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Re-imagining Pakistan

A resolution to divide Punjab and restore the provincial status of Bahawalpur has been passed. But is the nation ready to give space to different ethnic groups? Ayesha Siddiqa writes.

india Updated: May 24, 2012 21:45 IST

The provincial assembly of Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan, recently passed a resolution calling for the creation of a new province — South Punjab — and restoring the provincial status of Bahawalpur. This will effectively divide Punjab into three parts: North and Central Punjab, South Punjab and Bahawalpur. Although the assembly, which is dominated by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), passed the resolution, the idea was initially broached by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), especially prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who is from South Punjab.

To many, the bifurcation makes sense because it will make the provinces governable. For many decades, South Punjab, an under-developed region, complained about the dominance of Central Punjab. The larger Punjab province, which is governed from Lahore, tends to hog all resources. According to a 2000 report of the government of Punjab, Rajanpur, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bahawalnagar and Lodhran — all in South Punjab — were the poorest in the province, with a poverty figure of about 55%. The report also stated that the annual income of these districts was two to three times less than the affluent districts which are mostly located in Central or Northern Punjab.

Another study conducted by the Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS) put the incidence of poverty in South Punjab at 50.1%, West Punjab at 52.1%, Central Punjab at 28.76% and North Punjab at 21.31%. Such grinding poverty could be due to the varied economic patterns in different parts of Punjab. Agriculture is the dominant activity in South Punjab with almost 55% labour involved in this sector — as opposed to 27% in North Punjab and 33% in Central Punjab. Most of the heavy manufacturing industry is concentrated in North and Central Punjab with relatively little industrialisation in South and West Punjab. Most of the industries in the poverty-ridden regions are agro based.

The lack of development in South and West Punjab was also raised by the LUMS study. The study measured the districts of Punjab on the basis of a deprivation index. According to the report, districts such as Rahim Yar Khan in South Punjab ranks the lowest among the 34 districts of Punjab. The other top 13 districts were also from South and West Punjab.

The comparative condition of the various districts of Punjab on the basis of social indicators such as immunisation, child mortality rate (under 5 years), antenatal care, education and school enrolment also indicate that some of the districts of South Punjab, such as Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan, rank the lowest, as compared to some of the districts in Central and North Punjab. The percentage of boys who have never enrolled in a school, for instance, was 30% for South Punjab, 27% for West Punjab, 12% for Central Punjab and 6% for North Punjab. In case of girls, the figure was 44% South Punjab, 44.5% West Punjab, 23% Central Punjab and 15% North Punjab.

So in the backdrop of the 18th amendment of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, which empowers the provinces, one can hope that underdevelopment will be addressed. However, the resolution itself does not indicate that a change is about to happen, thanks to politics around the creation of newer provinces, which relate to the political rivalry between the two major parties, and the nature of the State itself.

Some feel that the resolution was a reaction to the PPP’s call for the creation of a South Punjab province, which includes Bahawalpur as well. In fact, the idea of a Saraiki province (majority of people in South Punjab are Saraiki speakers) dates back to the 1960s and the early-1970s with the issue of the restoration of Bahawalpur province that was merged with Punjab after the dissolution of Ayub Khan’s one-unit system. Bahawalpur was one of the richest princely states to have acceded to Pakistan in 1947 and the nawab had signed an agreement with Mohammad Ali Jinnah to give it the status of a province. Subsequently, the Bahawalpur movement merged with the larger Saraiki movement that talked of a larger province for the Saraiki speakers. For many, the creation of a Saraiki province was a pipedream due to the dominance of Punjab in the State’s politics and bureaucracy. The bulk of the military is from North and Central Punjab, not South.

The demand for a province re-surfaced after 2008, especially because it has PPP’s support base, as opposed to PML-N that dominates the urban centres of Central and North Punjab. The PPP pushed the idea to consolidate its support base. It passed a resolution in the National Assembly, where it has a majority. However, a resolution in the National Assembly doesn’t mean much until the provincial assembly supports it.

So, it may appear that the PML-N has made things easy for the PPP, but that is not the case. Both the PML-N and the establishment may have encouraged the Bahawalpur resolution that undermines the PPP’s project and create internal differences. In recent years, Mohammad Ali Durrani, Pervez Musharraf’s information minister, who is also reputed to have close links with the military, spearheads the Bahawalpur movement. In any case, the establishment is relatively more comfortable with the idea of administrative but ethnic-neutral provinces.

Such resolutions are bound to keep people very excited till the next elections but it is still a million dollar question if Pakistan is ready to be re-imagined by giving space to ethnic identity.

(Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based writer and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy)

The views expressed by the author are personal

(C) Right Vision Media Syndicate, Pakistan