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The politics of centralisation


July 1, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with the world, resulted in a series of almost global lockdowns one after another, caused thousands of deaths and triggered an economic meltdown all over the world.

But in the backdrop of this pandemic, one silver lining has been the mostly consistent and dependable performance of states and their various units. The effective way many states have countered this unparalleled health crisis speaks volumes about one thing – health and other essential services are best taken care of by local administrations as they are closer to the grassroots, and thus able to serve the people much better.

A recent poll for Financial Times says that most Americans trust their state’s governor over the president to decide when to reopen the American economy and when to ease down on social distancing measures as well as the curbs on non-essential businesses. The trend is the same across the globe, and that includes Pakistan. But in Pakistan, unfortunately at a time when provincial governments are giving their best shot to handle the crisis effectively, the federal government has come up with a novice idea of having a debate on the 18th amendment, apparently with the aim to deprive the provinces of the subjects that had been devolved to them under the said amendment.

In 2010, when the 18th Amendment was passed, the concurrent list was abolished, one-third of the 1973 constitution was amended and subjects, including health, education among others, were devolved to the provinces. Alongside devolving subjects to the provinces, the 18th Amendment introduced some major laws as well, like Article 10A (right to fair trial and due process), Article 19A (right to Information), Article 140A (effective local government system, devolving political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority).

While analyzing the 18th Amendment objectively, it is evident that its architects must have had respect for regional autonomy, as they introduced a whole new array of legislation including that for provincial autonomy with a vision for a stronger democratic structure in the country.

Credit goes to the political parties of the time for supporting this historical amendment. All political parties have benefited from this amendment, be it the PPP’s Sindh government, the previous PML-N government in Punjab or the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, hence none of them can deny its efficacy. It would not be inappropriate to suggest that due to a purportedly better performance of the PTI in the fields of health and police in KP in the post- 18th Amendment scenario, it earned another tenure in that province. Had the 18th Amendment not been there, one can easily imagine the incumbent ruling party in KP may have not been able to make such headway.

Similarly, the recent handling of Covid-19 by Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah shows the importance and practicality of the 18th Amendment. Though the pandemic is of an unprecedented nature, still if the health subject would not have been devolved earlier, the CM Sindh would have lacked the effective authority to handle the unparalleled crisis in such a rational manner, thus proving the fact that essential subjects are dealt with more effectively at the provincial and local levels.

Regardless of the good the 18th Amendment has done for the provinces, the federal government has recently looked like it's bent upon revisiting it. On top of it, the irony is that on the one hand, the federal government has promised the creation of a South Punjab province in its manifesto and the CM Punjab has recently announced the setting up of a secretariat in southern Punjab, thus indicating that the federal government believes in devolution of the power. On the other hand, though, it is advocating a rethought of the 18th Amendment, clearly a sign of either a vague mindset or a dichotomy of affairs on its part.

Fairly speaking, the 18th Amendment holds its share of criticism also on the part of provinces for their disinclination to devolve subjects to the local level. First, the provinces’ apparent lack of infrastructural and departmental capacity to handle the devolution. Second, the absence of a genuine Provincial Finance Commission (PFC). The criticism is valid and holds ground as provinces, while conveniently sticking to politics of centralization, are not inclined to transfer resources to districts as it would rob them of the power that enables them to manipulate the provincial politics.

In the midst of this criticism, it needs to be noted that the decentralization of subjects at the local level is an evolutionary process. If it took 63 years for the federation to devolve subjects to the provinces (after the 18th Amendment), then it will surely take some time for the provinces also to effectively devolve the subjects to the local level.

In a journey of such monumental nature, it will take a combined influence of the federal government, civic society, media and the general public to support and stress the provinces to enhance their capacities, pressurize them to shun politics of centralization and devolve powers at the local level.

The other anti 18th Amendment argument is the scarcity of financial resources with the federal government. The cure to this is not retracting resources, but for the federal regime to focus on the economic front to enlarge the divisible pool by creating investment opportunities, streamlining regulations, reforming the tax policy, launching a comprehensive-integrated industrial policy and curtailing unproductive expenditures etc. Needless to say, the federal government must also resist temptation for politics of centralization.

Federation and provinces need to leave behind their colonial mindset, and they need to shun ‘politics of centralization’. Instead, the emphasis should be to decentralize power for the larger good and welfare of the people, so as to have a more empowered and progressive society.

Thus the 18th Amendment, regardless of its flaws and shortcomings, needs to be supported to make the country stronger and vibrant. On the other hand, if the current government does not step back from revisiting the 18th Amendment, it will be remembered as an anti-people government, which instead of strengthening the democratic system, pursued a policy on the contrary.

The writer is an ex-civil servant and a barrister.

Twitter: @adeelmshah

Email: [email protected]