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EDITORIAL: The long pending issue of South Punjab province reverberated once again in the upper house of Parliament on Monday when a private member’s bill was moved, interestingly, by a PML-N Senator, Rana Mahmood Hassan. As expected, the two other major parties, the PTI and the PPP, supported the move which is in accord with their respective manifestoes. Due to compelling political considerations, though, for the time being the ruling PTI has set up a civil secretariat in Multan in lieu of a province. The party’s Vice President and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the passage of the bill would not only fulfil the desire of that region’s people but would also strengthen the federation. Reiterating his party’s support for a new province in Punjab, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reminded the House that during its rule his party, the PPP, had managed to get a similar bill passed by the Senate.

However, in line with his party’s dithering on the issue, a prominent member of the PML-N, Mushahid Hussain, opposed the bill arguing that creation of a new province would open up a Pandora’s box, which the federation could not afford at the moment. It will not stop here, he added. The reasoning does not hold much water considering that our next door neighbour India has made a three-fold increase in the number of its federating units, including division of its side of Punjab to form two new states without causing any problem for the Union. Besides, unlike other such demands, the one for a province comprising the Seraiki belt goes a long time back, and is based on genuine grievances, such as that it remains the most underdeveloped part of Punjab; much of the development budget is spent in central Punjab, especially in the provincial capital of Lahore; and people have to travel long distances for the resolution of issues big and small in Lahore. Also, the other provinces do not like to see Punjab claiming a large portion of the national resources on the basis of its population, which is more than all three of them put together. Carving out a new province from Punjab therefore could strengthen rather than weaken the federation.

Although the PML-N has been giving lukewarm acceptance to the proposal as long as it is based on administrative ease, and neither on linguistic nor ethnic grounds, it has its reasons not to lend the idea whole-hearted support. One is concern about losing a considerable part of the National Finance Commission Award to the prospective new province. The other is about water rights. At present, most of Punjab’s share of the irrigation water it gets under the Water Accord is used in its southern region. That may not be acceptable to Lahore if and when that part of it goes its own way. Then there are all sorts of vested interests benefiting from the present order of things. Nonetheless, all such knotty problems can be settled provided political will is there to move forward. But before that any bill for the creation of South Punjab province needs to be passed with a two-thirds majority since the Constitution has no provision for new provinces. It seems achievable now that the PTI and PPP have strongly reaffirmed their commitment to the cause. And willy-nilly the PML-N might also join in to avoid backlash in that disaffected region at election time. The prospects for South Punjab province look more brighter than ever before.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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