By ADNAN RASOOL — As election season kicks off, once again we are starting to hear the evergreen demand before every election cycle: the creation of new provinces.
Before taking a position on this issue, I am going to unpack this debate and allow the readers to make up their minds about what Pakistan needs.
Let’s start with some basic facts. We have over 200 million people in this country, spread over four provinces, two federal territories and two autonomous territories
The bulk of the population is concentrated in Punjab and makes up for over half the total population. The other provinces and territories make up the rest of the population.
Another overlooked fact is how far-flung the seat of government is in every province.
In Punjab, Lahore is about 300 kilometers away from Multan, while in Sindh, Kashmore is about 600km from Karachi. Similarly, from Gwadar to Quetta is nearly 1,000km.
These distances highlight the fact that if you are a citizen of any of these towns, you must travel for at least a day to get to the seat of government if you are dealing with anything that has to do with the provincial government.
Yes, there are local centers but even those are hundreds of kilometers away. Administratively, the current number of provinces limits the access to government for a very large number of citizens. In a democracy, that limits the ability of those citizens to get their voices heard.
More provinces or expansive administration?
So, can services be provided to all citizens? How can every citizen have improved access to their provincial government and have their voice heard when the need be? To these questions, there are two possible answers.
One solution is to create new provinces, and the other is to expand the existing administrative apparatus. There are costs and benefits of both options.
Most discussions on the topic have a habit of delving into a dichotomous debate of either/or that takes away from the nuances of the challenges we face.
The argument that we need new provinces is a logical one. Having more provinces will bring closer the seats of government to the citizens.
For instance, if you are in Kashmore and your seat of government is Khairpur, your travel time is much less and the likelihood to be heard by the local government is significantly higher than when making the trek down to Karachi.
More provinces also mean funds are transferred to more areas that can then decide to use them as they please. In Punjab, the majority of the funds get spent in and around Lahore or the Grand Trunk Road corridor between Rawalpindi and Lahore. Southern Punjab does not get the same attention, nor do the border areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
If Bahawalpur were to become a province, it would, at the very least, force expenditures to be localized and the priorities of the area would get more airtime, rather than the perpetual focus on Lahore and the GT Road.
Similarly, in Balochistan, Sindh and KPK, localization of funds through creation of new provincial administrations can improve public accessibility to funds and services.
A subset of this debate is that if we were to actually make new provinces, on what grounds would we make them? Do we make them on an ethnic or administrative basis?
My question is: why are we having this debate in the first place? Let some provinces be administrative and some be ethnic.
The Seraiki belt in southern Punjab is already structured in a manner that is suitable for a province based on ethnicity. That is completely fine if people of that area get better access to services and get their concerns noted.
In Sindh, a new province would be administrative, based purely on the geographical arrangement of the province.
The elephant in the room in Sindh is the idea that Karachi should be a province. If that were to happen, Karachi would first have to be part of a bigger province constructed on an administrative basis.
Karachi cannot be cut out as a city and declared a province because it already has a city government and is the seat of power in Sindh.
How we make new provinces does not have to be a dichotomous argument; it can be a mix of what is needed.
In contrast to the creation of new provinces, the other option is to simply expand the administrative structures. This means more empowered local governments and permanent bureaucracy structures supported by regular political elections at district level.
However, the political elite does not support this notion because it dilutes and devalues the power and influence of the provincial governments.
Look at Lahore, for instance. There is a local government in place, but it practically has no control as it is starved for funds from the provincial level.
If the expansion of administrative affairs is a continuation in this direction, then it solves nothing. The need is for an expansion of administrative units with financial backing.
That seems unlikely to ever happen. It would also mean new hiring for local bureaucracy, which will take years to complete and may become politicised.
The choices we make
For better or worse, political parties are the only form of representation of public we have. Any move on new provinces will need to be political and include all political parties.
Ideally, the political parties would sit down together and agree to dilute their influence in certain areas for the long term gain of the country. That also seems unlikely to ever happen.
For instance, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, in its right mind, would never agree to a province in south Punjab because that would cut its power in Punjab and reduce precious funds that are showered on the GT Road constituencies that form the party’s powerbase.
On the other hand, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf would love the idea of a new province in south Punjab; from their power base in Multan, which is Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s home ground, they would get to head a province and the funds can be used on their strongholds.
Similarly, the idea of a Hazara province is unlikely to get traction in KPK because the PTI there is in the same position as the PML-N in Punjab. Sindh has similar issues and so does Balochistan.
Yes, more provinces would be a great idea. I believe it needs to happen, but would even settle for more expansive local administration too.
Turkey has over 80 provinces, while a small country like Taiwan has 22 divisions. It is a joke with our population of over 200 million that we have just four provinces.
More localized control is a necessity as our country continues to expand, but the harsh reality is that our politicians cannot look beyond their personal gains to see the long term needs of our country.
Any option that might fractionally erode their control or their ability to manage finances is scuttled through agreement.
This is the type of issue that needs to be discussed in campaign season.
As citizens, we deserve clarity on this question, especially after the 18th Amendment that handed over significant control to the provinces.
A federal system like ours is strengthened when control and authority is not concentrated.
Our citizens deserve better, they deserve their voices to be heard and represented beyond rhetorical slogans.
And for that to happen, we all unfortunately have to wait for self-obsessed politicians to see the light and break from habit.
(The writer is currently doing his PhD in Political Science at Georgia State University, USA.)