The recent Scottish referendum for independence syncs in well with the resurfacing of the debate about the creation of more administrative units in Pakistan. This debate was instantly met with the emotive rhetoric of “marsoon marsoon, Sindh na desoon” by PPP legislators in the Sindh Assembly with the PPP co-chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, also reportedly expressing his reservations over proposals of creating new provinces in view of the staggering cost of such a move. He has catapulted from an earlier stance when his party hastened to push through a resolution in the Senate for the creation of a new province in southern Punjab. On that occasion, I had forewarned through a column in The Express Tribune that the move would have a snowball effect over all other provinces. We have seen now that as soon as the PPP felt some heat in its home province of Sindh, its leadership reneged on the resolve to create new provinces. Our political leaders have a tendency to tinker with latent, yet highly sensitive issues, without doing proper homework, this episode being one such example. Demand for more administrative units certainly does require more clarity in terms of its impact on the existing four provinces and our broad political framework. As we dilate on the subject, we need to be very clear on the fact that provinces in Pakistan are political entities, while administrative units are represented through civil divisions and districts. The two need to be kept distinctly apart for the sake of clarity.
Going back to the referendum in Scotland, it has indeed been a momentous event. As a result of it, the people from the highlands have given their verdict, which could be read either way. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, who led the campaign for independence, accepted the verdict with an open mind. The union has survived but it will not remain the same Great Britain. It largely depends now on the vision and action plan of Westminster as to how a new settlement is to be worked out with it facing irresistible pressure to change the rules of the game.
Scottish parliament acts have already laid ground for more autonomy by underpinning certain key devolved functions, giving legislative powers to the regional parliament in areas like education, health, agriculture, local government, policing, etc. But is this enough to satisfy the demands and yearnings of the solid vote bank that stood for a complete break from Westminster? Those who opted for the union also hold reforms and change high on their agenda. Devolved powers, so far, confer upon Scotland the status of an exalted municipal entity, while real powers of monies and the wallet still lie with London. Apart from the reserved powers like defence, immigration, employment, trade, energy, oil and gas, matters like consumer rights, entertainment, anti-competitive practices, electricity, road transport and the motor vehicle act are still vested with Westminster as are matters related to taxes and excise duties. There cannot be a meaningful settlement within the union of the United Kingdom if fiscal and administrative autonomy is not given to its constituents — in this case, powers to incur debt and raise taxes.
The pro-union result in Scotland has raised more questions than it has answered. Questions are now being asked about whether Scottish parliamentarians should be allowed to legislate on matters falling within the devolved jurisdiction of England and whether England should have a separate parliament in this regard. An answer to these issues will have implications for the entire political system of the UK and on its political parties, especially Labour, which has a strong presence in Scotland. One hopes that the mother of democracy — the British parliament — will wade through this muddle successfully.
The Scottish referendum has underlined one distinct fact: there are peaceful ways to resolve even the most sensitive and inflammatory of issues. One can only wish that we in Pakistan were even half as wise. But that is clearly not so with the 1971 national tragedy being a case in point, which resulted in a bloody civil war and dismemberment of the country. The dangerous move of finding a military solution to a political problem resulted in disaster.
Coming to the specifics of creating more units in Pakistan, despite provincial assembly resolutions for creating provinces in south Punjab and Hazara, it would be a most difficult to achieve when it comes to drawing the lines on the ground and in the boardroom. Autonomist movements all over the world, including in our neighbouring country, always spelt out the precise boundaries before the fruition of such an exercise. In Pakistan’s case, given the share over natural and financial resources that is provided to provinces, achieving an agreement on the details could be as daunting as reaching a consensus on building the Kalabagh Dam. Let us find a way out through a lean, slick, devolved mechanism, empowering our distinct regions without tampering with the existing configuration of the federating units. If more provinces were the solution to the problems that we currently face, then the north-eastern Indian region should have been the most prosperous and peaceful area around. The Indian state of Assam was split into seven states or provinces, yet it continues to be the most volatile and insurgency-prone region of India, festering with bloody clashes and being notorious for ethnic cleansing.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2014.