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October 22, 2018

The road to South Punjab


October 22, 2018

With one month more to go, the PTI government is under tremendous pressure to show some progress on its 100-day agenda. As one of the big-ticket items, the ruling party has promised to ‘take practical and tangible steps for the establishment of South Punjab as a separate province’ within 100 days after coming into power. What practical steps can the party take in the next thirty three days and beyond to turn this dream into a reality?

Theoretically, there should be no hurdle in the way of the PTI to achieve this goal. There is a consensus amongst political parties regarding the creation of the southern Punjab province. In practical terms however, the PML-N holds the veto power as the province cannot be formed without the Punjab Assembly approving the constitutional amendment with a two-thirds majority.

Rather than rejecting the province of South Punjab directly, the PML-N has adopted a slightly complex strategy to thwart the division of Punjab. It supports two – rather than one – provinces in southern Punjab and it ties the creation of new provinces in Punjab to the broader question of creating new provinces in the whole country.

The PML-N is reluctant to make a powerful section of northern Punjab; this section benefits from the undivided nature of Punjab. The party will also be unwilling to give away a huge prize to the PTI at a time when it remains under relentless pressure from the government. Why should the PML-N let its rival fulfil one of its major promises, facilitating a permanent foothold in the region.

In the current circumstances, the PML-N has also one good reason to support the South Punjab province, and the same reason may make the PTI shirk from its pledge. If Punjab is divided today, the PTI may be able to form a government in the new South Punjab province, while the powerful northern Punjab may go to the PML-N. Can the PTI and its backers give away the control of northern Punjab to the PML-N?

The question of the formation of the province of South Punjab may drag on for some time – perhaps till a strong movement is formed in the region. However, the PTI can take a number of steps to reverse the regional disparity in Punjab that lies at the root of the demand for a separate province. These steps can also be seen as the foundation for a new province, vindicating the PTI and making it popular in the region.

Southern Punjab is a unique case of a prosperous area laid to waste due to neglect and discrimination. It is one of the most productive regions of the country that contributes hugely to the national economy. The three divisions of southern Punjab account for 41 percent of wheat production, 36 percent of sugar production and 85 percent of the cotton production in Punjab. (These figures do not include Bhakkar and Mianwali, two other fertile districts in southern Punjab that are not part of the three divisions.)

During the last 50 years, while the development ranking of the northern districts of Punjab went up, southern Punjab saw its fortunes dwindling. For example, in 1970 the Multan district was fourth in terms of development and Rahim Yar Khan was sixth. Today, Multan has gone down to the 13th and Rahim Yar Khan to 16th in the development index of Punjab. The situation of the other districts is far worse.

The lack of development in southern Punjab is rooted in three simple factors: discrimination in development funds, jobs and industrialisation. Lahore’s bureaucracy and politicians have constantly denied a fair share of state resources to southern Punjab – with horrible consequences for tens of millions of people in the region.

The Parliamentary Commission for Creation of New Provinces noted in 2013: “(As) Punjab gets 51.7 percent of the share in the 7th NFC, South Punjab should get 30 percent of the total Punjab share in it but a review of the development projects in the Punjab shows ·that it gets far too less than what it should get in accordance with its population.”

During the last five years, Shahbaz Sharif’s government made tall claims of enhancing development funding for the region to 36 percent of the provincial development budget, more than its population-based share of 32 percent. During the last fiscal years, it claimed to have spent no less than 40 percent, or Rs40 billion, of the total funds of Rs104 billion allocated for development in the first 10 months of the fiscal year. However, as a report in Dawn noted, the money utilised was far less than one-third of the total funds.

Consistently low development spending on the region has created a huge disparity in per capita availability of public resources – including schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, piped gas and infrastructure. This in turn has resulted in widening disparity in human development between the two regions of the province.

Since the government has remained the largest employer in the country, government jobs are an important resource for power, income, development and upward mobility. Low investment in human development, lack of zoning and plain discrimination has resulted in denial of a fair share in jobs to the residents of South Punjab.

As the parliamentary commission noted: “The quota of the Punjab in the federal civil bureaucracy is nearly 50 percent of the total. Ordinarily the three southern Punjab divisions of Multan, Bahawalpur and D G Khan should get 30 percent of the Punjab quota in the civil bureaucracy, being 30 percent of its population. However, it has only 12 to 15 percent quota in federal civil jobs.” This situation is worse in the case of non-competitive jobs that are allotted on the basis of patronage.

Apart from the lack of employment opportunities, the low share in government jobs has also resulted in denial of patronage-based state services, opportunities and resources. Since government jobs have also been a major way of siphoning off state resources meant for development, a good part of this loot also finds its way to northern Punjab.

Lastly, southern Punjab has been discriminated against in industrialisation. While the area is a major producer of cotton, which fuels the wheels of our national industry, no effort has been made to promote the textile industry in the region. The region has rather been treated as a producer of raw materials in a very colonial fashion. Recently, two sugar mills were ordered by the Supreme Court to relocate from southern Punjab to northern Punjab because it is a cotton producing area. The lawyers failed to tell the court that the region is also a major producer of sugar cane and that the cotton crop is failing, resulting in misery for the poor farmers.

A separate province remains the best way to solve most of these problem s. However, the PTI may take a number of steps to undo the injustices before it succeeds in creating a new province. It can announce to set up a separate secretariat in southern Punjab; divide the provincial budget into two parts; announce zoning in jobs and create incentives for industrialisation in the region. Though the region should get more than its share for some years to repair the historical injustices, even guaranteeing its fair share based on population can be a huge blessing.

And finally, Usman Buzdar is no remedy for the ailments of the troubled region, though he may be helpful in convincing Lahore to let southern Punjab go.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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