Former-FATA’s Tribal Districts need our urgent attention

By Zeeshan Salahuddin

What is the most important need for formerly Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) at the moment?

A rather tough question, with difficult answers for the policy makers in Islamabad. The situation on ground in erstwhile FATA is not ideal. The merger is pending with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government, the path is fraught with a plethora of challenges, and the status is in limbo. The 31st Constitutional Amendment, which led to the merger, was catalysed by decades of activism (particularly pronounced since 2015), Jirgas in all seven FATA agencies with nearly 3,000 maliks and elders, as well as 29,000+ comments on the hotline of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions Division (SAFRON). It came into effect on May 24, 2018, just a week before the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) government ended, placing a feather in its cap, however, also resulted in the PML N conveniently excusing itself from any future progress on the matter. Therefore, a smooth merger now solely depends on Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) government.  

Among many challenges, the biggest challenge is that of an administrative framework for the region. The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a colonial era legal framework of exception that governed the lives of FATA residents, needs to be abolished (in its current form – Interim Governance Regulation). Policing needs to be extended to the tribal areas, and a plan for 45,000 new trained personnel was announced in November. There is an urgent need for large-scale infrastructure development in the historically-neglected region. SAFRON needs to be abolished to ensure a free and independent FATA administration. Education and healthcare need urgent attention, and piecemeal solutions will not work. In December 2018, it was announced that the resident of former FATA would get health cards, however, they still have to travel all the way to Peshawar and other urban centres due to lack of medical infrastructure in the tribal areas.  In short, even though the merger is done “on paper”, the reality on ground presents a grim reality.

The other major challenge that the region faces is that of lack of education. To date, there is one university in the region, and that too started operations in October 2016. There is an urgent need for educational infrastructure for the disenfranchised youth, both in the region and ensuring seats for students from tribal districts in institutions around the country. There is a need to collaborate with civil society and the media to create awareness about rights and responsibilities, about opportunities and obligations. The student quota should be extended by another 10 years. In consultations with local leaders and politicians, there has been much emphasis on giving up old ways of thinking and backward traditions and adapting to the perspectives of the modern age. However, very little is known on how the government aims to achieve these goals and targets.

Then we also have economic challenges. The region has one of the worst employment ratios in the country. With a long-standing history of corruption and funds misappropriation, ensuring transparency and funds allocation is a challenge. The KP award in the National Finance Commission (NFC) has to be substantially increased, as it absorbs the tribal districts. At least Rs.100 billion needs to be awarded under the NFC. There are questions about royalties on electricity generation and mineral mining. Land limitation still presents a challenge and its suspension may need to continue for another few years. Providing compensation packages for families that have been displaced time and again, or have lost their primary breadwinner, remains a challenge. Then there is the challenge of equal female representation in the region, especially because the misogynistic and patriarchal traditions and systems have hampered female empowerment in the region.

Finally, the region is also faced with political challenges. After the merger, the representation in the national legislature will reduce, while the KP provincial seats will increase. However, those elected in 2018 will continue to hold office in the National Assembly, and those in the Senate will complete their constitutional term. With an urgent call for elections, does that mean both provincial and federal ministers will serve terms simultaneously? The pending election also brings with it administrative, funding and monitoring challenges. The government-formed FATA committee has also come under criticism for involving those who have previously expressed an anti-merger stance.

The answer to these wide ranging challenges of former-FATA is, simply put, advocacy. With so many moving parts, none more important than the other, it is easy to get lost in the details. But for the keen eye with a macro perspective, the need is obvious. There is a clear and present need for focused reforms on pushing the envelope forward, on pushing for continued development and reforms, and for pushing the government to make the region a priority. In order to ensure a smooth merger, Pakistani, from all walks of life, can all play a role by pushing this to the fore, and ensuring a better future for the region. A region that has suffered decades of isolation, poverty, instability and violence.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies


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