The hue and cry surrounding the 18th Amendment sounds a familiar ring of keeping power concentrated in the Centre and leaving residual autonomy to the provinces.
The passage of the 18th Amendment has been unique. It not only followed through a mature process of design and development, but had a rare opportunity to be owned by each federating unit with equal calm and unanimity. Born from the Charter of Democracy signed between the PML-N and the PPP-Parliamentarians, in London, when both their leadership were in exile, the amendment cleansed the Constitution of the martial law footprints to make space for a civilian rule defined in a parliamentary system of government. It is though still debatable if the parliament has been able since 2010, when the amendment was made, to become a truly representative forum because of the structural flaws in the political system that impedes accountability and the conduct of a free and fair election.
The spirit of the 18th Amendment lies in the golden federalist rule: devolution of power. However, this does not mean, by any stretch of imagination, that the federal government had lost control of the provinces — an impression which was tried to be created. It stands wrong; one, because the federal government holds the string to the provincial purses; two, it can initiate and implement a national policy through the Council of Common Interest (CCI), an inter-provisional coordination body. Like a captain on the ship, the central government holds the power to navigate the provinces in any direction, of course not before exhausting options through a consultative process.
The central argument of this newly generated dislike for the 18th Amendment is that it cuts the financial pie in favour of the provinces leaving the central government pauper in the process. A subsidiary argument is about the difficulty of making a cohesive national policy in the time of crisis because of the time lag involved in taking all provinces on board. Both arguments are, at best, lame excuses. The reality is that the government neither has the appetite to consult its opponents nor a knack to debate national policy in parliament, not to talk of the CCI. Had it not been for the combined opposition of the political parties, we nearly had a government run on ordinances for another four years.
In short, no real attempt has been made to organise and coordinate the relationship between the central and devolved governments in a systematic way. The mechanism of inter-provincial coordination, delineated in the Constitution, has been followed half-heartedly. The CCI, according to the rule, is supposed to meet every quarter. But it is not happening. The Council met after a gap of one year on December 23, 2019. Most of the coordination between the federal and the provincial governments happens informally among civil servants from a range of departments. Irregular in nature, these meetings have not been productive in discussing strategic policy issues about say health or transport. The result of this piecemeal approach has been a bilateral rather than a multilateral (that is Pakistan-wide) discussion of policy ideas and objectives. These communication and coordination lapses have transformed the ‘differentiated territorial administration’ into a ‘differentiated territorial politics’ because of which territories have become the dividing line for a new kind of political conflict manifested in the rivalries around major issues such as the coronavirus.
Some of the few things of the 18th Amendment that could have altered the fabric of governance in Pakistan have not been followed in earnest. It is now a constitutional obligation to revive and energise the third tier of government through the local body elections. It is now compulsory for the state to ensure that children between the age of five and 16 years attend school and get free education. Each federating unit now has a significant role in the administrative and fiscal management of resources produced indigenously. The right to a fair trial and the right to information are the additional fundamental rights the devolved governments have been obligated to provide to their people.
The underlying idea was to bring the government closer to its people — something that did not happen because, as of today, there is no local government in any of the four provinces. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have no control over their resources, the abundance of which is nourishing the elites alone. Balochistan is a spread of desert, mountains, garrisons, and a slew of unmet needs. Even today, after almost 10 years of the passage of the 18th Amendment, the provinces are spending only 2.4% of GDP on education, which by all standards is a drop in the ocean. The criminal justice system is as emaciated as it has been for years that speak of the conviction rate at barely 7%.
Instead of repealing the 18th Amendment or using it as a spectre to woo political opposition, the right course would be to implement it. As far as making Pakistan-wide policies in the devolved areas such as health, population, education, climate, etc are concerned, they can be taken care of using the platform of the planning commission vested in the federal government.
Left to themselves the forces of provincial prejudice and bias are centrifugal. The longer they stay on the slippery slope of differences and rivalry the higher the possibility of a breakup of the country. The settlement to make devolution work requires some imaginative re-engineering of the centre and a spirit of trust and generosity on both sides.
The million-dollar question is: are we ready for it?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2020.
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