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New Provinces in Pakistan: A Debate and Controversy

The debate on the creation of new provinces evokes a mixed response, pitting the emotionalists or alarmists against the rationalists.

Pakistan is passing through an innovative phase of history, particularly due to its experimentation with a new form of federalism as enunciated in the 18th Amendment. While the model of centre-province relations in the 1956, 1962 and 1973 constitutions remained highly centrist and unitary, the present PPP-led government through the 18th Amendment has sought to redefine and redesign the model of centre-province relations. In its effort to create a new polity, the government (as opposed to the state) has engendered a new discourse which seeks to move beyond the populist, yet authoritarian and centrist devolution scheme of General Pervez Musharraf, to a more novel approach where the provinces are given responsibility to manage what was previously an exclusive domain of the federal government.

This reorientation of the centre-province relations provides for an interesting analysis, for the Centre is now providing an opportunity to the provinces to assert rather than deny them their individuality and authority as has been the case in Pakistan’s history. In this sense, Pakistan’s changing political orientation and political opportunity structure have allowed for new ethnicities which were already there, yet dormant. As soon as the 18th Amendment was passed by the National Assembly, Hazara and Seraiki nationalism spurted into the open invoking their right to be accorded the status of a separate province.

The debate on the creation of new provinces evokes a mixed response, pitting the emotionalists or alarmists against the rationalists. According to the emotionalists or alarmists, the creation of new provinces is not needed because it will lead to a further break-up, God forbid, of the Pakistani state. The emotionalists are content with the centralized nature of the Pakistani state and believe that it is the Centre that should be in exclusive control of public policy. The rationalists, on the other hand, support the idea of the creation of new provinces arguing that in a multi-ethnic society, new provinces are needed to decentralise power and transfer it to non-dominant ethnic groups who are denied power and representation by the dominant ethnic groups. They also argue that the present configuration of provinces in Pakistan is based on the ‘ethnic’ criterion: the ‘Punjab for Punjabi’ speakers, ‘Sindh for Sindhi’ speakers, ‘Balochistan for Balochi’ speakers and ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Pushto’ speakers and new provinces on ethnic lines can be created further. Decentralisation or the creation of new provinces, according to the rationalists, will not lead to disintegration but strengthen it from within by dividing powers between the Centre and the new provinces.

 As soon as the 18th Amendment was passed by the National Assembly, Hazara and Seraiki nationalism spurted into the open invoking their right to be accorded the status of a separate province.
 The rationalists are in a fix, though, on how to legitimate the creation of new provinces — whether on ethnic or administrative grounds. The argument on administrative grounds rests with the premise that new provinces should not include the variable of ethnicity but should be based on the ‘administrative’ need to devolve power and resources to people where the state deems fit. A common justification for the creation of a new province on administrative grounds concerns the area’s distance from the provincial capital. Closeness between the people living in a peripheral region and administration is the soundest ‘administrative’ reason for the creation of new provinces. The administrative criterion proposers, furthermore, are closer to the emotionalists/rationalists because they believe that creating new provinces on the ethnic criterion would open up a Pandora’s Box and the new ethnic-linguistic demands will then be made on the system which will weaken the base of the state and its national integrity. The ‘ethnic’ criterion, on the other hand, takes a linguistic-cultural community present in a specified territory as a legitimate demand that could provide an essential basis for the creation of new provinces. For this to take place, the political party representing the particular non-dominant ethnic group takes its case to the elites at the Centre and creates relevant pressures to make its demand felt.
How do these two arguments balance out against each other? It has to be understood that any demand for the creation of new provinces will be essentially based on the ethnic-linguistic criterion in multi-ethnic states like Pakistan. People often invoke their identity as a valid subjective marker in order to put forth their political demands. Does this mean essentially that their political demands will remain uncompromising and will lead essentially to the disintegration of Pakistan?
Can it be the case that their political demand for a province, once accepted, will in essence lead to the amelioration of their political, social and economic problems?

On the whole, the demand for the creation of new provinces, once accepted, will have a consequential effect on other ethnic groups and linguistic communities in Pakistan who might then demand the same in future. However, the emotionalist/alarmist camp needs to focus on the simple fact that new provinces, if and when created, cannot survive on their own and will remain enmeshed in an interdependent network of transport, communication, and irrigation with the already established provinces. For example, a new Seraiki province will be dependent on Punjab for its water and because of its landlocked geography on Sindh and Balochistan for its access to the sea. Similarly, Punjab remains landlocked which means that it will continue to depend on Sindh for its access to warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Sindh, as is the case today, remains dependent on the upper riparian province Punjab for its irrigation and fresh water supply without which its agro-based economy would be at stake.

 As soon as the 18th Amendment was passed by the National Assembly, Hazara and Seraiki nationalism spurted into the open invoking their right to be accorded the status of a separate province.
 In all, new provinces need to be created on either administrative or the ethnic criterion with each single case for it and their respective demand based on scrutiny by the institutions of the state. The creation of new provinces will not lead to the weakening of the state structure or to its eventual balkanization which many quarters in Pakistan are wont to argue. The creation of new provinces and their eventual operationalisation would still require a strong Centre to impose its rule of law, order and authority without which the new provincial setup would degenerate into chaos and anarchy.
The Pakistani socio-political landscape is changing, a change in which the debate on new provinces resonates with some urgency. The government provides space for the debate to resonate and political gimmickry of the political parties aside, it has the responsibility to ensure that the debate is implemented in ways which ensure the strengthening of political institutions at the local, provincial and federal levels so that people’s problems are adequately addressed and resolved.

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