PESHAWAR -- On March 2 Pakistan approved plans to bring the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the mainstream political fold.
The change, if it takes effect, will end FATA's status -- dating back to colonial times -- as a place with few rights for individuals and under direct rule from the capital.
The move resulted from recommendations made by the FATA Reforms Committee (FRC) on November 8. The committee members consulted with tribal representatives prior to drafting the recommendations.
"The cabinet has in principle approved the recommendations of the FATA Reforms Committee," Sartaj Aziz, head of a six-member government reform committee and a senior aide to Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, said in Islamabad.
The plan calls for merging FATA into neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province within five years, while some key reforms such as ending collective punishment and extending the rule of Pakistani courts would take months rather than years.
The collective punishment provision, a sore point with tribes for decades, is part of the profoundly unpopular Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which the British imposed. The FCR makes a family or even a tribe responsible for an individual's acts.
Parliament will now consider the proposals; if it finds them agreeable, it will try to pass a constitutional amendment.
If the reform plan passes, FATA will be able to elect representatives to the KP Assembly in 2018, Aziz said.
In addition, the federal government would repeal the FCR and replace it with the Riwaj Regulation for Tribal Areas, which omits provisions related to collective responsibility.
Further, the National Finance Commission is expected to consider allocating 3% of the annual gross federal divisible pool for the implementation of the FATA Sustainable Development Plan.
The pool is the revenue available for distribution nationwide to help alleviate poverty.
The recommendations include a target date of April 30 for the repatriation of all internally displaced persons and set 2018 as a tentative deadline for completion of reconstruction.
"The tribal people are patriotic and love Pakistan," Aziz said according to Radio Pakistan. "The time has come to bring the tribal people into [the] mainstream to end their sense of deprivation."
The seven tribal agencies -- Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand, North Waziristan, Orakzai and South Waziristan -- are home to about eight million residents, mainly ethnic Pashtuns.
The tribal population welcomes the government's plan to merge FATA with KP and sees it a crucial step to democratise the region, local politicians and activists say.
"It is an acknowledgment on the part of the government that the region has been cleared of militancy and needs to be democratised to deny a foothold to miscreants in the future," Iqbal Afridi, co-ordinator of the FATA chapter of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, told Pakistan Forward.
Iqbal expressed hope that mainstreaming FATA will pave the way for an era of participatory governance.
"People are eager to see elections and other activities at the grass-roots level," said Awami National Party Provincial Vice President for KP Imran Afridi.
Under the long-time system of governance in FATA, political agents appointed by the federal government run the tribal agencies.
"In the past, militants have had opportunities to consolidate their illegitimate rule and advance their nefarious agenda because we lacked a proper forum to send our message to the outside world," Afridi told Pakistan Forward.
Since the government announced plans to introduce reforms, a series of public meetings and rallies in support of the move has taken place, he said.
"People are sick of militancy and wish to have a system of democracy," he said. "Our people have seen the ruthlessness unleashed by insurgents, and they do not want to go back to [the previous] era but to sustain the peace achieved through military action."
While all political parties have welcomed the merger or mainstreaming of FATA with KP, some want the implementation to take place sooner than 2018.
"We welcome the government's move, but it should take place before the next general election," PTI leader Shah Farman told Pakistan Forward. "Giving a five-year timeline for the merger creates doubts over the government's intentions."
Tribe members are happy about the impending reforms but are dissatisfied over the prolonged implementation of the plan, said Syed Akhunzada Chittan, a leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
"My party is supporting the reform programme but doesn't agree with the time frame," he told Pakistan Forward.
"People want change in FATA because the ground realities show that its merger with KP is the only way to mainstream it and defeat Taliban militants forever," he said.
"The Taliban are opposed to any plan to democratise FATA because they have always pursued governance through sheer use of power," he said.
All political parties were unanimous on the need for reforms as a way to end violence and spur development, said Chittan.
"To ensure socio-economic development and to reduce poverty and unemployment, a special committee will prepare a decade-long development plan for FATA," he said.
"The plan to conduct party-based local elections is a real step to empower the people at the grass-roots level," said Khadim Hussain, an independent Peshawar-based security analyst.
Presently, the tribes rely on the federal government, he said. "Once the people elect their representatives locally, they will feel empowered," he told Pakistan Forward.
"This will ensure durable peace [in the tribal areas]," he said.
Hussain lauded the proposal to retain the jirga system for both civil and criminal matters in FATA and to have the judiciary grant fundamental rights to FATA residents.
The local population rendered massive sacrifices to end terrorism and has a right to a say in its own political future, said Arifullah Mohmand, an office-bearer of the FATA Students Organisation.
"Militants have destroyed our social fabric, schools and hospitals, and we desperately need a democratically elected government to establish permanent peace on our soil," he told Pakistan Forward.
"By introducing democracy, we can eliminate terrorism forever," he said. "We can end violence only through elected government."