Friday July 12, 2024

Fata: reformed or ‘changed’?

By Syed Muhammad Abdullah
December 07, 2021

Erstwhile Fata, now the 'merged areas', is going through an extremely tough transition as the merger enters into its fifth year. The merger no doubt was an experiment of tremendous proportions and it is still too early to pass a verdict on it; there are still many transitional lacunae in the administrative set up. However, after going through several military operations and waves of militancy, just a semblance of order in the region might be recognised as 'normalcy'. Based on the experiences of the past four years, three indicators have been outlined in this article to assess the outcome of the Fata merger: public acceptance, operational issues in governance and decrease in trust deficit between the public and the state.

Public acceptance is the most essential prerequisite of every reform and it comes with first appraising the community about its outcome and how it will affect their lives. In the reform under discussion, no such step was taken – rather a non-representative committee was constituted to ponder upon how the tribal areas could be reformed. In the end not even their recommendations were followed. Initially, the people of Fata did not know what happened because the merger, which would have a huge impact on them, was not expected to have happened in such a hamfisted manner. They have started to realise its impact after the dust of the merger settled down. Their grievance is found in every statement – and even some pro-merger voices now state that the manner in which it was undertaken was hasty to say the least.

The second question is: has merger improved governance? In the unrestricted world of formalism and minutiae, there are no fetters on the imagination. If the standard of ‘improvement’ is measured by cosmetics such as changing the ranks of the Levies Force and renaming them as the 'police' – alongside declaring a few government buildings as ‘courts’ – then ex-Fata clearly has ‘changed'. However, if the frequency of loss of human lives, and the ratio of civil and criminal disputes pre- and post-merger are considered, then it can be stated that the law and order situation has reached an historic low.

I will quote a few examples here: in one incident a person was robbed in broad daylight just a few kilometers away from a police station. He was told by the police that an FIR would be registered and the case presented before a judicial magistrate. He would then have to hire a lawyer and investigation would begin. Imagine the financial burden and frustration of this person who was used to getting swift justice within hours only by visiting the office of an assistant political agent. With all its negatives, the concentration of judicial and executive authority in one office in the previous system was delivering speedy justice to common people unlike the present system.

As far as the deterrence of the FIR is concerned, it works in the opposite direction and more often than not leads to further escalation. Even people with anti-terrorism proceedings against them go unapprehended and the registration of FIRs is reduced to completing a mere formality. Witnessing such incidents on a daily basis makes one wonder whether it was right to carelessly do away with a centuries old system that was at least effective, if nothing else.

Even the argument of bringing administrative uniformity across the province is not sufficient to warrant such thoughtless endeavour that would adversely affect the lives of more than five million people. Furthermore, has the merger succeeded in decreasing the trust deficit in the Fata region? The people who were used to getting decisions on the spot through jirgas without prolonged litigation and the resultant financial burden cannot help themselves but feel frustrated. While serving in ex-Fata I have realised that even those who were initially pro-merger did not think about its adverse implications. They now think of being forced into accepting the new system, negating the essence of their tribal traditions – if not democracy – where at least the process of decision-making is hierarchical, organised and ruthlessly egalitarian.

Thus, suggesting a way forward; first, there needs to be a ten-year political and administrative transition in which the miscellaneous legal and administrative subjects could be centralised in one office in order to deal with land and other disputes that the judiciary and the police neither have the capacity nor the understanding to manage or resolve. In addition to that, the recently enacted Jirga law/ADR Act needs to be made more effective as people violating stay/decision of the jirga require it to be dealt with firmly.

Second, the word ‘pukhto’ is used in ex-Fata when an officer or elder is exercising an authority not backed by the law – for example: an officer of the district administration dealing with a sit-in, protest or any other law and order situation, will be known to have dealt with it in ‘pukhto". This is meant to evoke a sense of honour and responsibility in a way not imagined by the legalists. So, the district administration is expected by the general public to deal with every situation in ‘pukhto’ because ‘not my responsibility’ is an answer they are not willing to hear from an AC/DC.

Therefore, if the district administration is expected to resolve every matter and other institutions lack the capacity, then the former may at least be equipped – in the transition phase – to deal with issues such as land disputes, public nuisance and be able to implement its orders with adequate legal cover. To put it simply, weak district administration in the merged areas directly means a weak state. Therefore, strengthening the executive is a necessity.

The revival of the magistracy should be considered after an objective survey – if not a full-fledged referendum – as installing more institutions in former Fata without consultation will further damage the governance architecture and hinder the government from delivering even on its prime objective and raison d’etre: protection of life, liberty and property of its citizens.

The writer is a public policy practitioner hailing from erstwhile Fata. He tweets @syedabdullah10