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Opinion

May 8, 2016

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The future of Fata

Fata is that unfortunate part of Pakistan for which the government has no policy, with the status quo being used as the only way of managing these areas. The people of the tribal areas have been living under in the worst of conditions under the political agent system. Only the elites have benefited.

There is little information available on the economic conditions in the tribal areas. The Federal Statistics Division holds various types of surveys throughout Pakistan but none are carried out in Fata. Such surveys must be carried out for future economic planning of these areas. During Z A Bhutto’s government, seven industrial units were established in the public sector; they were relater closed down. Bhutto’s era was the only one in which policies were made for the socio-economic development of the tribal areas.

Transport, employment in the armed forces, working as labourers in the settled areas of Pakistan and the Gulf States are a few sources of income the tribal areas have. There are a limited number of bazaars in the tribal agencies but almost half of the shops are owned by Afghan refugees. Smuggling as a source of income benefits a limited number of people in a limited area. Inflation is high in Fata because most of the basic needs items are imported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The people of Fata pay taxes – indirect taxes – on every item of basic consumption. Because of the lack of economic opportunities, there has been, and continues to be, mass migration from the tribal areas to the settled areas of Pakistan.

The governor of KP is an agent of the president of Pakistan. Various departments of the government of KP are responsible for the execution of development schemes, while funds are provided by the federal government. This simultaneous management of the tribal areas by federal and provincial institutions has caused serious mismanagement. A political agent is the head of an agency, who at the same time acts as administrator, district magistrate, sessions judge, revenue officer etc. The tribal people seek justice through the political agent or jirga. The political agent has powers under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), under which he can arrest and punish any person. Moreover in case of any crime committed by an individual, the whole tribe is punished in terms of heavy fines and mass arrests. This collective responsibility, while condemned worldwide, has been in practice in Fata from the time of independence and even before that.

The most important issue of the tribal areas is the determination of its status. The three options are 1 ) a separate province constituting the tribal areas; 2) the tribal areas being merged into KP; and 3) to continue with the status quo.

Geographically all these areas are linked and share borders with Balochistan and KP in Pakistan and with some provinces of Afghanistan. Almost all the tribal population is Pakhtun and Muslim. Constitutionally, these areas enjoy a special status according to agreements signed by tribes with different governments. Interestingly, Afghanistan also had a tribal belt as a buffer zone but their status has been changed to provinces of Afghanistan.

Every option Fata faces has its own pros and cons. Already larger provinces are causing administrative and ethnic problems in Pakistan. The final decision should be made by the people of the tribal areas through a referendum.

The first option Fata has is to become an independent province. A large number of Fata residents are in favour of an independent province for themselves. They want to lead their lives according to their culture, customs and traditions. They are not used to police, courts and patwari systems. The tribal areas have a khasadar force to maintain law and order and a local jirga system operating under the political agent to settle their disputes. A representative local government system and independent administrative machinery can carry out development work. This may be a different system from the rest of Pakistan but, if successful, it may even be replicated elsewhere.

The problems with this option are that geographically all the tribal agencies are situated in the form of a bow along the Afghan border. Because of its particular geography, even consensus on a capital may be difficult. Access to the capital will be a problem unless a viable road network is constructed in this different terrain. Already, the proposed location of the Fata University at Dera Ismail Khan has been made controversial. There will be a problem also of linking this new province with the frontier regions situated within settled districts. Moreover, making a new province means huge expense and building new physical and institutional infrastructure.

The second option is merging Fata into KP. This seems to be the most convenient and workable option. All tribal agencies are situated adjacent to the settled districts of KP. Even the headquarters of the Orakzai agency is situated in Hangu, a settled area. Even the Frontier Regions can be easily merged with the adjacent districts. Already all KP departments are also operating in the tribal areas. FRs are being managed by the deputy commissioners of adjacent districts. A significant number of tribal people are already living in districts of KP. Almost all the tribal people are Pakhtuns so they share language and culture with the Pakhtun-majority KP. In order to safeguard freedom, culture, customs etc Fata can be converted to Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) which will be under the administration of the provincial government instead of the federal government.

The cons of this option are that the people of Fata may feel they are losing their identity and freedom. For decades KP has been ruled by the elites of the central districts of Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan and Fata may be neglected the same way the remaining districts in KP feel they are.

KP’s majority population is Pakhtun according to the 1998 population census but the DI Khan division has 60 percent Seraiki population, the Hazara division has 80 percent Hindko population, and the Chitral district has a majority Chitrali population. These ethnic minorities will feel further marginalised if a large number of the tribal Pakhtun population is added to the already-Pakhtun dominated KP.

Furthermore, Fata stands almost devastated due to the insurgency and continuous military operations. In order to rehabilitee Fata, a Marshall Plan like funding is needed. The merger of Fata into KP at this stage will put unbearable economic constraints on KP, which is already a backward and insurgency-hit province.

The third option is to continue with the status quo. This is really no option because it has not helped the people of Fata in the past. Fata will be developed if it can find the right direction. Another point of view is to establish an elected Fata executive council, agency councils etc to run the area. This will co-exist with the political agent system. This may not solve the problem unless a clear direction of status of Fata is sought – by the people of the area, who have sole rights to decide about the future of the tribal areas.

The writer is a Peshawar-based academic.

Email: [email protected]

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