Provincial autonomy

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On Wednesday, the first step was taken towards the extension of provincial autonomy by devolving five ministries to the provinces. This was in accordance with the letter and spirit of the 1973 Constitution which over the years had been beaten out of shape by successive military rulers who strongly believed in a strong centre and introduced constitutional amendments which deprived the basic law of its federal spirit. The exercise conducted by Musharraf in the name of devolution had transferred no powers to the provinces from the centre. As was pointed out by critics it had in fact extended the grip of the centre down to the District Governments and even below to the level of Union Councils.

Devolution is a necessary step towards a responsive political system. It gives people in various provinces a sense of ownership of vital decisions affecting their everyday lives. One hopes the provincial governments will now move towards empowering the districts and administrative structures lower down to allow maximum number of people to enjoy the benefits and share the responsibilities of a federal polity. There is a lot of work yet to be done at the level of the Implementation Commission to provide the constitution a genuinely federal character. The 18th amendment envisages full provincial autonomy though it still remains to be decided how many ministries are to be devolved by June 2011. We are only told that the next phase will be completed by the first week of February 2011 and, if needed, another set of ministries will be devolved by the cut-off date.

While still of paramount importance, devolution of some of the ministries from the federation to the provinces alone does not end the task of restoring full provincial autonomy. The thorny question of the propriety rights over the natural resources of province is yet to be satisfactorily addressed. What is crucial is for the federation to take all the provinces along while deciding matters that in any way affect the federal units. For this, politicians have to evolve a broader mindset that prefers sharing of powers to monopolising of powers.