Strengthening federating units

The provincial and federal governments are far from cooperating with each other

As I write this piece, Covid-19 cases in Pakistan have already reached an alarming number: more than 2,000. The two most populous provinces of Pakistan – the Punjab and Sindh – are also the ones bearing the brunt of the disease.

What distinguishes different parts of the country is their response to Covid-19. This variation has been made possible by the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Though critics and defenders of the amendment remain divided over its rationale and impact, it has certainly enabled provincial governments to take responsibility for their jurisdictions and has empowered them to take measures to deal with any crisis in their domains. If nothing else, this is highly likely to improve the much-needed provincial capacities required to implement the 18th Amendment. As the provincial and the federal governments try to contain the transmission of Covid-19, some of these capacities are already evolving out of sheer necessity. Extending them to sectors not directly linked to the disease will, however, not be an easy task.

As things stand today, the provincial government of Sindh has taken the lead in handling the disease – ordering closure of schools, announcing severe restrictions on people’s movement, strict regulation of public spaces and commercial and industrial activities, and the shutting down of airports. Every other province and the Centre have only followed where Sindh has led. But then there are limits to what a provincial government can do even post-18th Amendment. As the lockdown becomes severe, the need for social protection for the vulnerable segments of the population is becoming increasingly urgent. And it is not feasible for any provincial government to provide rations, cash and other forms of support to millions from its own resources. Provinces neither have comprehensive data nor the financial resources to do that.

The unfolding tragedy of Covid-19 is not only a trial of public-health policy and governance but also a test of political leadership.

So, the federal government has rightly stepped in. It has announced a comprehensive social security initiative through which it has relaxed certain official criteria so that more families can receive cash grants under the Benazir Income Support Programme. It is in the process of allowing provinces to have access to the BISP database (which covers almost 90 percent of the households in Pakistan) so that they can also operate their own social safety initiatives. If effectively implemented, these measures should lessen the pain of a complete lockdown which seems to be the only way to stop the spread of the disease.

Still, the provincial and federal governments are far from cooperating and collaborating with each other. Sometimes they seem to be working at cross-purposes – for instance, when Sindh and the Centre failed to agree on the timing and the severity of the lockdown or on how much support to provide to the vulnerable and in what form, or on interprovincial commercial transport ban. If lack of coordination on above issues is any guide, then there is a serious risk of social safety measures being duplicated.

The other emerging problem is the discrepancy in the availability of healthcare facilities. Most of the ventilators in the country are located in a few large cities, so that those living in villages – and that means almost two out of three Pakistanis – may have difficulty accessing them. Speaking province wise, the Punjab has 1,300 of them and the remaining provinces 684. It is entirely another matter that only about half of these ventilators are functional, and their number even in the Punjab is too little to cater even to the existing needs.

Federal authorities, therefore, need to step in to fill the capacity gaps. The unfolding tragedy of Covid-19 is not only a trial of public-health policy and governance but also a test of political leadership which needs to bridge gaps in capacity and competence and build trust across various tiers of governance.

This is where the role of various institutional and constitutional arrangements between federating units becomes salient. While many departments and ministries at both federal and provincial levels are visibly active, there is hardly any mention in the media of the Ministry for Inter-Provincial Coordination or of the Council of Common Interests (CCI), which is the highest dispute resolution body.

It goes without saying that the basis of any successful federal structure is cooperation, collaboration and compromise. The consultative and collaborative arrangements provided by the constitution are meant to ensure that the provinces and the Centre do not overrule each other but are in harmony. These arrangements have not so far been put to optimal use. Many old problems among the provinces, and between each of the provinces and the Centre, remain unresolved and have come to surface over the fight against Covid-19. This suggests that something must be done as quickly and effectively as is possible to improve the presence and powers of both the CCI and the MIPC to create a strong working relationship among the federating units.

This may not offer a quick exit but it certainly can be used as a starting point to a cooperative and collaborative federalism to deal with similar crises in the country as and when these emerge.

The writer heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets at @abidsuleri

Coronavirus: Provincial, federal governments far from cooperating with each other