In a sign that efforts to roll back the autonomy of Pakistan’s provinces is snowballing into a crisis, politicians in three minority provinces in the country have criticized the recently constituted government commission tasked with dividing federal resources between Islamabad and four provinces.
Opposition politicians in the western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have joined the provincial administration in southern Sindh Province, led by the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), to criticize the formation of a new National Finance Commission (NFC) last week. This body typically has up to 10 members -- two each to represent the four provincial administrations and the federal government.
The politicians have questioned the government’s motives in nominating to the commission representatives for the provinces who are not even residents. Opposition figures in the three minority provinces fear that by handpicking the members of the body Islamabad wants to reclaim a greater financial share granted to the provinces under a previous NFC Award in 2010, which acted on a resource distribution formula outlined by the 18th Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution.
While officials have rejected such criticism, the controversy over the commission comes amid a broader struggle over the decade-old 18th Amendment. These changes in the supreme law granted greater resources and autonomy to the provinces by devolving key ministries and increasing provincial shares. The amendment also protected the country from future military coups and removed clauses from the constitution that limited democracy. During the past month, opposition politicians have resisted a government push to review the amendment.
Lawmaker Usman Kakar, who represents Balochistan in the parliament's upper house or Senate, says they will not accept the nomination of Javed Jabbar, a former federal minister, to represent their province as a ‘non-statutory’ member of the commission. Kakar says that as a resident of southern Sindh Province, Jabbar is not suitable for representing Balochistan in the national body, which is tasked with distributing financial resources between the federal government and four provincial administrations for the next five years. Their decision allocating federal resources is formally called the NFC Award.
“All [opposition] lawmakers from Balochistan, particularly our Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party supporters, will never accept Javed Jabbar’s appointment to the NFC,” he told Radio Mashaal. “All this is part of the [federal] government’s effort to increase its [financial] share at the cost of Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”
In neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, opposition politicians are likewise questioning the nomination of Musharraf Rasool Cyan. “We reject the composition of the10th NFC Award,” said Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the secular Awami National Party. “Appointing irrelevant people coming from a particular background is a violation of the constitution,” he said in a statement issued on Twitter. “Non locals cannot fight for the rights of our province.”
Cyan, a former bureaucrat who has served in the province, hails from the eastern province of Punjab, according to daily The News.
Lawmaker Shazia Atta Marri, a PPP leader from Sindh, also demanded Pakistani President Arif Alvi revoke his May 12 announcement that outlined the composition of the new NFC. “The way the new members have been appointed and the way many subjects were inserted into it makes this specific notification unconstitutional,” she told parliament on May 15. “We demand that it be revoked immediately.”
Marri pointed out that because the constitution specifically says the federal finance minister should chair the commission, authorizing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s finance and revenue adviser Abdul Hafeez Shaikh to chair the NFC meetings is a violation of the supreme law. Khan currently holds the finance portfolio.
But Jabbar and senior government officials have rejected the opposition’s criticism and defended the appointments.
“While it is also correct that I am not a resident of Balochistan, one is a citizen of Pakistan, and about 45 percent of the territorial dimension of my national identity is derived from Balochistan,” Jabbar said in a statement to the English-language daily Dawn. “I did not seek this nomination and accepted it only because of the kind insistence of the [Balochistan’s] Chief Minister.” He added that he has been involved with the underdeveloped region for 45 years as documentary filmmaker, head of various nongovernmental organizations, and a federal lawmaker and minister.
Liaqat Shahwani, a spokesman for the Balochistan provincial government, said that Balochistan’s finance minister is a member of the NFC, as are the finance ministers of other provinces. “There is nothing in the constitution that says where the other members of the commission should come from or what specific abilities and skills they require,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Shahwani said that in the past Qaisar Bengali, an eminent economist from Sindh, and Gulfaraz Ahmed, a petroleum executive and resident of Punjab, had represented Balochsitan in the NFC.
The opposition, however, is unlikely to give Islamabad a walkover on the issue. The four provinces are expected to lose a large part of the financial gains they made in the 2010 NFC Award, when the federal government surrendered a sizeable part of more than 10 percent of its share to the provinces in the overall national revenue pot called the divisible pool.
The three minority provinces had also gained a greater share because instead of the previous criteria to divide the resources on population numbers alone, the new formula included poverty rates, revenue generation, and inverse population density in addition to population numbers to distribute the divisible pool.
The new formula reduced the share of the federal government by 10 percent while Punjab, the most populous majority province, also lost some of its share. Leaders of the minority provinces hailed the new formula as a harbinger of a strong federation. But the current federal government led by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf party now opposes the distribution. Pakistan’s powerful military, too, has weighed in to oppose the 18th Amendment’s distribution of resources.
The controversy has ethnic dimensions, as well. Punjab, the most developed province, also dominates national institutions including the military. This has historically prompted leaders of minority provinces to criticize what they call domination by Punjabi political and military elites.
In the absence of a visible consensus over the NFC and the 18th Amendment, political temperatures are likely to rise in Pakistan.