A Broken Promise

Despite being a well-intentioned decision, the merger is being implemen-ted half-heartedly, with insufficient investment, planning, and follow-up.

The 25th Pakistani constitutional amendment corrected a historical governance anachronism and brought the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region into the political and legal mainstream. Importantly, it repealed the draconian Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR), which can be characterized as a win for all. With the merger of the ex-FATA region into the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the 5.5 million residents of the tribal districts now have the same constitutional rights as any other citizen of Pakistan.

Over the years, not only has the per capita expenditure in the ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region, now referred to as the Merged Districts (MDs) witnessed a significant decline, they have witnessed a national de-prioritization. For the residents, this decline translates to unmet basic needs and a widening gap between their expectations and reality, eroding the trust quotient. This financial shortfall has a direct impact on the region’s development. The discrepancy between promises and actual disbursements signals a lack of commitment, contributing to a perception of neglect and marginalization.

When the merger took place, the Tribal Decade Strategy was launched for catalyzing development in the tribal districts with a proposed investment portfolio of Rs 1.325 trillion, based on a robust commitment by the federal government, amounting to Rs 1 trillion (Rs 100 billion annually), to be spent in over a decade. The additional requirement of Rs 325 billion was expected to be met through grants from international donors, contributions from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government, and other sources.

At the time of FATA’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federal Cabinet decided (case No 51/102/2017 dated March 2, 2017) that the National Finance Commission would allocate 3 percent of the gross federal divisible pool annually for the FATA Development Plan, allowing a monetary transfer that would create symmetry in the sharing of per capita allotments to ensure equitable human development and economic growth. Although the issue has been on the NFC agenda, and sub-groups were constituted by both the 9th and 10th NFC to deliberate on the development needs of the former FATA, the federal government has yet to disburse this 3 percent share. Despite facing deprivation levels like Balochistan, the MDs receive less than half the funds per capita, highlighting the urgent need for equitable financial distribution.

From the fiscal years 2019-20 to 2023-24, the total disbursed funds under the Accelerated Implementation Programme (AIP I & II) and the Annual Development Program (ADP) amounted to only Rs 176 billion. This significantly lags the anticipated release of Rs 500 billion for the five-year period and falls below the federal government’s allocation of Rs 286 billion.

Despite being a well-intentioned decision, the merger is being implemented half-heartedly, with insufficient investment, planning, and follow-up. Fiscal instruments required for successful integration were lacking, leading to a missed opportunity for substantial reform. The development lag coupled with a precarious security situation, and concerns about the resurgence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) add another layer of complexity to the region’s challenges, causing residents to migrate to urban centers in search of better employment opportunities and security.

For a long time, development in the tribal districts has been guided under the paradigm of security-oriented development, creating dips and highs. With shifting global priorities, the interest in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region has waned, but that must not be overly determinative. Bringing progress and growth to a region that has witnessed a historic development lag ought not to be tied solely to global interests. Similarly, unrealistic commitments ought not to be made, that just cannot be met.

The lags in development funds and an abrupt transition to a new governance system without a functioning replacement have fueled frustration amongst the MD citizens. At the core of any tribal society is their ethos and values that they hold sacred. The spirit of Pashtunwali lies in honoring one’s word and promise, which, in the instance of the merger, has unfortunately not been the case. The federal government, as perceived by the residents, have not upheld their end of the bargain. The edifice of citizen’s trust can only be built by honoring commitments, and by empowering the residents themselves. It demands a genuine commitment to the region’s socio-economic upliftment, rooted in transparency, accountability, and active involvement of the local communities. Only through these concerted efforts can the vision of prosperous, integrated Merged Districts be realized, transforming promises into tangible realities for the people who have long waited for their rightful share of development and stability.

Marium Zaafir Khan
The writer is a development sector professional from Azad Jammu & Kashmir.

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