Provincial Autonomy (Daily Times)

Let’s learn to celebrate the success of the parliament!

By Babar Ayaz

After 63 years of an arduous journey, on July 1st 2011 finally more power was devolved to the provinces from the center. These rightswere usurped by the center the day this country came into being. Thus,accepting the provinces legitimate rights in the constitution by the presentparliament in general and the ruling coalition in particular is no small feat.

But the nation which has forgotten to celebrate did not honour the day as it should have been. The government took out poorly written advertisements and supplements and the state-run TV failed to tell the people why the autonomy to the provinces was important to Pakistan.

To gain better perspective about the importance of this accomplishment of the parliament we have to briefly refer to the constitutional history of the country:
In the first place the entire struggle forPakistan was to gain autonomy for the Muslim majority provinces and principalities. All the documents presented to the British government support this statement.
Once Pakistan was made, this objective was betrayed, even by the founders of the country in favour of a centralized system, although the constitutional arrangement was labeled as ‘Federal.’ We were ruled under the1935 Government of India Act which talked of federalism but in reality gave a strong center.
As early as 1947, to meet the ‘emergency situation’ provinces were convinced that they will not get any share in the income tax. And sales tax was also taken away by the center ‘temporarily’ to be distributed later.
Using arbitrary powers the central government dissolved three provincial governments on the contentious issue of provincial autonomy.
The first and second draft reports failed to reconcile the differences between the advocates of the strong center and provincial autonomy.
There was broad consensus on the Mohammad Ali Bogra formula, but before the 1954 constitution could be legislated the strong center lobby dissolved the constituent assembly.
To deny provincial autonomy one unit was created in 1955 in West Pakistan by merging Sindh, Punjab and NWFP provinces and Balochistan, Balochistan States Union, Bahawalpur, Khairpur, Karachi and the states of North West Frontier.
This move denied East Pakistan its majority even though their population at that time was 54% of the country.
The 1956 constitution was agreed to but it also gave more powers to the center and denied the status of province to Sindh, Punjab, NWFP, Bahawalpur and Balochistan states. Even this constitution was abrogated by the military government of Ayub Khan.
The 1962 Constitution of the military dictator General Ayub Khan further tightened the grip of the federal government over the provinces. It resulted in the strong provincial autonomy movement in East Pakistan and smaller provinces of West Pakistan. Punjab which was the beneficiary of the strong center was the only one which continued to oppose provincial autonomy demands.
As a result of a strong democratic movement in 1968-69, General Yahya Khan agreed to undo One Unit and restore the status of provinces.
Sham federalism resulted in the massive movement for autonomy in East Pakistan demanding that the center should only have defence, foreign policy and currency and rest of the powers should be given to the province. The military operation against the people of East Pakistan to suppress the movement for maximum autonomy resulted in the rise of a liberation movement which eventually gave birth to Bangladesh.
The 1973 Constitution was passed with the support of the representatives of the smaller provinces with promises of gradual devolution of power. But Bhutto started violating the provincial autonomy soon after it was passed and Balochistan government was dissolved by him.
During the next two decades the provinces kept asking for transfer of powers placed in the concurrent list and some which rested with the President but each government resisted this genuine demand.

So in this backdrop biggest achievement of the 18th Amendment was an agreement on transferring the powers given in the concurrent list to the provinces. The historic amendment was implemented on July 1st, which called for a toast. Another major achievement that is linked with it was the new NFC award which was agreed by all the provinces giving more control tothe provinces over their resources.

The question that comes to mind is that why the Punjabi establishment, which had always resisted devolution of powers to the provinces in the past to the extent that East Pakistan walked away from the federation, agreed to greater provincial autonomy? And that the four military operations were launched against our people in Balochistan because they have persistently demanded maximum autonomy.

This change of heart is directly in proportion to the economic and political development of Pakistan. In all the elections since 1988 we have seen the centrifugal forces getting stronger. As a result of this trend all the provinces elected different parties and no political party could form governments in all the provinces. On the economic front Punjab, which used to resist provincial autonomy, was the fastest growing province in the country since the early eighties. Its urban leadership has now realised that all future governments in the center will most probably be a coalition government. Hence it is important to have more constitutional powers for the province of Punjab. This makes sense because it is more likely that PML (N) may not get to form a government in the center. Punjab is also now capable to generate more revenue at the back of its economic progress.

The nationalists of Sindh and Balochistan are still not satisfied with what they have achieved after 63 years of struggle. But they should realise that more than cribbing they should now focus on how the provincial governments use the new found powers. The provinces will have to go through a phase of capacity building and consolidation to convert the gains of the provincial autonomy to benefit their respective peoples.  The champions of provincial autonomy should now keep the provinces on track and push them to further devolve powers to the local governments. This will strengthen democracy which is at present hanging in the air without the local government foundation. Otherwise a movement against the provincial governments should be started if we really care for the people at the grass root level. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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