By Asif Mahmood
Demand for a separate Saraiki province is back on the political chessboard of the country, the way it came to surface and vanished a few years ago if we remember. Recognizing that the Saraikis are a separate ethnic entity living in all the four provinces with the largest concentration in Punjab, they should understand nuances attached to their demand placing it in the larger picture. Because the actors involved and the power centers that issue ‘approvals and disapprovals’ view the entire scenario in a different perspective – obviously not the way it is given in this piece.
Ethnic groups have this great tendency to claim their share in and control of the resources they are contributing to the larger pool. The romantic desire to rule their territory takes them for a head-on collision with the ‘other’ usurping their space – from poets to insurgents, from each their own resistance. And that stronger ‘other’ has always got nice and high sounding, all-encompassing and federating philosophies to offer. While ‘disintegration’ is a manifested fear, the real nightmare for the dominant ‘other’ is the loss of power and authority on the usage of resources or may be that injury to the soft and symbolic reign on a vast piece of land thickly populated or may be just the discomfort on seeing rise of the new shareholder – a new thorn in their side. This part of the problem is quite understandable.
Having a clear insight of the dynamics of power imbalance, what the Saraikis need to address is that their plea, essentially based on their distinct linguistic identity, entails geographic reconfiguration. It is very important to see their response to a few easy questions on how this will fit in the broader national arrangement. If they take away three divisions – DG Khan, Multan and Bahawalpur – for the new unit, why they should leave Mianwali and Bhakkar knowing very well their status among those trapped at the bottom of ‘development’ hierarchy in the country? Even within these three divisions, Bahawalnagar and Vehari (minus Mailsi tehsil) districts are predominantly Punjabi speaking districts. And when this reshaping is taking place on linguistic basis, why shouldn’t the Saraiki districts across the Indus river in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa join in the new province? What would be the reaction from the KP side on this? And if the perceived rearrangements are crossing provincial borders, on the same pattern, why shouldn’t Pakhtuns from Balochistan, FATA and KP be merged to form new Pakhtunkhwa? And if so, then how the already disgruntled Balochs respond to this ‘loss of territory’ to Pakhtuns? What would become of a similar demand coming from Karachi? How will the Sindhis take that even if the ethnic number game might have changed in Karachi? Despite the fact that their claim for autonomy is based on hard facts of disproportionate and unjust resource allocation or on simple ethno-linguistic grounds, the Saraiki call seems to be losing its intensity because there are so many voices in the room.
Besides being an identity question, call for separate province(s) takes the form of a project of decentralization in governance of the largest administrative unit in the country. The arguments in favour of the new unit(s) are made on the basis of viability and efficiency of smaller units and public convenience while interacting with various state institutions. When advancing these arguments, probably, we forget that decentralization doesn’t stop at the sub-national level. On the same traditional approach, powers to run affairs of the public are also required to go down to the city councils from the provincial governments. We also forget the dismal history of devolution in the country in the times of elected governments and how antagonistic these provincial governments have been playing vis-à-vis local councils – take for example, recent tenures of democratic regimes and their credentials on devolving authority to the locally elected bodies. The question is who will guarantee that the new units, formed in the name of decentralization, will further devolve powers to the local councils as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan?
It is also critical to keep in mind that advent of information technologies have altogether altered matters of governance. Among other things, they are inviting us to rethink notions of devolution and taking them a step further that eventually reduce institutional and bureaucratic controls as much as possible and empower citizens more than their ‘representatives’ to fulfill real objectives of a democratic system. Imagine a central government providing online-direct-to-citizens services of birth/death/marriage registration, filing of tax on services and issuance/renewal of passports (or other such combination of services that are otherwise distinct local, provincial and national subjects) efficiently, blurring the lines between the tiers and defeating traditional rationale for decentralization.
The people of Wasaib, on their way to materialize cultural aspirations coupled with meaningful human development, have to deal with tough challenges. They are also required to have serious soul searching on the question as to whether the existing political class comprising Khosas, Mazaris, Lagharis, Makhdooms, Hirajs, Hinjras, Syeds, Tareens, Khars, Nawanis and Niazis etc. be able to realize the Saraiki dream? Aren’t they struggling to make a ‘new Sindh’ in the south of Punjab?
(The writer is an urban policy analyst.)
By Asif Mahmood