Dawn Editorial 10 December 2019

Relying on provinces

IN the wake of the 18th Amendment, some profound shifts in responsibility were supposed to take place between the federal and provincial governments but they never did.
It is not only resources that were to be devolved to the provincial governments, but also many of the responsibilities for maintaining social sector spending and improving outcomes in health and education.
Sadly, only the money was ever really devolved in earnest — and for the provincial governments, money is really all that seemed to matter.
All the provincial governments have increased their spending on education in the decade since the seventh NFC award devolved 57pc of all taxes in the federal divisible pool downwards. But what they have not done is to mobilise their own revenue sources, and as a result, even 10 years on, they receive Rs612.5bn from the federal government as transfer under the NFC award, and raise Rs104.5bn in their own taxes.
This is despite the fact that some of the largest and most promising revenue lines have been in the provincial domain for years, including tax on agricultural incomes.
This failure of both the federal and provincial authorities to live up to the terms of the 18th Amendment and the attendant seventh NFC award means the debate around devolution revolves principally around the sharing and utilisation of fiscal resources.
As part of this tussle, the federal government recently gave the IMF a commitment to recover some of the largest amounts under the head of provincial cash surpluses, ie those funds that the provinces receive from the centre but are unable to utilise according to the law and as per their mandate.
The most recent fiscal data released recently shows that in the first quarter the provinces spent Rs589bn between them and returned Rs202bn to the centre as their cash surplus. On development projects, the provinces could only spend Rs70.6bn, one of the lowest sums in many years.
Aside from social sector spending, the provinces also have certain responsibilities that come under the development head. They are responsible, for example, for maintaining irrigation canals and much of the urban infrastructure, including an effective mass transit system, and proper systems for waste removal and the provision of water, among much else.
If in times of fiscal constraints, the provinces are squeezed to the enormous extent that the newly released fiscal numbers suggest, then the 18th Amendment has already been reduced to little more than a formality.
It is important that the spirit of the devolution exercise be rescued from the austerity that the implementation of IMF programmes always brings.
Part of the responsibility for this, of course, lies with the centre. But in equal measure, the provincial authorities need to take their responsibilities more seriously, rather than simply living off NFC transfers.


US-Taliban talks

AFTER abruptly being broken off on the orders of President Donald Trump in September, reports have emerged that parleys between the US and the Afghan Taliban have recently resumed in Qatar. Of course where matters in Afghanistan are concerned, it is best to expect the unexpected. Reports suggest that the Americans want to seal a deal by the end of this month; however, considering the byzantine nature of Afghan politics, and the fact that Kabul has been suffering from four decades of conflict, this may be a rather ambitious deadline. Yet it is positive that Washington and the Taliban are talking, and perhaps a sustainable peace deal may be achieved in the months ahead. After all, it has been stated that both sides were quite close to an agreement when things went off track in September. It is also true that all sides — particularly the Americans — are suffering from battle fatigue and wish to call it a day. This impression is strengthened by a recent report in the Washington Post, which has quoted documents in which American officials have said the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable”, though the US has not said this publicly. However, as America has learnt, and the USSR before it, getting involved in the Afghan theatre is quite simple; extricating oneself from this quagmire is a much more difficult task.
It is hoped that this time the talks achieve a solid agreement that sets the stage for a peaceful Afghanistan. But miracles should also not be expected, as a conflict this long and complicated will take time to untangle. The Afghan government should be involved while regional states, including this country, must also be kept in the loop as instability in Afghanistan has a direct impact on the security of neighbouring states. America might be in a hurry to get out of Afghanistan, but a final settlement needs to be hammered out between the Taliban, the Kabul government as well as other Afghan political players, and should not be imposed by external powers. Meanwhile, it is almost inevitable that should violence continue in the country, more extreme actors such as the militant Islamic State group will exploit the situation and use Afghanistan as a base for global militancy. After decades of bloodshed, the Afghan people need peace and reconciliation to rebuild their shattered homeland.


Policing in Kasur

FOR some time now, the Punjab district of Kasur has been the go-to place for anyone wanting to create an example in law-and-order turnaround. Prime Minster Imran Khan took up the challenge when, a couple of months back, he promised to turn the Kasur police into a model force. Since then, the reform-focused police command in the district has notched up some encouraging initial successes. The complaint redress percentage has jumped from an abysmal 19.4 to 78.14, according to a report based on police performance in the two months after the capture of an alleged serial rapist-killer on Oct 2. The jump in itself makes it clear how desperate the police were for a boost in quality. Under trying conditions, the force has also returned to some basic requirements of good policing. The report on police performance says that the force has prepared the profiles of 3,000 ‘known bad characters’ allegedly linked to sexual offences — the number once again, prima facie, advocating vigilance and policing of the highest order.
If it was the cases of serial rape of children and alleged child pornography rackets that drew attention to Kasur, the focus must remain there until a better system to tackle the menace of crime is in place. Public concerns have been met with assurances and some practical steps such as a bigger presence of the Child Protection Bureau in the district. The model police the prime minister envisaged, however, are yet to arrive. The material and human resources which were to be provided for a better functioning of the 20 Kasur police stations are stuck up somewhere on the way, one major reason being the constant reshuffling in provincial police ranks. A request by Kasur for 87 sub-inspectors and assistant sub-inspectors was refused by other districts. They said they could hardly spare any officers when they had not enough to effectively see to their own operations. For the prime minister’s model to take shape, resources will have to be created and groomed afresh.


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