The 18th Amendment, that was hailed by all and sundry as a step in the right direction, has rather curiously contributed to the ethnic divide within the provinces. The devolution plan, designed to be administratively effective, has become a victim of political partisanship and nationalist politics. If this be the case then the devolution plan cuts at the heart of nationalists of yore and their argument that the Punjabi domination contributed to their backwardness.

It may be said that devolution might have just shifted the debate from Punjabi domination at the centre to the local dynamics of ethnic domination in the provinces. For the instant article, I will concentrate primarily on Sindh.

The Punjabi domination has been vexatious for every other ethnic group in Pakistan since independence. Figures cited in studies on ethnicity in Pakistan show that the bureaucracy and military were and are dominated by the Punjabis. Coupled with a strongly centralised state, vested with the power of distribution of financial resources among the provinces, and no measure of real democracy at the federal level, the provinces were always at the whims of the Punjabis-dominated Centre. Every ethnonationalist movement (Bengalis, Sindhis, Baloch, and Pathans) blame Punjabi domination as the main cause of their economic destituteness.

Enter the 18th Amendment and along with it, the 7th NFC Award. The PPP government, despite many faults and utter mismanagement, introduced a novel policy designed to take on the centralised nature of Pakistan’s polity. The measures for devolution and the financial distribution formula now state that the provinces will have a modicum of financial independence and provincial autonomy to regulate subjects like health and education, and that the population will not be the only criterion for distribution of finances among the provinces. This was hailed as a sober policy as well as need of the hour. The centralisation of powers had effected the disintegration of the country in 1971, and ensued in strained relations between the centre and the provinces.

This is elaborately manifest in Sindh where the present discourse on devolution has re-focused attention from Punjabi domination at the Centre to Mohajir domination in urban areas where it is argued that people from rural areas are denied access and admissions to public sector universities. This is not entirely true rather the relevant issue is the number of Sindhi-speakers from rural areas studying, for example, at the University of Karachi, not that they are denied admissions altogether. Hospitals such as the National Institute of Child Health (NICH) and Dow University still house a number of Sindhi-speakers. For the MQM, the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 and the Sindh Universities Bill 2013 is problematic because it was passed by a thumping Sindhi-speaking majority against its whims. The politics of MQM now dictates that the issue of devolution be presented as a case of undermining the autonomy of the urban areas (more educated and privileged) by representatives of rural areas (mainly comprising feudals who symbolise an anachronistic socioeconomic system).

 The present state of affairs depicts that the ethnic card is being used by the two major representative parties of Sindh in order to rally their respective constituencies.
 For the PPP, which is now championing the Sindhi nationalism, Karachi is an ethnic enclave of the Urdu speakers separate from Sindh, and the city and its institutions should now be subject to the authority of the provincial government. This has been a long-standing complaint of nationalists who were grieved when Karachi was separated from Sindh as it was declared the federal capital after independence. The late Sindhi intellectual M.H. Panhwar stated, ‘Until 1947-48, we, the Sindhis, had a feeling that Karachi is our city, however, a couple of years later, I realised that I had, in fact, become a Mohajir in my own city.’

How nostalgic and emotional this may sound, the present state of affairs depicts that the ethnic card is being used by the two major representative parties of Sindh in order to rally their respective constituencies. This could well be a direct result of the 2013 elections where PTI made major in-roads in the constituencies of Karachi while the PPP itself was defeated in the national polls condemning it to the role of merely a regional party.

Clinging on to ethnic frames and instrumentalising devolution for political gains symbolises that the present controversy on local government is, in essence, a game of politics, not ethnicity. Response to the Sindh Universities Law 2013 from teachers’ associations representing universities in Sindh, who have agreed on a joint strategy upholding ‘academic freedom’ and deeming it as the primary casualty in the provincial government’s scheme for devolution, is highly appreciable in this regard. Devolution is an administrative not an ethnic issue. To ethnicise the plan, both for and against, devolution will only cause increased detriment to administrative efficiency. The problem of Pakistan today is weak administrative capacity and ability and the plan for devolution was designed in order to improve administrative efficiency, not to destroy it. The ethnic issue as being invoked by political parties in Sindh will only result in administrative failure and disaster. The question of Punjabi domination has receded into the background and will recede further in due course but what is, and will be, taking place instead is worrisome and serious.

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