Southern Punjab’s troubles — by Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Culturally, there is not one but three Punjabs, excluding the one on the Indian side. If we don’t consider religion and its influence on community and identity formation, Indian Punjab would culturally and linguistically be a part of Central Punjab in Pakistan.
Apart from the familiar commonalities that are found among the ancient lands and peoples of the Indus, their dialects and social structures are very different. So are the patterns of leadership, elite formations and power relationships in society.
Southern Punjab, much like other parts of the country, no longer represents any ethnic cohesion. The ethnic-linguistic mix has greatly changed with migration from the other Punjabs since canal colonisation. And the pattern of migration through various land acquisition schemes, particularly after the absorption of the State of Bahawalpur into Punjab, has continued.
Powerful civil bureaucrats with political roots in Central Punjab have allotted hundreds of thousands of acres state land to relatives, friends, and to those who could bribe them. This pattern continues in Cholistan and Thal (Layyah). Fake land claims by the migrants from India at the time of Pakistan’s creation, which continued to be entertained for decades, were another factor that robbed a great majority of local (Seraiki) landless peasants of their rights to own land.
In some areas, migration has even changed the historical demographic balance, particularly in major cities and towns of Southern Punjab. The region today represents a complex mosaic of linguistic and ethnic groups, including Baloch, Punjabis, Seraikis, Mohajirs and Pashtuns. The latter are in smaller numbers as a residual social class of the Pathan rulers of the Derajat (Dera Ghazi Khan and Dera Ismail Khan) and the Multan state before its conquest by Ranjit Singh.
Social characteristics of a region, complex as they are in Southern Punjab, are important to understanding which social groups control resources — land, political power and social influence — and how they affect social relations and development patterns.
The ever-expanding towns of Southern Punjab represent a very complex picture of ethnicity and culture, provide a common space for all and an opportunity for liberation from feudal bondage for the peasant as well as the middle income agriculturalist.
Although all cities of Punjab have been rotting for decades under massive political and bureaucratic corruption, the towns of Southern Punjab have suffered the most.
Just visit any town, including Multan, the seat of some of the ruling families of the region: the dust, smog and litter will hit you in the face. You will see broken potholed roads, leaking sewage and constant construction under special programmes by prime ministers, presidents and hordes of provincial and federal ministers from the region.
The villages and rural areas of the region are worse than the towns. At least in the towns, there might be some functioning public schools and a few colleges, but not in most of the rural areas. There is at least one ghost degree-college that this writer has observed in one of the southern districts. In town colleges, teachers do not attend classes or lecture regularly. The teachers of natural sciences run private academies and don’t devote themselves to teaching at the colleges.
The same is true of government hospitals where even the poor patients needing some surgery are driven to private clinics run by doctors on the payrolls of government hospitals. There might be a few noble exceptions to this practice that robs both state and society, but what this writer has witnessed over several visits to the region is heartbreaking.
What hurts more is that the ruling classes of the region continue to be elected by the same helpless peasantry that is hauled to the polling station every time to confirm political legitimacy on their lords. Democracy therefore has to go a long way to make the ruling classes accountable to anyone — the law, institutions or the common voting citizen. But this is the only route to progress; we have tried all others.
Great difference is visible in the quality of education delivery and some other social services among the rural areas of Southern Punjab between the native and the settler communities. The settler or migrant communities fare much better in terms of quality of education, particularly in areas where they have demographic strength.
The native villages that we have observed in more than one district of the region have seen very little or no development: their schools are dysfunctional or most of the teachers are absent; basic health centres have no doctors; and roads break down within a few months of their construction. This is no fiction; it is a cruel reality that is very visible in so many areas.
How do we explain these troubles of Southern Punjab?
They are primarily because of feudalism, semi-tribal social structure and monopoly of landowning families over political representation. This class has misused its power and continues to do so. There appears to be an unbreakable nexus between the civil bureaucrats heading different government departments at the district level and the elected representatives both of local governments and the members of provincial and federal legislatures.
Again, with few exceptions, they have joined hands to misappropriate development funds by spending very little on projects and pocketing most of the money. During the Musharraf years, Southern Punjab witnessed greater plunder than perhaps any other region of the country. Transparent and fair accounting and auditing, including quality checks of public works programmes in the region, would reveal the scale of this plunder.
Has any thing changed under the new elected government of Punjab?
No. Sadly, nothing has really changed in Southern Punjab. We have the same number of ghost schools — mostly girls’ schools — absentee teachers and doctors, and poor quality of public works.
Punjab as whole and Southern Punjab in particular has been in constant decline as a result of poor governance and an ineffective system of accountability. Regrettably, the greatest number of poor, landless and miserable people live in Southern Punjab. These are perfect conditions for alienation and driving people towards hopelessness and desperate actions.
Accountability of both corrupt bureaucrats and public representatives — past and present — may gradually restore some trust in governing institutions. The new rulers of Punjab need to understand the troubles of Southern Punjab and take remedial actions. Some of these actions are doable, like better governance through efficient and reliable service delivery. For change in social and power relations, we’ll have to wait till true democracy takes root.
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com