Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has been faced with a crisis of federalism. Early decisions to centralize power deprived smaller provinces of their most pressing demands for joining the new state: increased national/provincial autonomy and the devolution of power. For six decades, the promise of federalism has eroded under the weight of unfettered military rule, imbalanced and undemocratic state structures, and the domination of all federal institutions by Punjab. With outside attention trained on Islamic insurgency, observers are missing the most crucial dynamic in Pakistani politics, that of declining inter-provincial harmony. The specter of separatist movements once again haunts Pakistan, which has been on the verge of becoming a failed state. To survive these existing crises, Pakistan must adopt further transformative constitutional reforms that limit the reach of the center to the fields of defense, foreign policy, currency and other inter-provincial matters. By restoring a balance of power both between the executive and legislative branches and between the center and the provinces, Pakistan can move a pivotal step closer to substantive democracy, participatory federalism and sustainable political stability.

Once partition was completed, the initial promises of autonomy and devolution of power went unfulfilled by Pakistan’s ruling elite. Critical decisions taken by the center concerning the ratification of constitutions and governing documents, the elevation of Urdu language, and the amalgamation of the provinces of west Pakistan into the One-Unit scheme in 1955 deprived the provinces of the authority and position in the federation they expected upon joining the union. Federalism was bankrupted purposively, culminating in the ‘liberation’ of East Pakistan and the subjugation of the smaller provinces to the ruling Punjab-Urdu speaking nexus.

The federal discourse moves on to exploring the issues and consequences of the denial of inclusive federalism for current Pakistan politics. The federal center had acquired immense control over government and economic policy, shortchanging the provinces and indigenous peoples whose interests are not being represented. Not only does one province dominate decision-making processes, military and bureaucratic appointments, and the state coffers, but smaller provinces have suffered destructive cultural, linguistic, and economic policies. National identity and linguistic diversity is denied, provincial assemblies had witnessed a receding of authority to the districts, and resources are disproportionately exploited without commensurate compensation for their places of origin. Conflicts have arisen throughout the country: between the center and provinces, between larger and smaller provinces, and between the provinces and the districts. Pakistan is truly in a state of flux and uncertainty.

Inclusive federalism offers the most democratic system to govern Pakistan’s diverse array of nationalities and communities. Genuine devolution of power in a federalist manner could provide for the democratic resolution to these intra-state conflicts and promotion of inter-provincial harmony as well as help to protect language and cultural rights of all nationalities and communities. Governance could be improved across the country as provinces are more aware and responsive to the needs of their citizens, not just developmentally, but also culturally and linguistically. The integrity of the Pakistani state must be achieved through equality and justice.

Pakistan’s state related multidimensional crisis is no more a secret. From an international perspective Pakistan is seen as a dysfunctional state and no one is ready to rely on it. The catastrophe of religious extremism is hovering over not only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) but across the country, which has virtually exposed the capacity of state institutions; despite expending major share of public recourses on defense for more than last six decades the state has failed to protect its citizens. The situation in Baluchistan has reached a point where the national anthem cannot be played in government schools.

In Pakistan, not a single day passes without news of target killings in Karachi, protests, hunger strikes and acts of violence in other parts of the provinces. There is no check over the breach of law and order. Rising poverty and alarming unemployment has deprived common people of their fundamental right to live. The energy crisis coupled with mismanagement has dragged the very system to doldrums. The pertinent issues of the federation and its constituent units, i.e. implementation of 18th constitutional amendment in letter and spirit, fiscal awards, fair distribution of water, complete ownership of provinces over natural resources, substantial parliamentary democracy and the supremacy of the parliament in all the affairs of state and above all provincial autonomy remain key challenges to the federation of Pakistan.

Not only the new generation but even those who made this country are totally disappointed over Pakistan’s future as a better, democratic, and secular country based on principles of democratic federalism and unity in diversity. Despite this, optimistic and prudent people seem to be united over the idea that the only hope for the survival and continuance of this country lies in the paradigm shift to run this federation successfully.

The sixty six years old federation of Pakistan is mired in crises. Theories abound of where Pakistan’s future lies around the world, Pakistan is described as a “failed state,” “a nursery and asylum for the terrorists”, or “client state” governed and exploited by world powers pursuing their own selfish interests. Variety of conflicts between the people and the state are raising at an alarming pace, fueled by anger over bad governance, lack of basic service provision, and growth of radicalization in Pakistan. Even with the relatively empowered parliament, independent judiciary and free media and vibrant civil society, Pakistan has yet to fully right itself on the path to substantial democracy and democratic federalism based on complete autonomy for constituent federating units. Democratic changes, while deceptively attractive, are merely a superficial façade painted over fractured rule. Little doubt remains over the sheer ineptness and ineffectiveness of democratic institutions. The pendulum of public opinion may have swung back once again in the favor of civilian government (conforming to the historical cycles of civil-military relations), but the military and security services refuse to cease their unlawful intervention in power politics.

The consequences of unitary federalism continue to devour at the foundations of the state. External observers have failed to analyze one of the most pressing dynamics in Pakistan politics, that of internal tensions surrounding provincial autonomy and the distribution of authority among the provinces and federal government. Whatever remained of the hollowing out of federalist structures was badly damaged by the Musharraf regime; substantial democratic federalism in Pakistan remained a dream and unfolding reality. Smaller provinces are infuriated by denial of diversity, status of indigenous languages of federating units, the construction of the unconstitutional greater Thal Canal, unjust NFC awards, the unequal distribution of royalties from natural resources, and the continuous military operation in Baluchistan and above all lack of a new social contract between people and state and among the federating units. Many fear that the conflicts among the provinces, various sections of society have left now the phase of peaceful opposition and entered into that of strong, possibly violent, resistance.

Even the most destabilizing situation in Pakistan’s short history of independence, the split of Bangladesh, pales in comparison with the challenges the current administration faces. Each rift in the state’s flimsy fabric – regional, ethnic, linguistic, and religious – adds another complex dimension to the ongoing crisis. Citizens have matured politically, departing from Islamist and fiercely anti-Indian ideologies in favor of democratic and positively moderate platforms. Perfunctory promises of reform and renewal no longer placate growing unrest; people across the country readily fill the streets in protest of failed leadership. Further limited in policy options, the civilian governments, irrespective of its leadership, must adopt an approach that eases the inter-provincial conflicts that lies at the heart of Pakistan’s struggle. Without urgent action, the existential noose around the state’s feeble institutions, tightened by mistrust, isolation, and an indefatigable insurgency, will completely strangle Pakistan’s hopes for inclusive democracy and a prosperous future.

What should be done?

Rarely in history do opportunities present themselves to reverse the crimes, erroneous decisions, and short-sightedness of an oppressive class. When instances do arise, like other strong leaders, those in Pakistan, can change the political course of a country by persisting in their drive for democratic institutions. We must return Pakistan to the state promised and outlined in the 1940 Lahore Resolution. The exploitation, manipulation, and autocratic enslavement of the people must end. This is the time to draw a line. The people of Pakistan, especially from smaller provinces and oppressed nationalities, strongly believe that genuine federalism and real provincial autonomy can only be achieved by honoring the following demands.


  • The federation of Pakistan needs a new social contract between the federation and provinces and among the provinces. The 1973 constitution could work for interim period leading towards a new constitution based on the spirit of 1940 resolution and best inclusive federal practices through a new elected constituent assembly. The new constitution will work as a new social contract among the people and constituent federating units of Pakistan.

  • 18th Constitutional Amendment should be fully implemented in letter and spirit

  • A Constitutional Court should be established at federal level to protect the integrity of the new Constitution and adjudicate over the inter-provincial/federal relations.

  • Military should have no role and stake in politics and public life. The size of armed forces should be downsized and the armed forces should have equal representation from all the respective provinces.

  • Pakistan’s defense budget is not transparently made and spent; therefore it should be put before the upper and lower houses of parliament for open discussion and final approval from all four provincial assemblies.

  • FATA and FANA should become part of Khyber Pashtunkhwa

  • Pakistan has become a structurally imbalanced federation after the separation of East Pakistan. One province dominates all the state institutions and enjoys an absolute majority in the parliament over the other three provinces. This concentration of power in the executive branch has emerged as a major source of conflict in Pakistan. The viable solution could be to empower the senate, ensuring that the provinces have equal numerical representation and relative influence.

    • Senators should be directly elected by the populace.
    • The Senate must have the power to pass or veto budget, defense and monetary bills as well as to approve treaties with foreign states.
    • All federal appointments must be confirmed by Senate committees – including Supreme Court judges, the chief election commissioner, members and chairman of federal public service commissions, ambassadors, heads of autonomous bodies and corporations, governors, and the chiefs of the armed forces.
    • Citizen of one province should not have constitutional right to become member of Senate from other provinces because Senate is essentially a territorial chamber of parliament.
  • The unfinished agenda of land reforms must be completed with special reference to distribution of army lands to poor tenants and women.

  • All the indigenous languages of Pakistan – Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi, Siraiki, Hindko and others – should be given the status of national languages.

  • Urdu and English should remain the official languages of inter-provincial communication.
  • Provincial governments should be able to devise and implement education and language policies according to their own preferences.

  • The present arrangement whereby the National Finance Commission award is distributed mainly on the basis of population should be reformed in 8th NFC award. The allocation of NFC awards should be instead decided through an index of the following mix criteria:
  1. Population
  2. Revenue generation capacity
  3. Disparities in development as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI),  inequality (GINI coefficient), and incidence of poverty in the  provinces
  4. Level of per capita income in comparison to the other provinces

  • Water conflict has become a key source of conflict in Pakistan. Sindh is the lower riparian of River Indus and all its tributaries. The constitution of Pakistan and international law, confers inalienable rights to the lower riparian. The Province of Sindh along with KPK and Baluchistan has opposed further cuts on the Indus River and its tributaries by way of dams, canals and barrages that divert water without the consent of the lower riparian areas. All controversial mega projects such as large dams and canals to be built upstream on the Indus River should be shelved.

  • Equitable distribution of irrigation water among all provinces should be instituted.  At present, Punjab forcibly appropriates major and disproportionate share according to the formula of 1994, while ignoring the 1991 Water Accord and the 1945 Agreement negotiated at the time of British Raj.

[i] Jami Chandio is an independent researcher, scholar and activist; he is executive director Center for Peace and Civil Society, a think tank based in Sindh.