Provincial budgets — practice in devolution

Published: June 18, 2013

Provinces appear to be coming up with good ideas for governance. PHOTO: FILE

The benefit of having three provincial governments announce their budgets in one day is that it affords voters the opportunity to compare the governing styles of the three major national political parties in the country. It also highlights in practice what had hitherto been talked about as a theoretical advantage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution: that providing more autonomy to the provinces would result in a competition based on governance quality between the biggest political parties, the biggest beneficiary of which would be the people of Pakistan.

In 1932, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that American states “may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”, a quote that later became famous for popularising the idea that truly autonomous sub-national governments can serve as the laboratories of democracy. That phenomenon appears to be taking off with a bang in Pakistan and we could not be happier.

Several good ideas pioneered in one province are being copied by others, with the ruling political party in each of those regions trying to claim credit for who came up with the idea in the first place. The politicians can quibble over who gets the credit, no doubt, but the citizenry is likely to be happy that the idea was implemented in the first place.

For example, take the idea of creating a computerised database of all land records, which have always been a provincial subject. The idea was originally started under a Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz government in Punjab through a World Bank-funded project, but the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been quick to claim credit for trying to start a similar scheme in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The argument will no doubt continue over who started it, but the people of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are about to get a system of land records that does not make them beholden to the local patwari or some other provincial revenue department functionary. As measures go towards securing property rights in Pakistan, and helping people unleash the economic potential of the real estate they own, there could hardly be a more effective measure.

Similarly, Sindh and Punjab have both created nearly identical investment boards that are meant to serve as a one-stop shop for investors looking to deploy capital in those respective provinces. While Punjab has a much more effective board than that of Sindh, the fact remains that the provinces appear to be coming up with good ideas for governance, in a spirit of competition that channels previously destructive ethnic rivalries in a far more constructive manner.

And this is proof of the larger point about a truly federalist structure of government: where each province has substantial control over resources and can make allocations according to their specific needs. Punjab and Sindh, for instance, have allocated money towards strengthening their respective advantages in agriculture whereas Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is trying to provide infrastructure in regions where it can lure more tourists or energy companies looking to drill for oil and natural gas.

For all their flaws, the former administration led by the Pakistan Peoples Party does deserve credit for moving the Pakistani political landscape towards a completely new paradigm. Far from being seething hotbeds of resentment against the largest province in the country, the smaller provinces now seek to compete with it for investment and talented entrepreneurs.

The softer approach of devolving control further down from Islamabad to the provinces is so far turning out to be a great idea, though it still needs work. None of the provinces, for instance, have started serious revenue collection efforts, and none of them have devolved power further down to local governments.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s political governance structure is taking shape in a manner that appears set to serve the country well, a fact for which we are grateful.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2013.

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