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A mirage of autonomy

The autonomy promised under the 18th Amendment is gradually meeting the fate of the Lahore Resolution

A mirage of autonomy

Pakistan Resolution Day was celebrated with the traditional thunder of canons. The day is a reminder of a promised destination that has been turned into a moving mirage by the oligarchy of the country. Amid an elongated hegemonic colonial subjugation, Muslims of the subcontinent scrambled to carve a separate homeland to secure their political, economic and cultural rights.

The Lahore Resolution envisaged autonomous states in which the constituent units were purported to be autonomous and sovereign. The promise prodded political leadership in Sindh to adopt a seminal resolution in March 1943 demanding a separate country for Muslims of the subcontinent. The struggle came to fruition in 1947 and the country came into existence.

The country remained snared in a prolonged tumult during its formative years. Arbitrary decisions to settle incendiary issues like the separation of Karachi from Sindh, enforcing Urdu as the only national language, accession of Kalat, dismissal of Dr Khan Sahib’s government in NWFP, and Ayub Khuhro’s government in Sindh, and the massacre of Babrra marked the beginning of an unpalatable journey with a twinge of disgruntlement and scepticism.

The worst followed with the onset of One Unit. Imposition of One Unit was a blatant betrayal of the 1940 resolution as the federating units were forcibly tied together. Lahore, the city where Pakistan Resolution was adopted, became headquarters of the West Pakistan in a stark contradiction to the spirit of the resolution that was considered as a cornerstone of the edifice of the new country. These incidents put the country on a wrong trajectory and the divergence was further accelerated by a series of martial laws punctuated by democracy.

Provincial autonomy is not an abstract entity. It includes political decision making authority, administrative authority, financial autonomy, right over natural resources, judicious share in development opportunities, resources and fair representation at decision making forums.

Since Pakistan consists of federating units possessing historical identities and centuries old existence as political entities, their rights and aspirations cannot be shrugged off by lumping them into one nation. Whipping a single national identity through administrative authority proved detrimental to the federation. An approach to seek legitimacy of a newly dreamed identity glued with religion underperformed in absence of an inclusive and just federation.

The resolution of Pakistan demands introspection along with celebration. The very promise is the cornerstone of the country and the words inscribed on it are trolling for an overdue honour.

Cobbling variegated identities into a single nation was only possible in an ambience of mutual trust and respect. Political trust is a binding agent that needs sustained dialogue that may eventually lead towards a path of convergence. Constitutional and policy frameworks are considered as a guarantee to nurture this trust.

Pakistan’s constitution is adorned with federal character. The provision of bicameral legislature ought to be augmented further to ensure greater participation of the federating units in political decision making. The senate could truly be made House of Federation if its wings are spread to bring critical decision making in its fold. The senate’s jurisdiction could be extended to approval of money bill, extensions of national finance commission award and other such matters where provinces often jostle for their share.

The National Assembly’s composition is heavily skewed in favour of Punjab which occupies 183 seats in the house of 332. If the Senate does not countenance any bill, the constitution has a provision of presenting the bill before the joint sitting of the Parliament. In the joint sitting 104 Senators would make less than one-third of the National Assembly with the strength of 342 including minority seats.

Unless the Senate’s vote has a proportionate weightage, it will always be outnumbered in the joint sitting. Hence the Senate embodies the federation only in terms of representation of provinces however its role is trammeled in critical decision making. Since the National Assembly has a provincial share proportional to their population, more than half the seats are allocated to Punjab. This renders the remaining provinces practically ineffective in legislation and policy-making business.

The Council of Common Interest (CCI) is an institutional mechanism to resolve conflicts between the federal and provincial governments. Under the constitution, the CCI has powers to formulate and regulate policies in relation to matters in part-2 of the federal legislative list. The CCI has constitutional powers to exercise supervision and control over institutions related to its subjects. Under the list, the CCI has jurisdiction over 17 functions including railways, minerals, electricity, ports, regulatory bodies and census etc. Article 154(3) of the constitution stipulates a permanent secretariat for the council.

It is ironic that elected governments have ignored this vital organ which is a lynchpin of the federation. The CCI not only has been denied a permanent secretariat, its authority has also been undermined by creating ministries against functions under its domain. These ministries, in a brazen violation of the constitution are not answerable to the CCI but subordinate to the federal cabinet. Both the PPP and the PML-N governments eschewed strengthening of the CCI to safeguard interest of provinces.

Although frequency of the CCI meetings has jumped from 11 meetings in 37 years (from 1973 to 2010) to 18 meetings between 2010 and October 2016, it has been fettered from performing its primary role of formulating and regulating policies of subjects under its mandate.

The 18th constitutional amendment was a serious effort to balance the equation of power between federal and provincial governments. It devolved considerable administrative autonomy to provinces. The 7th National Finance Commission award took a departure from distribution of resources only on the basis of population. Both landmark decisions could have rejigged the federation. However, gains from the two significant steps could not be harvested fully due to chicaneries of the Islamabad-based establishment whose interests lie in the status quo.

Mian Raza Rabbani, who spearheaded the process of formulating the 18th Amendment, had been seething with frustration and dispatching letters to political leadership imploring them to halt an insidious rollback of the 18th Amendment. Making a mockery of the constitutional amendment, ministries on the devolved subjects were created with newly coined titles as proscribed organisations do to ridicule official ban imposed on them. In brief, the autonomy promised under the 18th Amendment is gradually meeting the fate of the Lahore Resolution.

Financial autonomy over natural resources is another conflict between Islamabad and the provinces. Making population the sole criterion for distribution of finances had always been resented by smaller provinces as exploitative.

Sindh had been the largest revenue contributor that shared up to 60 per cent of national taxes, yet it received only one-third of the amount in requite. Similarly, Balochistan has the largest land mass among all four provinces but due to a small population it received a minuscule share in the National Finance Award. The two provinces have contributed more than 90 per cent of natural gas production. Sindh also had been contributing approximately 60 per cent of the national oil production. Residents of these provinces get a nominal share in jobs in the oil and gas companies. A large part of Balochistan does not enjoy gas connections and rural areas of Sindh are without any gas-run industry.

According to Pakistan Energy Year Book, Sindh and Balochistan contribute 68 and 19 per cent of the national gas production respectively. However, Sindh and Balochistan consume only 55 and 30 per cent of their gas production. In a sharp contrast, Punjab consumes almost eight times more gas than its own production. According to data available on Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority’s website, Punjab has 2,162 licensed CNG stations compared to only 587 in Sindh, the largest producer of natural gas.

Proportional representation in senior level federal bureaucracy has also been denied to smaller provinces since long. Sindh and Balochistan are grossly underrepresented in the top brass of civil and military ranks in negation of constitutional provisions. Non-local people manage to acquire counterfeit domiciles and even academic certificates to get jobs against the allocated quota of these provinces.

The federal government’s bureaucracy is heavily dominated by central and upper Punjab and that explains the concentration of development resources in these areas. Glaring disparities of development opportunities are evident from the official data. A recent report of the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) “Quality Sub-National Human Development Indicators” exposes disproportionate asymmetry in human development.

According to the report, out of 15 top districts ranked on human development index, 11 are located in Punjab, only one in Sindh and two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Contrary to that Balochistan shares 12 districts among the bottom 15 district and Sindh and KP have two districts in the bottom districts whereas not a single district from Punjab falls in this category. This sufficiently explains the reasons behind a perennial stress between Punjab and other provinces.

The resolution of Pakistan demands introspection along with celebration. The very promise is the cornerstone of the country and the words inscribed on it are trolling for an overdue honour.

Naseer Memon

naseer memon
Naseer Memon is a human rights activist and civil society professional. He may be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • On the issue of autonomy we have lost East Pakistan, we haven’t learn t any thing from it .This is continuously haunting us, let the feudal and ruling click enjoy the fruit of denying it to its people,they will be Insha Allah all be grind ed. They are moving fast towards their destiny ,sooner are latter they will reach there.

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