South Punjab: power, purse and politics

PTI’s razor-thin majority in Punjab stands in the way of carving out a new province

Hasaan Khawar August 03, 2020
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

Creating the South Punjab province was the cornerstone of PTI’s electoral campaign — something that resonated with people from the South and with those who thought Punjab was too big and too strong for the good of the federation.

But PTI’s razor-thin majority in Punjab stood in the way of carving out a new province. This could mean PTI losing ground in central Punjab, something that is politically unacceptable.

The next best option was to begin with an administrative arrangement, giving more autonomy to the region through a separate secretariat. The idea was exciting on paper but difficult on ground. If the secretariat were to be established, what would be its functions? Would the bureaucracy in Lahore be willing to dilute its powers? Where would this new seat of power be located?

In an effort to find answers to these contentious questions, the proposal ate dust for many months. But thanks to the PM, these questions have now been settled. Bahawalpur is the home to the newly created position of Additional Chief Secretary (South Punjab), whereas Multan gets the new Additional Inspector General of Police.

One will have to give full marks to the government for empowering the new secretariat. Whether it is the will of the PM or initiative of the bureaucracy, the Chief Secretary has delegated all his powers to the ACS, except his role as the secretary to the cabinet. Sixteen full secretaries would sit in the South Punjab secretariat and later on other departments will follow suit. This gives teeth to the new setup. Citizens would no more have to travel to Lahore to get their issues sorted. Even transfers and postings would be managed locally. Last week the cabinet signed off on the revised Rules of Business to make this new system work. And when bureaucracy changes rules of business, it actually means business.

However, what has not been delegated is the key to the treasury. The provincial finance secretary not only gets to propose budgetary allocations but also decides what actually gets spent. Approval of a development scheme is of lesser consequence than its allocation; what gets allocated is much less meaningful than what gets sanctioned by Planning & Development Board; and what gets sanctioned cannot actually be spent, unless released by Finance Department. In short, the Finance Secretary decides who gets the money.

From where things stand today, Lahore will continue to hold the purse for South Punjab. A mere promise of 33 per cent allocation wouldn’t mean much unless there is a separate account for the region, similar to what the government had done for health and education authorities.

Lastly, comes the politics around the choice of location. Irrespective of what the PTI leaders are claiming, there is going to be only one South Punjab secretariat and not two. If the ACS is based in Bahawalpur then that’s where the secretaries would sit, and decisions be made. An additional IG in Multan wouldn’t change that. Bahawalpur clearly is winning this battle.

Multan is the most developed city in the south and sits in the middle of Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan. Yet the government chose Bahawalpur for unknown reasons. This choice will have a profound political impact on the region as well as the PTI, which could see some cracks in the days to come. For instance, PTI’s leaders from Multan, to the likes of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, would suffer as they would always be seen as the ones who stamped this choice.

However, irrespective of these political fireworks, moving towards a South Punjab province can be a big win for PTI if it doesn’t stop the journey here and takes it to a fully functional separate province.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2020.

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