This article was published in Dawn on March 16, 2020 and is available at the following link
The idea of a new South Punjab province is once again making news. The ruling party, PTI, announced on March 11 its intention to table a constitutional amendment bill in the parliament in April aimed at the creation of such a province. It also announced it would establish a South Punjab ‘mini’ secretariat in either Bahawalpur or Multan or partially at both locations.
The issue of creating another South Punjab province has been part of political discourse ever since West Pakistan was disbanded by the military government of General Yahya Khan in 1970. First, the former princely state of Bahawalpur demanded it should be restored in the form of a province separate from Punjab because it had previously been enjoying the status of a separate administrative unit.
Soon after that, the demand for a Seraiki province comprising not only the Seraiki-speaking districts of South Punjab but also some adjoining areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan started gaining currency. Although PMLN is the only mainstream political party which supports two new provinces in South Punjab – Bahawalpur province and a South Punjab Province comprising Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan divisions — a separate South Punjab province is supported by PPP and PTI as well.
Creation of the South Punjab Province is a part of the ruling party Election Manifesto. The Janoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz (South Punjab Province Front) had merged with PTI before the 2018 general election on the express pledge by PTI it would create the new province if it came to power. Now that the PTI governments at the center and in Punjab are on their way to completing the second year of their rule and the party leadership has to face voters again at local government elections in about two months, PTI probably considers it good politics to revive the issue of South Punjab province.
The key stated reason for advocating additional provinces is to bring the government closer to the people. If this is really the rationale for more provinces, a dispassionate analysis should also be undertaken addressing how additional provinces will serve the purpose better than effective local governments
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
But PTI and its allies do not have a two-thirds majority in the Punjab provincial assembly, National Assembly and Senate which is needed to pass a constitutional amendment aimed at creating one or two provinces in South Punjab.
Still, even if the proposed South Punjab Bill gets defeated in the legislatures, the party will still be able to claim before its South Punjab voters that it at least tried. In the meantime, Punjab government can create a South Punjab Secretariat purely as an administrative set-up and present this to its voters as something which they could manage given their thin majority in the assemblies and a minority in the Senate.
In the short term, all this may prove to be excellent politics but long-term national interests demand that more serious and deeper thinking be applied. There are some strong and, in some cases, equally justifiable demands for creating new provinces in other parts of the country as well. Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province had been demanding a separate provincial status since the change in the name of the province from NWFP to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under the eighteenth constitutional amendment in 2010. Strong street agitation for a separate province resulted in several deaths 10 years ago and their leadership could show their strength again in Islamabad in April to commemorate the tragic events.
MQM Pakistan has been demanding a separate Karachi province and some have been calling for the bifurcation of Balochistan. It is, therefore, important that the issue of creating new provinces be studied more comprehensively through a commission.
The question of economic viability of new provinces and the affordability of the expected huge expenses must be studied. India went this route in 1953 when it created the States Reorganization Commission which presented its recommendations to constitute 14 states and six territories after a detailed study spread over two years. Some of these recommendations were implemented through the States Reorganization Act, 1956. Pakistan should also undertake a comprehensive study of the issue instead.
The key stated reason for advocating additional provinces is to bring the government closer to the people. If this is really the rationale for more provinces, a dispassionate analysis should also be undertaken addressing how additional provinces will serve the purpose better than effective local governments. Over the years, Pakistan has been unable to establish a well-functioning local government system. Isn’t it time that both federal and provincial governments focus on a more viable solution by creating efficient and powerful local governments instead of aiming at difficult-to-create additional provinces?