More subas? — II

Whether we like it or not, people are comfortable when they are among those who speak the same language, ethnic stock.

Ejaz Haider August 15, 2011

In this digital age, when even the semi- and illiterate in traditional societies are using cell phones and utilising impersonal services for messaging and banking etcetera, for most other functions of their lives they prefer proximity to the exercise of impersonal institutions, even those that might work efficiently. Proximity is about accessibility.

Even in matters religious, communities had, and some still do, their local deities and pirs. When people talk about the early caliphs and how they tended to the needs of the ruled personally, they are not just expressing a devotional sentiment but also the desire to have access to the person(s) who can address their concerns and take care of their lives’ basic needs.

Those were city states, of course. But the desire of the people for proximity remains strong despite the big cities and the vast stretches of a state which is terribly layered and complex and begets Auden’s ‘unknown citizen’.

This is a simple construct but it identifies the innate longing of man for tactility rather than dealing with faceless voices or voice prompts or even officials we don’t know.

But there is a point where digital modernity, the layered impersonality, converges with man’s basic desire for proximity. This is the paradox of complexity. Complexity requires decentralisation and delegation. Basic needs cannot be addressed, on daily basis, from the very top. Hence tiers of government, local government being the tier addressing the grassroots.

In any discussion of more provinces, the issue of local government cannot be ignored. There can be two ways of looking at it. If, in theory, we were to continue with the present provincial boundaries, we must have very efficient local government systems to address the need for proximity on the one hand and the speedy delivery of social justice on the other. Such local government structures must also be largely self-contained and sufficient. Former General-President Pervez Musharraf’s system, while sound in intention, failed on this count when the provinces began to interfere in the local government structures, rendering them ineffective, if not entirely inefficient.

The argument for retaining the current provincial boundaries and making the local government more efficient and responsive to the needs of the people can also be backed by the survey Ayesha Siddiqa did vis-à-vis Bahawalpur as a province separate from the Seraiki suba.

The other argument, incidentally grounded in the previous one and drawing from empirical evidence based on the Musharraf experiment, could be to have smaller provinces because that is the only way to make the provinces more responsive to the needs of the local government and allowing the latter the autonomy required for better performance. In other words, if the centre, the locus of power, is too far removed from local government, its (centre’s) approach to multiple local governments under it would be uneven.

So, what should be the formula? The demand on the ground is based on ethnicity. The PML-N doesn’t like the concept; it wants more provinces, if at all, based on the administrative benchmark. The problem is, whether we like it or not, people are most comfortable when they are among their own — those who speak the same language, come from the same ethnic stock, and, in most cases, practice the same beliefs.

In the past, Pakistan has seen many exercises in centralisation. The attempt has been to forge a national identity by suppressing other, parochial identities. Empirical evidence suggests that far from being successful, all such exercises have ended up fracturing this society and state rather than aggregating the various parts. It may not be a bad idea to let the people take pride in their basic identities in order for them to happily merge those multiple identities into the higher Pakistani identity.

The important point, however, is that regardless of what benchmark we might use, creating more provinces is a serious exercise and cannot be reduced to scoring political brownie points. We are already going through the post-18th Amendment devolution exercise and implementation is proceeding very slowly. More provinces would require discussions on sharing of water and other resources; sharing of assets and liabilities; the NFC award will have to be opened up again; there will be debates (political) on boundary delimitations etcetera. The provinces will have to balance the requirement of being smaller with the need to be financially viable. Each of these issues could become a political nightmare.

Given this, any debate on the provinces must first begin at a forum of all political parties. This is where Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion of a national commission makes eminent sense (forget the political slant in the PML-N arguments). This commission could study India’s experience and it should have the mandate to work out all the details and arrive at a consensus before its findings/suggestions are subjected to the procedure given in the constitution.

Until then, let’s avoid the current ping-pong.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2011.

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