The Fata merger: What’s happening now and what should happen next?

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Faced with criticism that the measures required to complete the merger of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were taking longer than anticipated, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has finally chalked out a quick impact plan to expedite the process.

Though an 11-member task force on Fata merger headed by KP’s Governor Shah Farman was constituted on September 6 last year to oversee the process, its progress has been slow. Certain opposition parties and tribal activists have continued to criticize the government for failing to take concrete steps to mainstream Fata by implementing legal and administrative reforms under the merger plan. Reports in the media quoting officials said Prime Minister Imran Khan too wasn’t happy with the slow pace of implementation of the reforms in the newly merged tribal districts. In a recent meeting chaired by the prime minister, the quick impact plan to materialise Fata’s merger with KP was finalised. The prime minister reportedly told the PTI’s provincial government in KP that he would keep himself abreast of the plan’s implementation on a regular basis. On his part, KP Chief Minister Mahmood Khan too has started holding regular meetings in Peshawar to expedite the process of merger. Timelines have been given and officials tasked to achieve targets. Provincial ministers and administrative secretaries have started visiting the former Fata districts. The chief minister claimed all KP government departments except judiciary, police, excise and revenue had been extended to the tribal districts and further practical steps were being taken to complete the merger. However, the judiciary and police being the most important departments in terms of delivery of justice and law-enforcement need be extended to the tribal districts at the earliest to ensure that Fata is now for all practical purposes a part of KP, having the same set of laws. It obviously would take time as the erstwhile Fata has been administered under special laws such as the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) for 117 long years and getting accustomed to the new system won’t be easy. Problems arose when the merger was rushed in the last days of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), before the July 2018 general election, due to political compulsion and the proposed five-year transition period was changed to complete the process in a hurry. After neglecting Fata for 70 years leading to serious security and under-development issues, an attempt was made to do things in haste. Farman, who lost most of his powers concerning Fata after its merger with KP following the passage of the 25th constitutional amendment in the parliament on May 24, 2018, claimed recently that 95 per cent of the work on merging the two administrative units had been completed. However, he later qualified his statement by arguing that legal issues regarding the merger had more or less been resolved, but administrative measures now underway would take longer as it was time-consuming. He insisted that the merger work initially supposed to consume five years was done in just five months. Under the quick impact plan, 12 themes were suggested to ensure the extension of services of the state organs and service delivery departments to the seven tribal districts that were known as tribal agencies prior to the merger, and the six Frontier Regions (FRs) now re-designated as sub-divisions.
Picture from January 21, 2019 shows KP Governor Shah Farman talking to a representative tribal elders jirga from North Waziristan district at the Governor House.—NNI photo
Two major targets of the ambitious quick impact plan are holding local government elections in the tribal districts by June 30, along with rest of KP, to give representation to the tribal people at the grassroots level and establishing a proper judicial system by the end of 2019. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court has already been extended to ex-Fata, but setting up a judicial structure costing Rs14 billion is taking time. The Fata Tribunal became dysfunctional after the merger and cases have been piling up and making litigants suffer. A dispute resolution and grievance redressal system will also be established by the end of February. The tribal elders would be nominated to perform the task of resolving local disputes and also peacekeeping. The legal vacuum created in former Fata after the October 30, 2018 Peshawar High Court judgment declaring the Fata Interim Governance Regulation, promulgated on May 29, 2018, as unconstitutional required urgent attention and the government is now planning to introduce by the end of January a new governance law for the interim period until the regular laws are applied in the tribal districts. The preparations for holding elections for 16 general and five reserved seats of the KP Assembly in the tribal districts in April or May are also in the advanced stage. For the first time ever, four women and a representative of the minorities would be elected from ex-Fata on reserved seats. There are also plans to hire 6,000 cops and fill 2,200 vacant positions of Levies from among the tribesmen in the next few months, provide 500,000 Sehat Insaf Cards to enable the poor and needy to avail free medical care, strengthen the interest-free microfinance initiatives, and start youth employment programmes. Having the lowest socio-economic indicators in the country, the former tribal areas are desperately in need of more such initiatives. However, the serious issue of timely provision of resources to accomplish all these targets could hold up progress on the merger plan. The Fata Reforms Committee had recommended provision of special funds amounting to Rs90 to 100 billion annually for 10 years to undertake massive development projects in erstwhile Fata, but these funds would become available if the provinces and the centre agree to give the tribal districts three per cent share in the upcoming National Finance Commission (NFC) award. The PTI-ruled federal, Punjab and KP governments have consented to provide the funds, but the PPP-led Sindh government and the one in under-developed Balochistan are reportedly reluctant to do so. Until then, the prime minister has committed to provide funds from the federal divisible pool for the uplift of tribal districts.
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