In-Depth On The Cover

Centre of controversy

Published Mar 23, 2015 05:45pm

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Centre of Controversy [credits: Sabir Nazar]
Centre of Controversy [credits: Sabir Nazar]

When Saira Afzal Tarar took oath as state minister for National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination early last month, she had the twin distinctions of being one of the only two female members of the new federal cabinet and becoming the head of a ministry which, according to the 18th constitutional amendment, should not even have existed. The portfolio of her cabinet colleague Baleeghur Rehman, the state minister for Education, Training and Standards in Higher Education, is even more in conflict with the amendment. It does not mask its name behind bureaucratic inanities such as regulation and coordination. It simply ignores the fact that education is now an exclusively provincial subject.

There is, however, a difference between the two ministries. Tarar’s department is of recent origin. It was created during the caretaker government of Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso through an official decree. “Within 40 days of the dissolution of the PPP government, the bureaucracy convinced the caretaker government to create the federal health ministry,” says Zafarullah Khan, who heads the Center for Civic Education, a non-partisan research organisation based in Islamabad. Rehman’s department, on the other hand, is a renamed version of the ministry of Professional and Technical Training that the government of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had created after the original federal education ministry was abolished as a result of the 18th amendment. The ministry’s website claims that the renaming happened on June 7, 2013 – the same day that the new federal cabinet was sworn in – as a result of a Supreme Court decision delivered on November 25, 2011 which said that “the federal government cannot absolve itself from the responsibility of providing education to its citizens.” The website also claims that the renaming was endorsed by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) on November 8, 2012. The official handout issued after the CCI’s November 2012 meeting, however, says that the renaming of the ministry was deferred until the next meeting. However, in the next meeting, held in January 2013, the issue was not even taken up.

Raza Rabbani, a PPP senator, who is seen as the architect of the 18th amendment, says the CCI had, in fact, ruled on a complaint by the chief ministers of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that the new ministry was against the 18th amendment. The CCI – the highest conflict-resolution body on disputes between the provinces and the centre – flagged the issue in its November 2011 meeting and declared that the federal government had done something unconstitutional by creating the ministry of Professional and Technical Training, he says. The council saw the ministry as a de facto education ministry, revived under a different name.

The new education minister has also made clear his intentions to set up a committee that looks into school curriculum. “We have decided to establish the National Curriculum Council to introduce a syllabus with a minimum standard for all provinces,” he said at a seminar in Islamabad on June 20. Rabbani sees this announcement as federal encroachment on a subject that, under the 18th amendment, is the exclusive domain of the provinces. The amendment clearly makes provincial governments the sole authority in the development of curriculum for primary and secondary education in their respective provinces, he tells the Herald.

According to Zafarullah Khan, the pressure to retain health and education ministries at the centre, or at least parts thereof, came from international donors and foreign governments who find it inconvenient to deal with four provincial governments instead of one central government and whose officials do not want to visit provincial capitals such as Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta due to security fears. He explains how the PPP government, as a result of requests by donors and foreign partners, restarted national level projects such as the Expanded Programme of Immunisation, and those against diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS through an executive decree after having devolved the health department to the provinces. The federal government, according to him, said in the Senate that the programmes were resumed at the federal level to “ensure the continuity of presently approved grants and to ensure the securing of funds in [the] future”. He also claims that, on at least one occasion, affiliate bodies of the World Health Organization (WHO) told the federal government that “funds for [the] immunisation campaign will be given to the federal government and not to [the] provinces.”

Similarly, when former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, visited Pakistan in November 2012 as the United Nations Special Envoy for Education, he complained to the government of Pakistan that there was no authority in the federal government which the United Nations could deal with regarding education. In a public speech in Islamabad, he noted that there were only two countries in the world where there was no national-level education minister: Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. Rabbani also confirms to the Herald that he came under tremendous pressure from international donors during the drafting of the 18th amendment, because they did not want education and health devolved to provincial governments.

Rabbani, however, sees federal bureaucracy as the biggest stumbling block in the way of complete decentralisation of power under the 18th amendment. “I can tell you many instances when President Asif Ali Zardari and [former] Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani personally called senior bureaucrats and told them to expedite the implementation process but they still didn’t,” he tells the Herald. How the federal bureaucracy can thwart decentralisation is best illustrated in its refusal to hand over the collection of general sales tax revenue on services to provinces in spite of clear instructions from the prime minister.

According to Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah, bureaucrats in Islamabad presented documents to President Zardari pertaining to the 7th National Finance Commission in 2010 with no mention of the general sales tax having been handed over to the provinces. “We spotted the omission at the last moment and raised a lot of hue and cry to stop the documents from being signed. Otherwise, those flawed documents would have become law,” he told the Sindh Assembly on June 28 during a debate on the provincial budget.

But that was a job only half done. Rabbani and the Sindh government had to once again protest vociferously against the bureaucracy’s failure to notify the collection of that tax as a provincial subject. Only after a slew of such protests did President Zardari personally intervene and force the bureaucracy to do the needful.

This, however, was not the only problem faced by the implementation of the 18th amendment during the last government. The PPP administration created seven new ministries simultaneously with the implementation of the 18th amendment “to reassemble the federally retained subjects”. These included the ministry of climate change, the ministry of human resource development, the ministry of national food security and research, the ministry of national harmony, the ministry of national heritage and integration, the ministry of national regulations and services, and the ministry of professional and technical training. Read carefully, each name reveals that it pertains to a subject – environment, education, health, agriculture, minorities’ affairs, culture etc – that has been handed over to the provinces under the 18th amendment.

Zafarullah Khan says the creation of these ministries diluted the spirit of devolution and created fears of a rollback, which persist to this day. He points out, however, that such violations of the 18th amendment have not gone unnoticed. “In the middle of 2012, senators from different political parties got together and asked the Senate chairman to form a committee to review the implementation of the amendment. In several meetings of this committee, senators from all four provinces have questioned the need for the new ministries,” says Zafarullah Khan, though they have so far failed to submit their final report on the issue.

Former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf meets chief ministers from Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in November 2012, at the 10th meeting of the Council of Common Interests
Former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf meets chief ministers from Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in November 2012, at the 10th meeting of the Council of Common Interests

Rabbani says opposition to the implementation of the 18th amendment stems from a mindset that can be found not just among bureaucrats but also among parliamentarians, including those belonging to his own party. “[People with] this mindset didn’t accept devolution. This mindset cuts across party lines and bureaucracy,” he says. The fact that representatives of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) in the parliamentary committee that drafted the 18th amendment wrote several notes of dissent on subjects such as education and curriculum development as well as on the renaming of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa may mean that the anti-decentralisation mindset may be the strongest in the current ruling party. The coming into power of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has added to such feelings as the party did not even so much as mention the decentralisation of power and the 18th amendment in its election manifesto.

These apprehensions overshadow the celebration of a historic day – July 1 – which since 2011 has become Pakistan’s national day for provincial autonomy. (The amalgamation ofof Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan into one unit called West Pakistan came to an end on July 1, 1970; several federal ministries were also abolished on July 1, 2011 under the 18th amendment.) Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan Abbasi, a senior PMLN leader who was also a member of the parliamentary committee that drafted the 18th amendment, insists that this impression, that his party’s commitment to the implementation of the amendment is not the same as that of the previous government, “is artificial and created by vested interests”.

Abbasi, who served as the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the 1990s and is now the opposition leader in the same province, says that the PMLN is a “signatory to the 18th amendment” and there is “no possibility of reversal” as far as the process of decentralisation is concerned. “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made it clear that we will work together with all the provincial governments [on the issue].” Similarly, Hamid Khan, a senior PTI leader and a known constitutional expert, says his party has no problem with decentralisation. “We will support the process of implementation of devolution within the constitutional framework in a constructive way,” he says.

But these announcements do not allay fears created by the setting up of federal education and health ministries, especially since no political party has so far raised a voice against their existence. Such indifference at the political level may help international donors, federal bureaucracy and powerful elements within political parties – who see the decentralisation of power either as a problem or as an issue which does not require much attention – in trying to roll back or at least stall the unfinished agenda of the 18th amendment.

Zafarullah Khan, though, argues that there are ways available to avoid such a possibility. “Every provincial government has its own buildings in the federal capital, part of which should become their respective coordination secretariats in Islamabad. This will help donors in interacting with provincial governments without having to visit provincial headquarters,” he says. “Civil servants oppose decentralisation because the grades they get in Islamabad are not available in the provinces. Through a reform of bureaucracy, not only should such grades be made available in the provinces but the training of bureaucrats should focus on internalising in them the need to follow the law of the land rather than their vested interests,” Khan adds. “And, finally, the political class should internalise and accept that decentralisation is here to stay. They must start an internal dialogue over it and strengthen institutions such as the CCI which oversee its implementation.”