The erstwhile tribal areas, at times called the ‘lawless tribal badlands’ or ‘wild west’ of Pakistan along the Western border with Afghanistan, have always been in the headlines for one or another reason.
Of late, when the region was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and constitutional provisions related to citizens’ rights were extended, some positive news started coming out. The region, now called the Newly Merged Tribal Districts (NMDs), catapulted into the spotlight with the emerging situation across the border in Afghanistan. The Taliban militia has taken control of the war-ravaged country forming their government in Kabul, routing the U.S. forces and Dr. Ashraf Ghani-led administration.
Since independence, though the tribal districts got different nomenclatures from time to time, however, its basic characteristic of being the ‘poorest badland’ and a safe destination for hired assassins, proclaimed offenders, car snatchers and drug pushers remained the same. Post-9/11, the region infested with terrorists, posed serious security challenges to Pakistan.
Militants of various shades and backgrounds, including al-Qaeda fighters, established their hideouts along with their command and control centers here as the U.S. launched her much trumpeted War on Terror across the border in Afghanistan, collapsing the then Taliban regime.
To dismantle the hideouts of these terrorists organizations, Pakistan security forces conducted scores of full-scale military operations causing internal displacement on a large scale. The region was reclaimed with colossal human and material cost. The meager infrastructure built in 70 plus years in the entire 27,220sq km of the region was obliterated.
A survey conducted at the time of the merger revealed that more than 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line in the tribal districts. There was only one healthcare facility available for every 4,200 people and only one doctor for every 7,800 people. Whereas a total of 170 civil dispensaries, 76 BHUs, 10 maternity hospitals, 16 civil hospitals, 9 rural health centers and four medical centers are inactive in these districts,
The adult literacy rate was just 28 percent, which is far below the national average of 75 percent. The net primary school enrollment for children is 52.1 percent, compared to 65 percent in mainstream Pakistan. In order to ensure socioeconomic normalization of the cleared areas, education, health and socio-economic development projects have been the top priority of Pakistan Army and the civil administration. Along with the construction of 37 health facilities, modern health facilities are available in headquarters hospitals of all 7 districts. Bed capacity has been increased by 17% as well as provision of staff and equipment for running different health facilities.
In the same vein, 336 schools have been restored/constructed in the Newly Merged Districts in order to impart quality education to 13000 children. A few examples are Cadet College Wana, Spinkai, Mohmad Gath, education complex Bajaur Khan, and education complex in Parachinar where 2500 students are getting quality education. The enrolment rate of children in schools went up from 6% to 25% in 2020.
Besides the education and health sector, 873 kms of major roads have been constructed that includes; Peshawar-Torkham, Wana-Makeen, Wana-Angoor Adda and Jandola-Makeen road. 863 kms of small roads/tracks have either been constructed or improved. In addition to that, 682 kms of new roads are under construction in NMDs to improve regional as well as global connectivity.
In order to generate economic activity to new business hubs, that include more than 3000 shops, have been constructed. The first agricultural park of Pakistan is located in Wana. Processing, storage and marketing facilities that complement the agricultural potential of the area are also being developed.
As the government was reclaiming territories from militants through kinetic military operations, it simultaneously initiated a process of political reforms to mainstream the entire region and bring it at par with the rest of the country. The reforms process culminated in the merger of these tribal lands into the neighboring KP province in May 2018.
The extension of constitutional rights and governance structures to the tribal belt has been, without a doubt, unprecedented with extraordinary political reforms in the 70-years history of Pakistan.
In this reforms package, the government has proposed a ten-year socioeconomic development plan with major focus on industrial and mineral development, vocational training, irrigation projects, and integrated health and education projects. A new era of social, political and infrastructural transition has started.
To begin with, of all the new developments, the most crucial were the amendments made in the constitution of Pakistan with the extension of all rights. These amendments empowered the national and provincial legislatures to fundamentally change the relationship that the people of the NMDs have historically had with the state and its institutions.
In 2018, the government announced to spend over PKR 100 billion annually for next 10 years in the NMDs. This amount is in addition to the PKR 24 billion annual development programs allocated to the region before the merger. The government also promised to allocate 3% share for these marginalized districts in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award for fast track mainstreaming.
This promise of pumping huge funds was aimed at rebuilding the damaged infrastructure and launching new developmental schemes, particularly in health, education, communication, agriculture, irrigation, environment and women development sectors. However, it is a fact that this 3% additional share of the NFC Award could not be materialized to date.
Mindful of the slow implementation process of the developmental package constituting institutional, infrastructural and administrative reforms, the National Assembly of Pakistan recently constituted a special 20-members parliamentary committee. The committee, in its initial deliberations, took for discussion the promises made by all the political parties and government at the time of the merger, along with the progress on the promised reforms package.
In recent interactions with members of the parliament from the merged districts, Federal Finance Minister, Shaukat Tareen, informed that the government adheres to all the commitments made with the people of ex-FATA. The Finance Minister claimed that he was personally pursuing the 3% share in the NFC Award and will be talking to all the provincial governments in this regard. He said that the new NFC Award will provide more financial support to the merged districts.
According to the progress report of the KP government in the year 2019-20 of its “Accelerated Implementation Program” for the NMDs, a sum of PKR 24 billion was spent on 127 development schemes in 17 sectors. The biggest sum of PKR 12.265 million was spent on the relief and rehabilitation sector followed by the restoration of businesses hit by conflicts. To boost commercial activities in the area, around seven trade routes were restored with Afghanistan and improved at a cost of PKR 1.869 billion. A total of PKR 2.6 billion was spent on the health sector and around PKR 2.9 billion on primary and secondary education.
Besides the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as discussed earlier, Pakistan’s security forces are also engaged in development activities in the inaccessible areas of the merged districts. The security forces have completed scores of projects in communication, infrastructure and rehabilitation sectors.
The writer is associated with a private TV channel in Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
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