There is a Latin saying: “When you bargain with a fox, beware of tricks.” When it comes to playing vulpine gimmicks and pulling off political stunts, no one does it better than Mr Asif Ali Zardari.  Nobody has better understood, the alpha and omega of Pakistani politics, and none excels at it like him. Five years into office, whatever comes out of the presidency, is usually a red herring, aimed at improving the ruling party’s political prospects by beguiling public and confounding adversaries.

To improve stumbling popularity, and check Muslim League’s (N) rising star, the PPP’s leadership is acting out another act, and this time, the footlights are on south Punjab, and the slogan is of the new province of Bahawalpur Janoobi Punjab (BJP). Though the problems of south Punjab are immense and sense of deprivation running deep, the formation of a new province would hardly change a region, paralysed by feudalism, and low levels of urbanisation.  

No doubt that southern Punjab has long been neglected.  Anyone, undertaking a sojourn there, can witness the extent of underdevelopment in terms of infrastructure and human resource. Apart from few urban centres, the region is primarily agrarian, with feudalism riding roughshod. The Institute of Public Policy’s (IPP) report, “The State of Economy: The Punjab Story”, describes the dilemmas of south Punjab, claiming that the incidence of poverty in the region is around 43 percent, much higher than 27 percent poverty rate of the whole province, with the poorest living in southern Punjab.

To some degree, the population increase and regional disparity merits the creation of a new province. But administrative and financial efficiency cannot be achieved as long as those at the helm of affairs are engrossed with feudal mindset, and are the cause of the region’s many travails.  The scions of biggest feudal dynasties have held highest offices in the state, yet the region is amongst the poorest in Punjab.

The problem with feudalism is that it leads to the concentration of land and capital in few hands, monopolising opportunities and rigging the system in favour of the privileged few, who eclipse local socio-economic and political landscape. As twice Pulitzer winner, and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, said: “For those who haven’t been to Pakistan, you should know that in remote areas you periodically run into vast estates, in which the landowner runs the town, perhaps operates a private prison, and sometimes enslaves local people through debt bondage, generation after generation. This feudal elite has migrated into politics, where it exerts huge influence.”

So, the new province will be dominated by the feudal class, and in the absence of urban and commercial sections of society, nothing much will happen for the ordinary people of south Punjab.

The second impediment in the path proposed for a new province is fiscal viability. The region has a strong agricultural sector that makes it economically viable, especially in terms of food security. But fiscally, the region is still struggling, as the IPP report states: “South Punjab appears to be economically viable as a separate province, especially in terms of basic food security. However, in fiscal terms, the share in provincial tax revenues is likely to be low, unless agricultural incomes are tapped. But the political economy for this may not be favourable in the presence of a powerful lobby of landlords in this area.”

To discourage feudalism and foster urbanisation, development of the region should be prioritised. Benchmarks should be fixed, in terms of infrastructure building, expansion of tax network, and augmentation of commercial and educational activity. The region suffers from decrepit road network, underdeveloped markets, anaemic tax collection mechanism, widespread illiteracy, and dearth of skilled labour.

The tax net should be enhanced, filling the loopholes, misused by large landholders and middlemen to evade tax. Swaths of agricultural transactions, done on plain paper, should be brought on the book. Industrial zones should be developed,  encouraging SMEDA to expand its activities in the region.

The provision of standardised education can ensure the availability of good human resource. These measures will weaken the iron grip of feudalism, begetting a modern urban middle class, which is the backbone of every modern society and economy.

Just by carving out a province in southern Punjab will not magically take away its problems. Those who are clamouring for it, at the moment, are part of the problem. They will not like urbanisation of the region, as it will ultimately threaten their power base. If we don’t want southern Punjab to be governed in Balochistan’s fashion, then we must first prepare it for provincial hood. Its development must take precedence over political expediencies. Otherwise, it would become another futile administrative exercise.

The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist. Email: adnanfalak@gmail.com