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Who Gains from the Division of Punjab?

By Izzud-Din Pal

PUNJAB-BASHING (with a focus mainly on central Punjab) is an old pastime of some Pakistani politicians. When Mr Asif Ali Zardari was seeking to become president of Pakistan, he decried desperately that the ‘majority of people across the expanse of our nation have been ignored and even subjugated by Pakistan’s establishment, ‘the elite oligarchy’, located exclusively in a region stretching between Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad’ (an article published in Washington Post under his name, September 4, 2008).

Now it is the turn of the Makhdooms, Legharis and Abbasis et al. to join the chorus, on behalf of the Seraiki-speaking region of the province. This southern area of the province with about 37 million people is relatively poor, albeit with endowment of fertile land but mainly under the ownership of feudalistic absentee-landlords. Among the recent stakeholders in agriculture has been the commercial wing of the military. The area has also been in spotlight for being the base for some of the terrorist organisations in the country. There is more in this latest development, therefore, than meets the eye.

There is no grass-roots movement for autonomy; people are too busy to cope with their challenge of deprivation and injustices, related directly to the social formation of the region. The present boundaries of the provinces including Punjab are the product of the historical factors as well as the terms of the Partition. In India, the Nehru government with Vallabhbhai Patel as the minister of interior had devised a comprehensive plan to establish the writ for independent India. This process included the integration of the princely states, as well as adjustment of boundaries on linguistic lines. In Pakistan, no such development took place. In 1947, when Punjab was partitioned, it also lost a part of its central region including important districts of Amritsar (Muslim majority but Sikh centre), Gurdaspur (another with Muslim majority districts) and Jullundar.

In Balochistan, the princely state of Kalat became part of the province (how its fate was determined is still a matter of dispute), and Khairpur became part of Sindh. When the province of West Pakistan was created and then disbanded, the princely state of Bahawalpur became part of Punjab (by pure administrative fiat). Also the federally administered areas were divided into Pata and Fata, but places such as Swat, Dir, and Gilgit continued as autonomous entities. Unlike India, establishing writ of the state and of reconciling boundaries has been an ad hoc phenomenon in Pakistan.

As a consequence, Punjab was left as a province with the largest concentration of population, with the Balochistan with the largest geographic area. How would such an unbalanced configuration affect the health of the confederation? One can take a static view or a look at the situation in dynamic terms. A province dominating the others? It is a difficult question but it is not insoluble. Looking at the experience of Australia and Canada as confederations, one gets the picture of the possible inter-provincial trajectory in a growing economy.

In Canada, for example, the province of Ontario dominated the economy and the political system of the country when the Dominion of Canada was established and has continued to hold the position until recent times. Expansion of Western Canada and development of natural resources, especially in Alberta, has now turned the situation the other way round. An important feature of Canadian confederation is what is called equalisation payments (the richer provinces transferring funds according to a formula to the poorer provinces (equivalent but not quite the same as NFC awards in Pakistan). Ontario no longer dominates the picture.

There have been changes in Pakistan as well. The discovery of natural gas in Balochistan should have put the province on a path to accelerated development but the process failed, partly because of the tribal social formation in the province and partly owing to unfair arrangement for compensation to the province. Southern Sindh, Southern Punjab and Bahawalpur have remained underdeveloped under the burden of their agrarian culture.

Now if Punjab were to be divided into two parts (or three!), will it be a step in the right direction from the point of view of central Punjab, the new Seraiki province and the country as a whole? To the extent that this division would change the structure of representation in the Senate and the National Assembly, the major beneficiary would probably be a tactician such as president Zardari. In this chess game, the people in the new province, more so than in central Punjab, would probably have not much to gain, but could be the net losers.

There are two inter-related reasons which relate to the social formation in the Seraiki region: first, the absentee landlordism, with tenants at the mercy of the master, who would also become the political master with all the powers and perks that go with it. Land reform is an obvious solution for this problem; but the prospects are quite slim for such a move.

The second reason is what the economists call cumulative causation. Central Punjab, because of historical factors, and with its cluster of people in artisan pursuits, entrepreneurial activities, administrative positions, peasant proprietorship, and services, would continue to attract people from other regions including Seraiki in search of better opportunities. As the current budget of the province indicates, the cost-benefit situation would not require a major adjustment for central Punjab from the loss of revenue from the proposed division.

At the time of formation of the new country, Lahore and surrounding areas had an exclusive distinction to be the pole of activity attracting manpower from less developed areas. Karachi soon developed as a metropolis and became a competing pole parallel to central Punjab, and there should be more.

This process should be facilitated by democracy, but it meets with obstacles. An important hurdle is presented by the current phase of transitional democracy prevailing in Pakistan. The framework of this democracy is of course party politics. But there is a difference. Emphasis is on leadership, not representation, and is founded on personality.

In some other countries, family name does matter but the candidate goes through a cumbersome party convention. In Pakistan this ritual is considered superfluous (e.g., the will of Benazir Bhutto nominating her successors), and there can be as many parties as there may be aspirants, to partake in the process. More ambitious among them would seek a provincial administrative base which would provide them with an opportunity to exercise power.

It can be argued that this is what democracy is all about. The problem, however, is with the transitional democracy and its limitations.

As democracy evolved in Europe, for example, the middle class as defined in its conventional form became the backbone of the system. In Pakistan there is no middle class in the true sense of the term. In Europe this class had a stake in democracy as it was the product of what is called public goods: public health infrastructure, social insurance, public education, public transportation facilities, leaving sufficient disposable income for decent living.

In Pakistan the most appropriate proxy for this phenomenon is the middle income group, consisting of diverse categories from office workers to professionals. As the discussions in the media about the latest budget have shown, it is this class that bears the major burden of financing government expenditure, through indirect taxes. In the transitional democracy then, there is a wide gap between the elite and the rest. The men at the top enjoy the power and perks and the rest largely pay for them.

In this framework, creating new provinces would only spread the disease, common people may remain where they are, or things might get worse for them.

Far more important than tinkering with provincial boundaries is the urgency for improving the quality of governance in the country, and not use this issue as a diversionary tactic. The other top priorities should be to meet the challenge of terrorism, and to bring the people in the frontier region into the fold of full citizenship.

An important prerequisite for streamlining provincial boundaries is to introduce a comprehensive land reform. Ayub Khan played with a token scheme. The reform in its next phase, introduced by Z.A. Bhutto, received a fatal blow from its politically-motivated thrust. And it did lot of harm to the cause. Whatever was left of it, the pamphleteer Abul A’la Maudoodi, and Council of Islamic Ideology, performed the final rites for its burial by declaring it un-Islamic.

This unholy alliance between the mullah and the landlord should now be exposed.
Email: izzud-din.pal@videotron.ca
DAWN: Sunday, 12 Jul, 2009

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