What if Punjab Is Too Large?
By Dr Manzur Ejaz
Washington , DC
The argument given for the creation of a separate Saraiki province has no validity if we examine the past experience within Indo-Pak or in the rest of the world. However, if the Saraiki province is being created on the basis of linguistic differentiation and presumed cultural differences, then it should be recognized as a principle and implemented in the rest of the country as well. As a matter of fact, it would be followed by the creation of other provinces on a linguistic basis. Even some political parties like the MQM are hiding their ultimate agenda to set a precedent to the follow-up.
The major argument in favor of breaking up Punjab into smaller provinces is that the province is too large as it currently exists. California, Texas, Florida and New York states have 37, 25, 19, 18 million people respectively, while there are eight US states that have less than one million, and North Dakota and Vermont have populations of around half a million. But does this mean that South Dakota is being run more efficiently than even New York City, a part of the New York state? Most of the smaller southern states are poor, badly managed and serve as the hub of extreme conservatism because a tiny elite have unlimited influence over smaller populations.
This is also true within Pakistan. Whatever is being heard from professionals working in international agencies is that Punjab, since Nawaz Sharif’s days, is a better managed province. Along with the Sharif brothers, people give a lot of credit to Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi for running an efficient administration in Punjab. On the contrary, smaller provinces, without naming names, are extreme examples of poor governance. Therefore, the rationale that a bigger province should be broken into smaller ones based on efficiency is false and baseless.
In the last couple of decades, many tehsils (sub-districts) have been upgraded to break up large districts. For example, Sahiwal was divided, adding two new districts, Okara and Pakpattan. The question is: has management improved or just resulted in additional administrative layers and tripling administrative costs? Other than the local, landed aristocracy and bureaucracy, who has benefited by such moves? Has any cost-benefit study been conducted on this change? I do not think so.
To support the case for creating a new province, Afghanistan’s example is often quoted. Have the Afghan provinces ever been governed — even before the 1970s — better than Pakistani Punjab or even other Pakistani provinces, which are much larger than their counterparts in the northern neighbor? Malaysia is another country quoted more often. Again, were these provinces being run better and, furthermore, what is the concept of ‘province’ in Afghanistan or Malaysia? I think we are comparing oranges and apples because Afghan provinces are like our districts with a different setup. In India and Pakistan, provinces have legislative assemblies, chief ministers, governors and an army of provincial cabinet ministers. Therefore, creating new provinces multiplies the number of bureaucrats, administrative staff and hence the recurrent costs.
Big size is also blamed for Punjab’s influence in Pakistan through the political setup and domination of the military. Presently, the PPP is ruling the federation having won seats in smaller, as well as the largest province. At the moment, the highest political posts in the Centre are held by politicians from Sindh and the would-be Saraiki area. Even the governor of Punjab belongs to the Saraiki area. Furthermore, Punjabi politicians are very diverse and have never been in one party to influence the Center in one direction. Therefore, the notion of size being the basis of Punjabi influence is false. However, if the central Punjab has the largest chunk of population, then that cannot be changed even after creating the Saraiki province.
As far as Punjabi influence through the military is concerned, that should have been thought out by the wizards who created Pakistan because most of the Muslim military comprised Punjabis before 1947. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the military comes from five or six districts of northern Punjab and that is not going to change even after the Saraiki province is created. If these districts are put into another province, namely Pothohar, then it will be renamed as the Pothohari army. Furthermore, the ratio of army men from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is massively understated.
While arguments of size and efficiency hold no grounds, the linguistic and cultural differentiation is the only remaining valid reason for creating a Saraiki province. As a principle, every enlightened person supports nationality rights without any ifs and buts. However, it is almost certain that instead of Saraiki, Urdu will be the official language of the new province: the sajjada nashins (guardians of shrines) of Multan are not known to be fond of the people’s languages for the last ten centuries. If that is going to be the case, then the linguistic pretext is irrelevant as well. Ethnic differentiation is also a doubtful denominator because the people of ex-Bahawalpur state, even Saraiki speaking, want their state to be recognized as a separate province. Nawab Salahuddin, heir to the state, has negated the ethnic basis by declaring that migrants, settlers and indigenous people are equal and united.
If the PPP is trying to contain Nawaz Sharif’s influence, then it is an extremely unwise step. Such decisions that have long-term effects should not be taken to get rid of temporary difficulties. The role of the middle classes of Punjab has been crucial in the present Pakistan’s democratic movements. It is this area where persons from Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to Mukhtaran Mai find supporters. The fear is that the oppressed people of the feudal belt of Punjab will lose their supporters like Pakistan did when East Pakistan broke away; Pakistanis lost the best vanguard of democratic rights. Nevertheless, we wish good luck to the Saraiki people if they think the Saraiki province would fulfill their desire of nationality rights even if it is transformed into a feudal fiefdom.