Regional disparity at the national level — a wide gap in development and per capita income — and within each province of the country, has given rise to narratives of oppression and discrimination. Ethnic movements and parties are the first to use these to lay the foundations of their politics and to use it against the federation, and against the largest province, Punjab. In the emotional politics of ethnicity, no one looks at the history of the development, the natural endowment of different regions and the legacies of colonial rule.
The rationale of a nation state is to end disparities by careful planning and allocation of national and provincial resources. Not that every region of the country and regions within provinces have the same matrix of development and similar disparities that existed during colonial rule, but the fact is that we haven’t really succeeded in bringing all parts of the country at a somewhat similar level. Maybe that is too ambitious an objective; the minimum we might target is addressing poverty and economic inequality.
In restructuring the federation under the Eighteenth Amendment, we have taken the first right step — transfer of power, responsibility and resources to the provinces. Each province is a new centre of power. If power and resources are not devolved further to the regions and districts, the new centres are likely to ignite ethnic identities that have historical roots and that may also transform into demands for new provinces. Punjab is more vulnerable to division than the other provinces. The Seraiki linguistic identity and the history of the two states of Multan and Bahawalpur run deep into the political mind of ordinary people in southern Punjab. In recent decades, the ethnic groups within these regions have developed a political narrative of neglect and discrimination that is supported by facts relating to uneven development among the various geographic regions of Punjab. There is still time to do some path correction in southern Punjab to avert the politicisation of linguistic and ethnic identities. The PML-N cannot take its victory as a defeat of the Seraiki sentiment — that will be a big mistake. Rather, this victory provides yet another opportunity to look into the growing Seraiki alienation from Punjab.
It is true that in recent years, the development allocations for the southern regions represent population size of the districts, but then, there are other factors like landlessness, poverty, a low literacy rate and an oppressive feudal system that require a more thoughtful intervention to create social and economic space for the marginalised.
Even the bigger allocation of resources for development may end up in private pockets without proper accountability and transparency. The problem is that political and social power is in the hands of tribal and feudal families, supported by the federation and the provincial power structure. The levers of justice, governance, law and order and equity in development have thus left a strong imprint of partisan politics that only works in the interest of patronage politics.
For these reasons, southern Punjab is witnessing a climate of controlled anarchy in vital public and social spheres. For years, we have seen kidnapping gangs, breakdown of the legal regime of canal water distribution, ghost schools, corruption in infrastructure projects and religious extremism on the rise — the effects of long years of neglect.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2013.
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