After the storm, comes the rainbow.” And that’s what happened after the recent fiasco surrounding the South Punjab secretariat. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf made an electoral promise to create the South Punjab province. But considering the razor-thin majority in legislature, creation of a new province could mean losing Lahore. The next best option was to carve out an administrative region with sufficient autonomy.
A tug-of-war ensued between Multan and Bahawalpur, both vying to host the new secretariat. Ultimately a compromise was reached.
The secretariat was announced with a lot of fanfare, marking a new beginning. An additional chief secretary (ACS) and an additional IG Police were posted. Sixteen departments, including the powerful finance, planning and development, home, law and services, were created, which were promised full powers. The budget for the region was ringfenced.
However, only a few months later, while the Secretariat was still in its infancy, the momentum to create an empowered south slowed down, indicating a change of heart in Lahore. A notification was issued in February 2021, delegating a long list of trivial powers to the new secretariat, which some considered an eyewash. The ACS was transferred soon after, and the post fell vacant.
By the end of March, two new notifications were issued, literally dismantling the progress made so far, clipping all powers of the newly created departments.
This reversal did not go unnoticed and created an uproar. The chief minister attributed the recent notifications to human error and withdrew them immediately.
But something good came out of this fiasco.
The issue became alive again. A cabinet committee was constituted in Punjab on April 4, 2021, under the convenorship of the finance minister, who himself hails from the south. The committee is dominated by cabinet members from the south and has been tasked to formulate the structure and powers of the new secretariat and oversee the implementation.
But what would make the new South Punjab region a close alternative to a full-fledged province? The answer is administrative decision-making close to home so that citizens don’t have to commute to Lahore; due share in resources; and improved employment prospects in public sector.
Incidentally, the cabinet committee is deliberating on all these aspects. But the devil is in the details. Delegation of maximum powers is the only way to make the new secretariat meaningful, especially for all publicinterfacing departments. The government has also deliberated on a negative list approach, where everything would be delegated, except what’s explicitly excluded. This would be a good way to circumvent the bureaucratic resistance to transfer of power.
Then comes the issue of resources. Ringfencing the budget alone is not enough. Historically, South Punjab has suffered on two counts: getting lesser budgetary allocations than what’s due and getting much less than what was promised. From 2011 to 2018, the region was allocated 28% of the development funds, against 32% population share. But what ultimately got released was a mere 17%. This robbed the region of Rs265 billion over seven years, in addition to the 4% below-population share in the annual development program (ADP). The cabinet committee is considering developing a separate ADP for the region. But what will actually make a difference is to create a nonlapsable account for the region, so that any unutilised amount can be carried over to the next year.
On employment prospects, the government is considering allocating a job quota for South Punjab which, if done appropriately, would be commendable. Other provinces have followed a similar approach for their disadvantaged regions.
The issue of South Punjab autonomy is back on the radar. The key would be not to lose sight yet again and maintain the momentum.