AS the battle over the devolution of some of the responsibilities of the Higher Education Commission rages on — the Supreme Court is set to hear the matter — a wider issue has been lost sight of: preparing the provinces for the responsibility of administering subjects devolved under the 18th Amendment. With 10 ministries now devolved and several more to follow, the centre and the provinces have yet to work out an agreement on either the financial aspects or the technical/capacity side of things.
On the financial side, the provinces are arguing that when the seventh NFC award was being negotiated they were given assurances by the centre that any ministries to be devolved under the 18th Amendment would be accounted for separately. However, the centre is claiming that because the NFC enhanced the share of the provinces from the total resources pool, the provinces should be able to pay for the new provincial ministries from their shares under the award. At stake, then, are both recurring expenditures, such as salaries and overheads, and the financing of existing projects approved and initiated by the federal ministries which have been devolved. There are two related problems: one, because overall revenue projections have not been realised, the centre is finding it difficult to meet the NFC commitments; two, the provinces have done little to enhance revenues raised at the provincial level, as also pledged under the NFC. With money so short, the new ministries at the provincial level risk being stillborn.
Next, the issue of capacity. The 18th Amendment envisaged a transition of powers to be completed in a certain time frame, but the timing, pace and modalities of the transfers have been left up to an implementation committee. But all subjects are not equal; some devolved powers raise questions that the implementation committee may not easily find answers to. For example, with the medicinal drugs policy becoming a provincial subject following the 18th Amendment, the country risks having multiple standards for drugs licensing. With the commercial stakes so high and powerful pharmaceutical interests at work, the possibility of substandard drugs making it to the market legally will go up. A possible solution would be to have an inter-provincial coordination body dealing with drugs licensing, but for that to happen the provinces and the centre would need to work together in a way that arguably goes beyond the mandate of the existing implementation committee. The furore over the HEC — indeed, before the implementation committee`s clarification, we too had expressed our concerns about higher education being devolved — has tended to obscure these potentially more important, matters.