The debate on FATA reforms has entered into a decisive stage, and the Federal Cabinet, in its latest meeting on February 07 was supposed to approve it but due to unending scuffle among the FATA parliamentarians and few pro-status quo politicians, FATA Reforms Bill, once again, remained off the agenda and was not discussed in the meeting. The conflict of political interests has led the policymakers to confusion and has caused an unwarranted delay in mainstreaming of FATA. Instead of providing some guiding and leading ways to the government, the politicians and opinion-makers have created misunderstandings and complexities in changing the constitutional status of FATA. Majority of the people, academia, opinion-makers and politicians are favouring FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and government should not waste this historic opportunity to act according to the people’s wishes and aspirations.
Different tribal agencies constituting Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are naturally connected to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and each agency is directly linked, from communication infrastructure to socioeconomic interaction, to the adjacent area of KP. On the other hand, FATA agencies are not mutually connected in a way that administratively justifies their existence as a separate province. From linguistic and ethnic perspective as well as from socio-cultural norms and values, the people of KP and FATA share the same background. A significant symbol of this ground reality is the fact that a large segment of FATA populace dwell in KP. For instance, a large number of Mohmand tribesmen are settled in Peshawar and Charsadda. Similarly, a major part of the population of Kohat (chiefly Afridi, Mohmand, Shinwari and Aurakzai) has historically come from tribal belt to settle in Kohat. The population of KP itself is mostly tribal in background, having settled here after migrating from areas now constituting FATA.
Moreover, the capital of any province needs to be centrally located for easy access of all constituent parts of the province and Peshawar holds that unique central position to serve as capital of the province after the merger of FATA with KP. In the past, a number of the departments of KP Government have performed various matters related to FATA. As such, there has been an Additional Chief Secretary (ACS) dealing with FATA and since 2002 the FATA Secretariat is working under the same ACS in Provincial Secretariat. Besides, a huge number of officers posted in FATA for performance of official duties hail from KP. Prior to 2002 also, roughly 60-70% of the matters of FATA were being handled from KP. From political point of view, under the One-Unit system when West Pakistan had one Assembly, representatives of FATA were part of that Assembly. Most of the political parties, elected parliamentarians of FATA, and majority of the people consulted by the Committee, have supported the proposal of FATA merger with KP. Tribal elders who attended different All Parties Round-Table Conferences on the issue had consensus on supporting the merger of KP and FATA. In fact, one of the reasons for this overwhelming consensus is that this option is the easiest and practicable.
Furthermore, the question of Afghanistan objecting to the merger of FATA and KP does not arise because Durand Line is not just about FATA but covers a distance of around 2500 km stretching from Zhob in Balochistan to Chitral in KP and these areas are the same general administration of Pakistan as would be FATA after its merger with KP.
Maintaining the present status is not acceptable to anyone except a few vested interests. These vested interests are beneficiaries of the status quo (which is plagued by black economy, misuse of authority and resources, illegal cross-border movement of goods, lack of accountability, security-related internal and external actors) and would like to divide people about the constitutional status of FATA and stop progress on this issue even in future. It is therefore imperative for all stakeholders to expedite, on the basis of suitable homework, the current pace of progress towards determining the future status of FATA. Another important issue to address for the future of FATA is effective border management. The five year transition plan demands a dedicated implementation body with representatives from FATA, KP and the federation. The process of transition should be completed earlier than the 5-10 years span envisaged by the Committee because such a long transition period risks the loss of a golden opportunity for changing the destiny of FATA. 2018 should be a key milestone in the proposed transition process. From purely political point of view, it is high time that the federal and provincial governments won public appreciation as pro-people by implementing the transition plan of FATA in true spirit. Moreover, recent internal displacement has made the dwellers of FATA experience a new dimension of life. This has kindled a natural urge in them to improve their lives and move forward. This is the right time to provide them with such a system that enables them to play their role in achieving their individual, regional and national interests by utilizing their best talents.
Like any other constitutional and legal issue, FATA’s merger with KP also entails some substantive and some procedural issues. It is imperative not to confuse the two while handling the merger of FATA with KP. Based on a history of negative experiences, the people of FATA have many doubts in their minds with regard to the future of FATA. It is important to remain cognizant of these doubts and concerns. It is likely that the people of both KP and FATA will be affected by the merger of FATA and KP but it is a decision of national importance which will, in fact, affect the whole country. That is why instead of a local or provincial approach, national outlook should be adopted in decision-making and implementation. What appears abundantly clear, however, is that status quo is no solution at all. The ongoing debate on the status of FATA has generated a momentum for change which must be maintained and capitalized for promptly making progress on determining the future status of FATA.
A large majority of the ordinary people of FATA, its intellectuals and its leadership wants the status quo to change. Given the fact that about 16 such reports previously submitted to the government were consigned to oblivion, the apprehension and question is quite common: whether the fate of the instant report will be any different? It is, therefore, imperative to target alleviation of such misgivings, mistrust and questions about governance in FATA. This would require that the process of the implementation of proposed changes is expedited, as timely delivery will be decisive factor in determining the fate of the promised changes in the status of FATA.
The writer holds a key position in Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.