NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 17

Absence of LG institutions in ex-FATA in COVID-19 times

The situation created by the gradual spread of the coronavirus in the country and the unpreparedness of state agencies to cope with it has once again reminded the need of the presence of local government institutions which could be better equipped to handle the situation.

While in the rest of Pakistan the absence of local government institutions has multiplied the miseries of the people, the hitherto non-existent of the structures in the merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), has taken its toll on the residents of the region and may inflict huge damage to public health in coming weeks.

The coronavirus is spreading like a silent killer in the world and Pakistan is no exception unless some miracle happens soon. Around the world the lesson which the spread of the coronavirus has taught us is that national, state, provincial and local governments which were better equipped and prepared to deal with the contagion, the infection rate and deaths remain lower than places where the authorities were not as prepared or have been caught napping, which resulted in a disastrous situation. The situation is no different in Pakistan. The Sindh government took several measures and it was the first to impose lockdown and the situation remained quite promising to control the contagion. Although other provinces, like the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), first shied from lockdown, yet they soon realised its importance in the prevailing situation. However, apart from taking measures, it is significant to know that to what an extent these measures could be effective which largely depend upon their enforceability, which in turn, rest upon the availability of the structure and apparatus and its nature. Insofar as the merged districts of former FATA of KP are concerned, there is no proper state apparatus or mechanism in place as the region has been an administrative transition after its merger in May 2018. None of government administrative departments, whether the police or general administration, has been fully active in the region, resulting in massive issues and conflicts. More importantly, the long promised and overdue local government institutions to be established in the region are yet to see the light of the day. This is despite the fact that keeping in view the nature and remoteness of the former FATA region, the foremost step for the state was to establish local government structures there, which never existed there despite their critical need. However, despite the passage of nearly two years, local government institutions are still to be set up in the merged districts. Unfortunately, more than capacity issues, it has been the lack of will and vested interests of individuals in federal and KP governments that have prevented local government institutions from coming into existence in ex FATA.

In the first place, the region should not have been merged into KP. But whatever happened is now history and, therefore, the tribal belt would somehow to be subsumed into KP but there are numerous challenges to it. It is evident from the fact that the government, when realized the problems in integration and resultant vacuum, which emerged after FATA’s merger and with it the discontinuation of all regulations in vogue in the region and impediments to enforcing laws of KP in the former FATA, it enacted the FATA Interim Regulatory Framework. The interim arrangement has replaced the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).

Today, a far more important question regarding the merged districts of KP is not their integration but putting in place normal and self-sustaining governing structures there. In this regard, the most important step is the holding of local government elections in the region. The elections in the region were promised by the previous PML-N government to be held by October 2018. Afterwards, it was said that the elections would be held after provincial assembly elections on 17 seats. But despite the elections took place months back, there is no local government election. As the elections could not take place, it has raised doubts about the government’s seriousness about the issue.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has some time back desired to come up with a uniform local government system in the country. Moreover, he has also directed to the quarters concerned that local government elections in KP and former FATA should be held at once. While PM Khan desires to install a uniform local government system in entire Pakistan, it may require constitutional changes as presently every province is empowered to have a local government system of its choice. However, making constitutional amendments to bring a uniform LG system is not possible for the weak federal government. Against this backdrop, holding municipal elections in the region in the immediate future is not possible while it direly needs them. Therefore, the PTI government and PM Khan have to come up with a prompt solution as former FATA exigently needs local government councils perhaps more direly than any other area of Pakistan. There are various reasons for it.

So-called national and international Jihadist organizations and individuals find an extremely conducive environment in former FATA to make the region their base for regional insurgency and international terrorism in the name of Islam. All these negative developments in ex-FATA have their roots in the long-existing political and legal vacuum in the areas, specifically due to the absence of local government structures. The long existing political and legal vacuum in former FATA was also among other factors due to the non-existence of any form of self-governing local government institutions there. Due to which the establishment of the state write in the region remains a huge challenge while the areas could not at all be developed when the provision of fundamental needs of the people were not ensured.

As profound social, political and economic changes have occurred over decades, particularly in the 21st century, the legal and administrative structure of former FATA, which has its roots in colonial times, could not respond to the complex problems and needs of the growing population. It slowly and gradually made the existing administrative apparatus redundant, which eroded whatever little state writ had been left in the tribal region. Every kind of negative trend pervaded and thrived in the region as local, national and international terrorist and militant groups took full advantage of the situation and cultivated their bases in the region. Criminal gangs, like kidnappers and extortionists, also used the territory for their activities. There is little, if any, realization within Pakistan’s policymaking institutions for formulating a new administrative system for the region. Even there was no serious effort to introduce a local government or municipal councils system in ex-FATA to provide a rudimentary modern system of administration.

Thus, establishing the LG system is the cry of the time to restore order, peace and then sustain the structures in ex-FATA and now, above all, to prevent contagious diseases like COVID-19.