ALTHOUGH public opinion seems tilted in favour of a KP-Fata merger, delays in the process have also amplified calls for provincial status. Article 239(4) of the Constitution provides for alteration of provincial administrative boundaries, but it has never been tested. Declaring Fata a province requires amendments in Articles 1, 246 and 247.

In India, the essence of the Government of India Act, 1935, was retained, while keeping it elastic owing to ethnic diversities. The framers of our Constitution did not opt for such flexibility. Despite the failure of One Unit and the loss of its eastern wing, Pakistan remained a rigid federation. While neighbouring India, Iran and Afghanistan created new states/provinces, we guarded the status quo.

Bangladesh, a unitary state delimited into divisions, had four divisions in 1971; it now has eight. In 1979, Afghanistan had 28 provinces; it now has 34. Until 1950, Iran had 12 provinces; it now has 31. In 2004, its largest province was divided in three: Razavi Khorasan, North Khorasan and South Khorasan. Articles 2, 3 and 4 of India’s constitution give parliament the flexibility to establish new provinces by simple legislation. In 1956, India was reorganised into 14 states, and now has 29. Although mostly were created on linguistic considerations, the decision to carve out new provinces from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar in 2000 was made primarily for efficient management. This resulted in improved per capita income, industrial growth, literacy rate and overall economic growth — proving that manageable administrative units guarantee improved public service delivery.

What might administrative and financial autonomy look like?

Although ethnically homogenous, owing to intense tribal feuds, it would be difficult to achieve consensus in Fata regarding the seat of government. The criteria for its establishment may be on the basis of central location, peace indexation or population density. As a province, local legislature would allow for transforming traditional practice into law, hence defeating the argument that Fata is a space for external dictates and interests. It would also help shape a local anti-extremism narrative and counterterrorism strategy with political ownership. Fata’s people would have equal citizenship and be entitled to fundamental rights.

A Fata province would also not burden KP financially, hence avoiding likely financial and administrative conflicts. It would be entitled to a share in the NFC award and retain seats in the Senate, and thus be active in participatory federalism. Financial, commercial, social and economic policies meant for Fata would be deliberated in the National Economic Council with it as a member. It would also be entitled to a seat in the ECP, and would become an active actor in the Council of Common Interests. Presently, Fata does not have a recognised NFC seat and budgetary allocations are not supported by ground realities. As a province, not only would it become an NFC member, it would also make its own budget, increase the tax net and discourage the black economy.

The abolishment of the Concurrent List empowered the provinces. As a province, Fata would also wield administrative and financial autonomy. But lack of political will and weak institutions mean that Fata would face an acute shortage of bureaucratic support. Take Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, where the shortage of officers is now a permanent feature. One wonders how many Fata-domiciled officers would volunteer to serve in the new province. Administering a province requires revenue collection, state response, law enforcement, justice and development. But, frankly, modern revenue collection and criminal justice systems may take decades to function properly. Whether it is merged or made a province, the lack of such systems will reduce Fata to a mere liability on both counts.

And although the maliks’ influence has waned with the extension of adult franchise and the Political Parties Order, instead of mainstream parties, it is the religious parties and independents that gained electoral space. Out of Fata’s 12 National Assembly seats, six are retained by independents, and all eight senators are independents. As a province, it’s likely they will have dominance over mainstream parties.

A Fata province would also mean another Pakhtun province, which may be exploited by Pakhtun nationalists on the basis that they are being divided. It may also propel the Hindko-speaking, Hazara-based community to advocate for a Hazara province and the Seraiki population for boundary readjustments of Tank and D.I. Khan. It may also encourage debate for another Pakhtun province in southern Balochistan.

Without further delay, we need to realise that a social transition from tribe to state is the only viable option for Fata. Apart from the options of merger or provincial status, Fata may also replicate the Gilgit-Baltistan model – however, the foremost issue is of identity and customs, which should be reflected in the governance apparatus.