Democracy and federalism - Noreen Haider Saturday, April 16, 2011

The 18th Amendment has been declared one of the major achievements of the present government and credit has been taken by all its coalition partners. Under the amendment more and more ministries are being devolved to the provinces in order to bring about greater provincial autonomy in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution.

However, provincial autonomy is not an end in itself. The important thing to consider is whether amendments to the Constitution are taking us any closer to our strengthening of federalism in Pakistan, developing a more pluralistic society, accepting diversity of all forms and shades in the provinces and strengthening Pakistan by its federating units stronger. Perhaps the most important question would be whether the power shift from the centre to the provinces will bring about improvement in governance also.

Federalism is not just about provincial autonomy; rather it is about the equation between the centre and the federating units and between the various federating units themselves. It assumes that devolution of power and responsibilities to provinces would facilitate better and more effective systems. But we cannot consider devolution of power from the centre to the provinces an achievement in itself. There is an inherent flaw in the assumption that somehow devolution, by itself, generates better governance. Devolution can be the first step towards better governance. But contrary to popular belief, there is no cause-and-effect element to devolution, one which would automatically bring about better and more efficient governance.

Improvement in governance in any system requires strong institutions, competent government machinery, improved laws and regulations, efficient mechanisms in place and strong economic growth. The efficient running of the government depends on an equally vibrant parliament, a vigilant society aware of its fundamental and civil rights, an independent judiciary and a strong media. After more than sixty years of independence, most of these requisites are glaringly missing.

There is this much trumpeted “new and budding” democracy in Pakistan, yet the reality is abysmally different. It is important to understand the real constraints in the strengthening of federalism and democratic institutions in Pakistan, and all that it entails.

Pakistan is not a homogeneous country; in fact all its federating units are dissimilar to each other. There is not only diversity in ethnicity, habitat, climate, terrain, language, culture, dress, beliefs, traditions, mannerism, rituals and norms but there is actually a great deal of hostility and antagonism between some of the federating units stretching back in time.

There are also gaping differences in the extent of development, urbanization, industrialisation, resources, literacy, access to social services like education, and healthcare, clean drinking water, opportunities of employment, livelihood and communication. In fact, an outsider who visited Islamabad or some posh locality in Lahore and Karachi would not believe that just a few of hours’ drive from the more developed cities there are places where people have never had the luxury of electricity, plumbing, clean drinking water, a school, or a doctor. They don’t know what television is and are little aware of life outside their villages. For them time is standing still for centuries and life has little to offer. This is not talking of a forgotten small community in a jungle somewhere, but actually of millions of people in Pakistan living like this. They live in the same century as the rest of us, only existing in prehistoric times in terms of the quality of their lives.

In such a country there cannot be a single benchmark to measure human development, or progress in terms of a nation. The federating units and their districts in some ways appear to exist in different times and ages in terms of development. For a person unfamiliar with this reality of Pakistan it might be hard to believe, but for the people who have travelled well within Pakistan and are familiar with the reality of its rural and remote areas, it is just the stating of a fact.

For such a widely diverse country federalism seems to be the only logical system, which although does not provide all the solutions but has the flexibility within itself to accommodate and find solution to problems unique to each of the federating units. It also provides the opportunity to the people to be citizens of one country while retaining their individual identity with respect to their particular regions. But federalism has never actually taken roots in here because of the assumption of the ruling establishment that Pakistan is one country and should be governed through a strong centre.

To be concluded

The writer is a journalist and has extensive experience of research and monitoring in disasters. Email:

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