region through a referendum has also irked the JUI-F and PkMAP leadership. The JUI-F leader, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, has higher stakes in Fata as his party has strong pockets of support there and accordingly he is more vocal on the issue compared to Mahmood Achakzai.
The PML-N has tried and until now failed to take along its two steadfast allies while striving to undertake the reforms process in Fata. It is aware of the historic nature of the job of bringing Fata into the national mainstream as reforms have been few and far between in the tribal areas. In fact, the neglect of Fata exposed Pakistan to the major challenge of militancy and terrorism and the country is still paying a heavy price for ignoring and keeping the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan under-developed.
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The government has been introducing bills in the parliament for carrying out reforms, though one titled, the Tribal Areas Rewaj Bill 2017 presented in the National Assembly in May had to be withdrawn due to lack of consensus on it. It was initially sent to the assembly’s standing committee on account of opposition by the JUI-F and PkMAP, both staunch allies of the ruling PML-N and Nawaz Sharif.
Subsequently, the government decided to get a new bill adopted by the parliament in place of the Tribal Areas Rewaj Bill to abolish the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and extend the jurisdiction of the superior judiciary to Fata. The Rewaj Act had turned controversial after critics termed it continuation of the FCR and an attempt to take away whatever rights were being granted to the people of Fata.
Another proposed piece of legislation was the Constitution (Thirtieth Amendment) Bill, 2017 for creating seats in the KP Assembly for Fata once it is merged into the province. It seeks amendment in Article 106 of the Constitution for increasing the KP Assembly seats from the existing 124 to 147 so that 18 general seats, four for women and one for non-Muslims, could be given to Fata.
Other proposed reforms envisage changing the Levies force into a police force in Fata and appointing a chief operating officer for a temporary period to oversee the reforms process. Concern was expressed by certain quarters that a serving or retired military officer would be appointed by the chief operating officer to take away the initiative and powers from the KP Governor, presently the most powerful government functionary for Fata as the agent of the President of Pakistan. Like other reforms, an attempt was made to make this position controversial, thereby causing delays.
Another issue that generated controversy was the extension of the jurisdiction of the higher judiciary to Fata. In the earlier bill, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Peshawar High Court was to be extended to Fata as part of the plan to introduce regular Pakistani laws in the tribal region. Later, it was decided to extend the extension of the Islamabad High Court to Fata instead of the Peshawar High Court. This was received negatively by the stakeholders.
One major reason was logistics as the Islamabad High Court is located much farther from the tribal areas compared to the Peshawar High Court. The cost of litigation would be much higher if the tribal people from Fata are required to approach the Islamabad high Court, instead of the one in Peshawar.
Many saw it as an attempt by the federal government to retain control of Fata instead of gradually ceding authority to KP. Ironically, the government, in line with recommendations of the Sartaj Aziz-led Fata Reforms Committee, publicly announced a plan in January 2017 to eventually merge Fata with KP, but is reluctant to involve the provincial government in the decision-making process regarding Fata’s fate.
The PTI-led KP government has been pushing for implementation of Fata reforms and merger and the provincial assembly had adopted a resolution to this effect. However, its pleas have mostly gone unheard in the federal capital.
The Fata reforms committee had proposed in 2015 a set of parallel and concurrent political, administrative, judicial and security reforms along with a massive reconstruction and rehabilitation programme to prepare Fata for merger with KP in five years. The recommendations, including the major ones, such as repeal of FCR and merger of Fata with KP, were approved by the federal cabinet on March 2, 2017.
A major recommendation was to give three per cent share to Fata in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award. It was announced that Fata would get nearly Rs100 billion yearly for 10 years to expedite the reconstruction and development process in Fata to bring it at par with KP and rest of the country.
However, the provinces are reluctant to accept reduction in their share from NFC award so that Fata could get the special funds and the federal government has yet to come up with a plan to make the required resources available. Without the provision of the needed resources, the long struggle for mainstreaming Fata would not materialise.