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Assessing the Impact and Unfulfilled Promises: Five Years After FATA Merger

Hameedullah Jan Afridi, the former Federal Minister for Environment, shared his thoughts on this matter, expressing the sentiments of many tribal individuals.

by TNN Editor - 31 May, 2023 1529

Khadim Afridi

After the completion of five years of FATA integration, the tribal people find themselves reflecting on what they have gained and lost during this period, as well as contemplating the future of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Hameedullah Jan Afridi, the former Federal Minister for Environment, shared his thoughts on this matter, expressing the sentiments of many tribal individuals.

According to Afridi, the tribal people have become increasingly convinced that the promises made to them and the visions of development showcased for the tribal districts were nothing more than political slogans propagated by political parties and the government of that time. As time passed, it became apparent that no substantial development plans or initiatives were implemented to truly transform the lives of the tribal communities.

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Afridi emphasized that he and others had consistently voiced their concerns, asserting that these promises were merely political rhetoric and part of an agenda driven by external forces. The true intentions behind these initiatives, he believed, were not aimed at bringing about positive change in the lives of the tribal people. Instead, it seemed that the objective was to dismantle the age-old tribal systems and make life more arduous for the tribes in their own ancestral territories.

Drawing attention to the broader geopolitical landscape, Afridi contended that when Western forces have their own objectives, the welfare and well-being of the common tribal individuals are not at the forefront of their considerations. Rather, their efforts tend to sow unrest and instability in these regions in order to advance their own strategic goals.

Not a single promise made to the tribal people was fulfilled

The tribal people had great expectations when the merger took place, accompanied by grand promises. One of the most significant commitments was the allocation of a three percent share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award for the tribal districts. It was pledged that an annual budget of 110 billion rupees would be allocated for the next ten years to address the backwardness of these areas and bring about their development. The goal was to elevate the tribal districts to the same level as scheduled areas, ensuring equal access to essential services such as education, healthcare, water, electricity, employment, and trade. However, despite the completion of five years of integration, not a single one of these promises has been fulfilled.

Expressing his disappointment, Hameedullah Jan Afridi shared that the disappointment lies not only in the government's failure to deliver on these promises but also in the fact that the previous system had its merits. It encompassed its own traditions, culture, and well-established procedures, which played a crucial role in maintaining law and order in the area. Under the previous system, equality prevailed, bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. Disputes among individuals were resolved through the application of Shariat law, tribal customs, and Jirgas (tribal councils). However, with the introduction of the judicial system and the prominence of lawyers and litigation, the traditional dispute resolution mechanisms and Jirgas have been undermined. This shift has resulted in an increase in conflicts within the tribal areas, and not a single issue has been adequately resolved through the current legal system. As a result, the tribal people have become disenchanted with this lawyer-centric and argumentative approach, as it has neglected the customs and Jirga system that previously played a pivotal role in resolving major disputes and everyday problems.

The industries established in the tribal districts were closed

According to Hamidullah Jan Afridi, the tribal areas were home to various trade centers and industries that enjoyed tax exemptions under the tribal system. However, since the integration, these trade centers and industries have been subjected to taxes similar to those imposed in other parts of the country, without receiving the same facilities and benefits as industries in other regions. As a result, many industries in the tribal districts were forced to shut down, leading to a significant rise in unemployment among the local population. The closure of these factories has not only resulted in economic setbacks but has also triggered a new wave of insecurity in the area.

Hameedullah Jan Afridi further expressed his discontent, highlighting that the merger was imposed on the tribal people without considering their opinions and preferences. Consequently, the tribal communities have decided to observe May 31 as a Black Day. He emphasized that the decision to change the system was made by a population of over ten million people, yet none of the tribes were included in the committees formed for this purpose, which he views as an outright disregard for their rights and interests.

The quota system of students was abolished

According to Hameedullah Jan Afridi, the abolition of the quota system for students is another grievance faced by the tribal people. He emphasized that unless the political forces involved in this decision apologize to the tribal community and provide them with a system of their choice, they will not accept the current situation. The tribal population has suffered significant losses, including the removal of the quota system, appropriation of mineral and forest resources worth billions of rupees, and a lack of actions that would benefit the tribes.

Hameedullah Jan Afridi pointed out that the present events unfolding in the tribal districts differ from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The people in the reserved areas are dissatisfied with the police and judicial systems, so it is understandable that the tribal people are also discontent with this system.

He further expressed concern over the current state of affairs, highlighting the contrast in how applications from politicians are swiftly addressed in prominent courts such as the Supreme Court and High Court, while the pleas of those who have suffered injustices dating back decades are neglected. Hameedullah Jan Afridi urged the tribes to unite, establish a consensus, and compel the government to engage in dialogue and provide them with the system they desire.

Power of Seriousness: Unlocking Solutions to Every Problem

Siddique Chirag Afridi, the Central Secretary General of Awami National Party Khyber district, emphasized the significance of FATA integration and the constitutional inclusion of former FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He acknowledged the long struggle to address the backwardness of FATA and highlighted that the tribal areas are now officially part of Pakhtunkhwa. While there may be advantages and disadvantages to any law, he questioned why the development of the tribal people has lagged behind the rest of Pakistan despite being citizens since 1947.

Chirag Afridi expressed his belief that the decision regarding the constitutional amendment may have been made hastily, leading to temporary setbacks such as land disputes. He suggested the need for a mechanism to address these issues and emphasized that each tribe's land should be clearly identified. He further added that conflicts at the lower level could be resolved as there is no problem in the world that cannot be solved with seriousness and dedication. However, he emphasized the importance of obeying the laws of the country and not refusing to abide by them, despite any challenges or disputes.

He pointed out that those who have raised objections to the FATA merger are predominantly residing in the former settlement areas. He questioned why leading religious groups and their supporters, who may have believed in the need for changes in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) system, are either silent or permanently residing in the former settlement areas.

FCR: A Black Law

Chirag Afridi emphasized that the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) was an oppressive law that granted unchecked powers to political agents who acted as absolute authorities. They had the authority to exercise arbitrary control over the lives of the people. With the introduction of the new judicial system, the people now feel powerless, as the avenues for seeking justice against government officials, such as Deputy Commissioners (DC) or District Police Officers (DPO), have become limited. The significance of local police station heads (SHO) has diminished as well.

While Chirag Afridi acknowledged that FATA integration is a positive initiative, he highlighted that the promises made to the tribal people have yet to be fulfilled. These promises include a three percent share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award for ten years, a package of ten billion rupees annually, and the establishment of a tax-free zone for a decade. He expressed hope that the supporters of the integration remain optimistic and wait for these promises to be realized.

There is a strong demand from the present federal government to ensure the implementation of the promises outlined in the Sartaj Aziz Commission, which was approved by the tribal people themselves. Furthermore, Chirag Afridi called for the declaration of the former FATA as a tax-free zone by 2030. This would enable the tribal areas to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the country in the pursuit of development and progress.

FATA Steel Mills' Plight After Merger

Haji Zubair Afridi, president of the FATA Steel Mills Association, shed light on the challenges faced by the FATA industry following the integration of FATA. He explained that cloth factories had been operating in FATA, particularly in the Khyber district, since the era of General Ayub Khan. Entrepreneurs from various parts of the country, especially Punjab, came to FATA to establish cloth factories, which gradually expanded over time. Additionally, the steel mills sector also flourished in the tribal districts, with around 38 steel mills providing employment opportunities for hundreds of local residents.

However, after the merger of FATA in 2018, the government abolished the sales tax imposed on the FATA steel mills industry in 2019, replacing it with the Federal Excise Duty (FED). This change had adverse effects, leading to financial losses for the industry. Haji Zubair Afridi expressed his disappointment by stating that the government reintroduced the FED in the 2021 budget, indicating an illegal implementation. Sales tax was once again levied on their products, exacerbating the challenges faced by the industry.

Regarding the legal proceedings in the High Court and the Supreme Court, the case was referred to the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), questioning why the tax had been established and subsequently removed. However, a solution has yet to be found, leaving the industry in a precarious situation. Haji Zubair Afridi pointed out that the previous government's incompetence resulted in the persistence of sales tax on electricity, further worsening the industry's condition. As a result, the FATA industry has been severely impacted, with monthly liabilities accumulating and only two out of the 38 established steel mills in former FATA remaining operational, while the rest have been forced to shut down.

Time should be given till the restoration of the factories

Zubair Afridi emphasized the significant impact of the closure of factories on the local community, with each factory, directly and indirectly, employing up to 1,000 individuals. He highlighted that the unemployment resulting from the factory closures affected thousands of people in the tribal districts, including industrial owners. To address these concerns, a Jirga consisting of a delegation from Chambers of Commerce representing Pata, FATA, Malakand Division, Dir, Swat, Tamergarh, and Chitral met with the Governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. During the meeting, they requested the federal government to extend tax relief to the industry and provide facilities similar to those given to industries in regulated areas. They stressed the need for continued employment opportunities as the livelihoods of thousands of tribal people depended on the industry, warning that the closure of these factories could lead to an increase in crime.

Zubair Afridi appealed to the government to grant them time to restore the factories. Once the factories are operational, they suggested implementing taxes in a manner that allows for regular understanding and investment planning.

Zahidullah Afridi, the Central Secretary General of Khyber Union Pakistan, shared his perspective on the completion of five years of FATA integration. According to him, if one were to directly ask or observe the people of the tribal districts, they would express feelings of despair and anxiety rather than experiencing the promised prosperity after the merger. The ruling authorities made lofty claims during the forced merger, but instead of solving problems, they began to exploit the region's resources. He specifically criticized the previous government, particularly the last two to four years of the Muslim League's tenure, for continuously making empty promises. Unfortunately, this trend has continued even to this day.

How many billions did FATA get in the NFC award?

The exact amount of funds allocated to FATA through the National Finance Commission (NFC) award in the last five years is not specified in the provided information. The 25th constitutional amendment stated that the merged districts would receive 1000 billion rupees annually for ten years and a three percent share in the NFC award. However, it is mentioned that the government has not provided any clear answer regarding the amount released so far.

Additionally, there are concerns regarding education in the Tirah region of Khyber, where despite the construction of school buildings, there is a lack of staff, jeopardizing the future of millions of children. The promises made during the integration, including the rights of argument and appeal for lawyers, resolving the issue of missing persons, restoring law and order, transferring powers to the grassroots level, and providing facilities to local bodies, have been deemed false.

The recent census, approved by the federal cabinet, has also raised doubts as it showed a lower population for the tribal people instead of an increase. This discrepancy has been rejected by political parties, who argue that it will lead to increased problems and reduced resources.

Furthermore, it is highlighted that the tribal people, who previously had the status of the fifth unit under Article 247 of the Constitution of Pakistan, have now been deprived of their constitutional rights and identity. This has resulted in frustration among the people of the tribal districts and the emergence of new problems day by day.

Tribal people and political consciousness:

According to Islam Gul Afridi, a senior journalist, and tribal affairs expert, the integration of FATA has brought several advantages to the tribal districts. The tribal people now have access to the constitutional and legal system, allowing them to seek justice through subordinate courts and high courts. Seats have also been allocated in the provincial assembly for tribal districts, and a local government system has been established. This has contributed to political awareness and consciousness among the people, leading to the functioning of various institutions in the tribal districts.

However, there have been losses after the FATA merger as well. The promised annual development budget of the former FATA and the three percent share in the NFC award, amounting to a total of 120 billion rupees annually, have not been properly allocated or utilized in the tribal districts. Both the provincial and federal governments have neglected these commitments, resulting in a failure to address the backwardness of the tribal districts effectively.

The police system in the tribal districts has been granted access, but it may not be as organized as in other parts of the country. Additionally, there has been a reduction in the number of seats in the National Assembly from 12 to 6, and all 8 seats in the Senate for the tribal districts have been eliminated. These changes in representation have had an impact on the political dynamics of the tribal districts.

Tax commitments

Regarding the tax commitments, the promises made for tax relief for five years were not effectively implemented, leading to significant challenges for the industrial sector in the tribal districts. The lack of tax relief and support from the government resulted in the closure of many industries, causing a high number of local people to lose their jobs. This situation has had a detrimental impact on the economic stability and livelihood of the tribal communities.

Looking towards the future of FATA, Islam Gul Afridi expressed his concerns about the merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He believes that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa itself faces various issues and poverty, which may hinder its ability to prioritize and address the specific needs of the tribal areas. Therefore, he has reservations about the potential for positive change in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, Afridi noted that the anti-merger movements have been gaining strength as they highlight the unfulfilled promises made to the tribal people during the merger process. The discontent among these movements stems from the failure of the government to deliver on the commitments and assurances given at the time of integration. This lack of fulfillment has fueled skepticism and a sense of disappointment among the tribal communities.

May 31: A Black Day

May 31 is observed as a Black Day by the anti-FATA merger movement, symbolizing the forced integration of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Haji Bismillah Khan Afridi, the chairman of FATA Qaumi Jirga, expressed their opposition to the merger, highlighting that the tribal people's opinions were not considered in the decision-making process. He emphasized that the promises made to the tribal people during the merger have not been fulfilled, leading to their continued resistance against the integration.

Afridi pointed out the lack of significant development initiatives in FATA since the merger. He mentioned the absence of new universities, and major hospitals, and the failure to rebuild educational institutions destroyed during the period of terrorism in Bara. He criticized the construction of police stations as insufficient for development and emphasized the need for dedicated facilities such as women's jails. According to him, the motive behind the merger was primarily to exploit the mineral and forest resources of the tribal areas.

The composition of the committees formed during the merger process was another point of contention raised by Afridi. He highlighted the absence of tribal representatives in these committees, suggesting that their exclusion undermined the sincerity of the decision-makers. Afridi argued that such a significant decision should have involved the tribal people as it had far-reaching implications for their future.

Afridi further expressed the belief that the problems faced by the tribal people have escalated following the merger. He noted that the formal procedure for changing the status of FATA is outlined in Article 247, specifically Sub-Article 6 of the Constitution of Pakistan. However, the merger was accomplished through a simple constitutional amendment, bypassing the formal process. To address these concerns, a formal writ petition has been filed in the Supreme Court, although its resolution has been delayed for the past year.