In a landmark decision, the government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK) has promulgated the “Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974” on June 1, 2018, which has immensely empowered the Government in Muzaffarabad, enabling it to take major decisions regarding its economic uplift and smooth running of the day to day matters.
In fact, a long political battle was waged to get rid of the all-powerful and unaccountable Kashmir Council, largely dominated by the Federal bureaucracy, indirectly calling the shots in the region since 1974. The amended constitution has clipped all legislative, administrative and financial powers of the Kashmir Council and entrusted all significant powers to PaK government and the Assembly to run the administration, make laws and collect revenues.
Some of the opposition parties expressed their apprehensions that it might lead to provincializing the region and consequently, opening doors for more direct intervention from Islamabad. Pakistan Peoples Party’s “AJK chapter” and Muslim Conference joined hands to oppose these amendments and boycotted the Assembly session wherein this law was approved.
However, people across the region are celebrating the devolution of powers from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad which is characterized as a hard-earned victory. The 18th amendment in the 1973’s Constitutional of Pakistan which devolved all major powers to provinces, triggered a debate in PaK. Politicians and the civil society actors underlined the dire need to bring forth radical changes in the PaK’s Constitution in order to empower the elected Government and reduce Federal Government’s powers which are being used in the name of the Kashmir Council. Bearing a few exceptions, all political parties came up with a consensus document and got it approved by the Assembly in June 2015 but to no avail.
Obtaining fiscal and administrative autonomy from the Federal Government was a painstaking and meticulous task. Since 2015, several committees have deliberated on the question of empowerment. However, the current Prime Minister of PaK, Raja Farooq Haider Khan broke a long silence and vigorously led the campaign of empowerment, raising the issue at all decision-making as well as public forums. It was a long-held view in Islamabad that local politicians do not have the spine to stand up for the public rights and limit the unnecessary intrusions in the domestic administrative matters. The current Prime Minister while talking to The News on Sunday recalled his journey in an interesting way. He stated, “I had to face the wrath of civilian bureaucracy at every stage. Even my own party colleagues called it a mission impossible and hardly offered the essential political support. My team and I fought inch by inch, that is how we achieved our goal.”
Former Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had been travelling to Pakistan-administered Kashmir frequently and engaged with the leadership of the region and the general public to a great extent. This enabled them to gauge the public pulse and they were willing to yield their authority to the local administration since long but the bureaucracy created hurdles at every step and tried hard to keep its control going over PaK’s resources and administration. Ironically, its colonial attitude has not changed yet; told an insider who was part of the negotiation team.
A few sections of the constitution required prior approval from the Federal Cabinet before tabling the amendment bill in the Assembly. In February this year, it was decided that the Federal Cabinet would approve the proposed amendments but it did not get through due to opposition from the bureaucracy till Pakistan Muslim Leagues-N’s last days in power arrived. Nawaz Sharif, who was favouring the reforms and empowerment of PaK, finally used his political clout to rescue the pro-Azad Kashmir lobby. It swiftly turned the table and cleared the roadblocks. The Federal Cabinet, in its last late night session, approved a comprehensive decentralization plan for PaK.
What has changed?
Besides relegating the Kashmir Council to an advisory body, PaK got immense fiscal autonomy. The Kashmir Council consolidated fund has been merged into PaK’s consolidated fund. Its employees, assists and liabilities have been transferred to the PaK government. Accountant General Office comes under PaK’s authority now. All taxes, including the land revenue, will be collected by PaK authorities. Besides, the Kashmir Council’s developmental wing is no longer allowed to conduct developmental schemes in PaK which was synonymous with running a parallel administration aimed at undermining the local government.
To preserve the natural resources of PaK, it has been made conditional that no new project can be initiated without obtaining prior permission from the “AJK Assembly”. WAPDA has to pay water usage charges to AJK at the rate fixed for Punjab or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Additionally, the PaK government is entitled to consume the locally produced electricity. Most of the revenue generating departments such as power generation, tourism, income tax and social welfare, now operate under the supervision of the PaK government. 32 subjects would now fall exclusively under the jurisdiction of Government of Pakistan. Besides, on 22 subjects “AJK Assembly” would be eligible to legislate with the consent of the Federal Government.
Federal Government has also made a public pledge that PaK would be given observer status in the National Finance Commission (NFC), Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) and Indus River System Authority (IRSA). However, a full membership status cannot be awarded as PaK is not officially a part of Pakistan according to the Constitution. Nevertheless, it would open up new avenues for PaK to benefit from the anticipated prosperity, springing from the projects like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In past, the Chief Election Commissioner was supposed to single-handedly conduct polls not only in Pakistan-administered but also in the four provinces of Pakistan where 12-seats reserved for the Kashmiri refugees are located. The proposed 3-member Election Commission has been overhauled, aimed at making it a vibrant and operational body. To strengthen the grass-roots politics and participatory democracy holding of regular local government elections have been made mandatory. Additionally, the strength of the cabinet ministers and advisers has also been restricted which a plausible development. Now, all the basic human rights, including the right to information, fair trial and right to education have been incorporated in the Constitution which was missing in previous one.
There is a general sense that these reforms would help the PaK government to enhance its governance structures, offer speedy justice, provide upgraded services delivery and take all major decisions at the local level, instead of looking for approval from Islamabad.
The 13thamendment of the Constitution has successfully unlocked the 44-year-long legislative logjam. It can be hoped that a few more amendments of the same nature would come to address the flaws which are being pointed out by the opposition parties and legal wizards.