KARACHI: When the provincial legislature approved the local government law on October 1, a storm erupted in the Sindh Assembly, with some angry MPAs showering the floor with shredded copies of the ordinance and thunderous protests. Some experts believe that the butterfly that caused the mess had flapped its wings back in 2010 as the Parliament approved the 18th Amendment.
At the first day of the international conference on federalism at Karachi University, Prof. Muhammad Waseem from Lahore University of Management Sciences said that provincial autonomy can sometimes breathe life into some ethnic groups’ call for their own governance structures. The rationale behind the devolution of power in the sub-continent is to ensure that various ethnic groups that comprise a federation’s population can achieve their aspirations. But this can be a very messy affair, given the spatial distribution of ethnic groups does not lie neatly on provincial lines. Even though power can be devolved to provincial governments, the aspirations of distinct ethnic minorities living in them may not change. “There are many secondary communities or minority groups living in provinces. For instance, look at the Hazaras in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Seraikis in Punjab.”
Dr Waseem added that India quells separatist tendencies by splitting provinces into smaller ones. But in Pakistan, the ruling elite are afraid of doing so, thinking that such steps will lead to the disintegration of their own status.
He also said the devolution of power through the 18th Amendment had not brought any visible difference to a common citizen’s quality of life. “For instance, what about the common man’s access to justice? No significant effort has been made to reform the system and clear up cases [pending in the lower courts] – the judiciary is busy dealing with big-wigs to intervene at the levels where society acts with the state.” He said that in Pakistan, 91 per cent of the taxes are collected by the centre, eight per cent by provinces and a mere one percent by local governments, pointing to the fact that financial federalism in the country remains weak as compared to other federating countries such as the United States. “Local governments in the US raise up to 20 times the amount of revenue raised by their counterparts in Pakistan.”
Dr Lok Raj Baral, the chairperson of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies in Kathmandu, spoke about the agenda for federalism in his country and said that it took great strides forward during the Madhesi movement in the country back in 2007. He said that like Pakistan, “issues of political marginalisation and deprivation have central importance when it comes to federalism in Nepal.”
Former federal Minister Javed Jabbar, who chaired the session, said that it was easy to blame the centre for corruption and squalor prevalent in Pakistan, yet some citizens were equally culpable. He pointed out the fact that some rich people rush out to buy expensive clothing from designer companies’ latest lines, yet refuse to dig into their wallets to cough up taxes. “There are 27 million households in the country, out of which only 1.3 million pay taxes, as the rest are too poor or are evading it.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2012.