A day before the passing of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) Bill in the National Assembly, which proposed the merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at an event in Jamrud, Khyber Agency, rightly stressed that more important than the merger was the urgent reconstruction and development of Fata. It was ironic than that the bill his government passed did little to guarantee resources, funds or laying out the necessary mechanism that will help develop Fata.
And yet, once again in press conferences, senior members of his government and leaders of other political parties continued to refer to the elusive 100 billion-a-year figure for Fata that has been tossed around in the corridors of the federal government for at least the past three years.
The 100 billion figure was first announced on the floor of the National Assembly in 2015 by the then Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in his 2015-16 budget speech. He boldly claimed that 100 billion rupees had been set aside in the budget for the rehabilitation of Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs). A year on, that money was never spent and revisions were made to the budget line.
In 2016, on the insistence of Fata parliamentarians pushing for reforms, the Fata reforms committee, which was set up by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and led by Sartaj Aziz, was tasked with compiling a report about the best way forward. The committee subsequently recommended that Fata be given its three-percent share in the NFC Award for the next 10 years among other benefits. Based on budget figures at the time, this three percent came to about the same 100 billion.
The merger has happened but the euphoria is short-lived as practical concerns come to the fore
Crucially, the committee again recognised that before any changes were made to the status of Fata, it was important to return and rehabilitate all of Fata’s TDPs and to have large-scale reconstruction. It was agreed that after a five-year period, if the federal government had fulfilled its side of the bargain (kept the promises made in the report), the government would go ahead and merge Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This was a way to go around the lack of consensus on the merger issue.
Even the government realised that the immediate demand and need of the people was to restore their homes and livelihoods and if the government were able to do so successfully then there would be greater local buy-in to the merger idea as well. They also understood that ground realities in Fata meant that it would take years to put the necessary infrastructure and build the institutions necessary to implement Pakistani laws in the area.
However, it soon became evident that neither the major political parties that controlled the provinces at the time — Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, Pakistan Peoples Party’s Sindh government and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-controlled Punjab — nor the federal government were willing to give up any share of theirs for Fata.
And so, the message was changed once again and we were back to the 100-billion-a-year figure.
Where that money would come from was now the big question. An attempt was made to raise it through donor commitments, but with Pakistan fast becoming yesterday’s news in the global arena where Syria and Yemen have taken centre stage, these funds could not be raised. Hence, another year passed while none of the necessary development or rehabilitation work could be done, primarily because none of the provincial governments or federal government was willing to commit the necessary funds.
With an impasse over the allocation of necessary funds to Fata, the government went ahead with the merger without the initially agreed upon interim period or having first brought Fata on par with adjacent districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Again, the elusive 100-billion promise has been made without detailing where exactly these funds will come from.
WAS MERGER THE ONLY OPTION?
Contrary to how it came across in the media, there were four main options with support in Fata.
The first option was to maintain the status quo. This option had the least support in Fata and was primarily supported by certain maliks and elders who were benefiting under the previous setup before militancy consumed the region.
The second option was, of course, that of a merger. This was primarily supported by young Fata tribesmen living in urban centres in Pakistan and then in the three most highly educated and developed hubs in Fata — Bajaur Khar in Bajaur Agency, Parachinar in Kurram Agency and Jamrud/Landi Kotal area of Khyber Agency. Its supporters saw a merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the most practical option in having the same rights as other Pakistanis.
The third option was of a separate province. This was another option that was popular in the same circles as the merger option. The difference was that this group feels that under a merger, many parts of Fata risk becoming backwater districts to the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (i.e. becoming the southern Punjab of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).
Then there were those that wanted amendments to be made to Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and the governance system in Fata. Essentially they wanted collective punishment to be removed under FCR and to take away the judicial powers from the political agent and assign a dedicated judge instead. At the same time, they wanted to have local government at agency level and a Fata council at the regional level to oversee development in Fata.
Their main resistance to becoming a province came from their lack of trust in ‘thana’ (police), ‘kacheri’ (judicial) and ‘patwari’ (land record) systems in Pakistan. They believed their existing system to be fairer, more effective and in line with their cultural norms than what was happening in the rest of Pakistan. This was perhaps the most popular position among Fata locals and probably would have been the easiest to form a consensus around, had that exercise been embraced.
BEYOND THE BILL
Since the Fata Bill was passed in such a rushed manner right at the end, there are a number of very serious concerns that have arisen. Sticking to the theme of development, a few days ago, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief secretary raised concerns that without any legal cover or written guarantees from the federal government, it is likely that the next government does not deliver on the verbal commitment of the outgoing federal government in providing funds to Fata.
This would mean that there is a possibility that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would have the responsibility of developing Fata and doing the necessary rehabilitation work from its own funds. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is already at loggerheads with the federal government over its hydel royalty, and the Fata development fund might be another major thorn added to the list. This is especially likely to be the case if the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the federal government are formed by different political parties, which historically has been the case more often than not.
The fear that is now being expressed by pro-merger circles of Fata locals is whether Fata get its share of funds necessary for reconstruction and bringing it at power to adjacent districts. Even if the funds are transferred to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in terms of larger share in the NFC Award, then are there any guarantees that Fata will receive the requisite funds for its development or are those funds likely to be diverted to more prosperous and influential districts of the province, as has been the case previously? With the issue of the merger no longer there as a bargaining chip to ensure development funds, the people of Fata are once again left to the mercy of policymakers at the federal level for getting their due share of development funds.
By: Ghazi Ghazan Jamal