In a rare show of unity, treasury and opposition members in the National Assembly approved the 26th Constitution Amendment Bill to increase in the number of seats for the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the National Assembly and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.
With the passage of the bill, people of the tribal areas will be represented in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly for the first time since their merger with the province through the 25th Constitutional Amendment Bill passed on May 31, 2018, which was the last day of the PML-N government. The bill increases the number of National Assembly seats for tribal areas’ representatives from six to 12, and the KP assembly seats from 16 to 24.
It is the first Constitutional amendment approved by the present assembly that came into existence in August after general elections in July last year. Not a single vote was cast against the bill, while all the 282 members present in the house of 342 voted in favour of it. Through an amendment, the time set for the elections was extended from one year to one-and-a-half years, because the increasing number of seats would require delimitation of constituencies. The House also requested the provinces not to oppose slashing down of their 3pc share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, so that the money could be spent for the provision of health, education, services and infrastructure in the war-torn tribal areas. The government has decided to provide Rs100 billion to the people of the tribal areas for 10 years to stimulate development. Of Rs100 billion, a sum of Rs30 billion will be given to the elected representatives under the local government system so that they could spend funds at village level.
It was also a rare occasion because Prime Minister Imran Khan also attended the session. He expressed his appreciation over the consensus among all parties on recommendations for the bill. Acknowledging the provinces’ fears about the proposed distribution of 3pc of the National Finance Commission Award for provinces to the erstwhile FATA, the prime minister said: “The economic situation is bad and their provinces’ funds are not at the level that they should be, but I think sharing funds with ex-FATA is necessary because the kind of destruction caused in the region ─ due to the war against terrorism, the damage done there ─ KP could never cover that damage from its own development fund.”
Recalling the separation of East Pakistan, he said a sense of deprivation among the people led to the tragedy. “All of Pakistan should learn a lesson from it. No one should feel that Pakistan does not own them, that they do not have a stake in Pakistan,” he asserted. “This sense of deprivation is dangerous as it can be exploited by Pakistan’s enemies and it is being exploited,” he cautioned. “Development should always be inclusive. Areas that are left behind should also be brought up,” he stated.
In the same session, a Constitution Amendment Bill seeking the creation of a South Punjab province was also presented, but it met a different fate. The bill, presented by a treasury member, was supported by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) members stood on their seats to register their opposition to the bill.
The passage of the 26th Constitution Amendment Bill is the first time the government and the opposition did not play politics on a national issue. It is a fact that people of the tribal areas have suffered the most in the country. Even after Independence, they were governed through the draconian Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR), enacted in 1901 to protect the interests of the British Empire. It also speaks about the apathy of the successive governments towards their own people. Bearing the brunt of war over the last four decades, first in the shape of Afghan Jihad and then the war on terror, the people of the areas remained mired in backwardness and were left to struggle for their basic rights as well as identity as equal citizens of the country.
The development is a step in the right direction, and a continuation of the move towards a unified system of governance and justice as well as the allocation of equitable resources to a part of the country which has been neglected and treated unfairly for decades. Experts say the merger of the two administrative units and the mainstreaming of the tribal regions would remain only a superficial notion until more structural changes are brought to the government system. The amendment gives the tribal areas the representation they deserved, on the basis of their size and importance, lending much-needed strength to their voice in the halls of power. The government has acknowledged that more funds are needed to rebuild and fully integrate the region while the National Assembly unanimously resolved a greater chunk of the development budget for the areas. It indicates that the process of mainstreaming can truly begin.
By passing the landmark amendment, the legislators across the divide have rekindled hope among the people of Pakistan to resolve their issues. In the same spirit, they should also join hands to resolve all national issues. The government should also put all economic and social issues before the parliament and seek the opinion of legislators of all parties. It will pave the way for a solution to public issues instead of empty rhetoric in the parliament and outside.