Case for smaller provinces

Published: June 12, 2018
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. 
He tweets @hasaankhawar

The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

China has 1.4 billion people and 22 provinces. But none of the Chinese provinces is as populous as Punjab. There is not even a province or state in Indonesia, the US or Brazil, which could rival Punjab’s population. In fact, Punjab with a population of 110 million is the fourth-largest province or state in the world, to be surpassed only by Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar in India.

Many believe that a country of 200 million people merely having four provinces is an anomaly and the abnormally large size of Punjab creates an unfair balance of power. The PTI’s 100-Day Plan also mentioned carving out a new province out of Punjab. But keeping aside the political or ethnic arguments, is Punjab’s size really an anomaly? And why do we need smaller provinces?

Let’s look at world’s six most populous countries. Punjab claims 51 per cent of Pakistan’s population but the largest province or state in China, the USA, and Brazil represent 7, 12 and 21 per cent respectively, while those in India and Indonesia represent 16 per cent. Nowhere in the world does such an anomaly exist, where one province can outnumber all the other federating units put together.

Some would argue that the Senate’s role is to safeguard smaller provinces’ interests but that only holds true for legislative issues. The throne of Lahore is widely known to dictate the terms of government in Islamabad. And it is ironic to have the mass transit project for a single route in Lahore to be twice the size of the entire development budget of Balochistan.

Brazil with almost as much population as Pakistan has 26 states while Indonesia with 20% more population has 34. But, on the other hand, China and India are 6-7 times more populous than Pakistan and have 6-7 times more provinces or states (disregarding special regions). Moreover, although Punjab is as populous as the Philippines, there exist other provinces of comparable size. The three Indian states along with the Chinese province of Guangdong have a population of 100+ million each.

Ironically however, China and India’s capacity to govern is far better than the flailing Pakistani governance structures. The Worldwide Governance Indicators rank 200 countries on government effectiveness, capturing quality of public services, bureaucratic quality and policy formulation and implementation. While China and India have percentile ranks of 67 and 57 respectively, depicting above average performance, Pakistan with a percentile rank of 29 falls in the bottom one-third.

Not only Pakistan’s capacity to govern is much weaker and inadequate, the toothless and often non-existent local governments further compound the problem. Pakistani politicians have historically found it hard to delegate powers to local governments. Consider for instance the case of Punjab, where health and education have been devolved in the most recent local government system, yet the district education and health authorities are being centrally managed by the province.

Such policies have concentrated decision-making in provincial capitals. Citizens travelling hundreds of miles and lining up in front of government secretariats, is a common sight across all four provinces.

But the civil servants sitting in their cosy air-conditioned offices seem to know the needs of far-flung populations very well, reminiscing of the viceroys of British Raj.

The results are obvious. Pakistan is one of only three countries left in the world where polio still exists. Pakistan has the third highest population of malnourished people and forms part of the ten countries with the highest incidence of stunting. This is unsustainable.

If the objective is to break Punjab’s hegemony, dividing Punjab may be the answer. But it is time to do more. We must accept that our political system is too nascent to let an effective local government system work and the only way to bring accountability closer to the people is to create smaller provinces.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2018.

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