PESHAWAR -- The population of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is celebrating the merger of the region with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), with the hope that the move will democratise the previously lawless and militancy-afflicted region.
The National Assembly May 24 passed a constitutional amendment to merge FATA with KP. President Mamnoon Hussain signed the bill into law May 31.
The change puts as many as six million inhabitants of the seven tribal districts -- Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan -- under the jurisdiction of courts in KP, granting them the same rights as other Pakistanis.
Political agents in the former FATA, who held dual administrative and judicial powers, will be replaced by deputy commissioners.
The entire mainstreaming process, expected to take five years, has begun.
The region will have 23 seats in the KP Assembly, which will strengthen the province and as a whole give representatives a stronger voice at the national level.
Islamabad will also allocate more resources to KP as part of the merger.
"[Tribe members] are glad to do away with the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) imposed during colonial times," Khalil Rehman, a political scientist at Government Post Graduate College Bannu and a resident of North Waziristan District, told Pakistan Forward.
The FCR included the practice of collective punishment, allowing authorities to hold entire clans responsible for the crimes of individuals.
Residents sick of militancy are jubilant over the merger, he said.
"Now we are enjoying freedom," said Ihsanullah Afridi, a student affiliated with the Pakistan Peoples Party in Khyber District.
"Those who were arrested under the FCR didn't have access to common courts operating elsewhere in the country," he told Pakistan Forward.
"The FCR, dubbed the 'black law', suppressed the people, who couldn't raise their voices against arbitrary verdicts by the administration," he said. "Access to courts has ensured our right to seek justice after the abolition of the FCR."
"This is a sea change," he said. "It is a gigantic task for which the legal foundation has been laid."
Scrapping the FCR is a welcome change for those who existed under the draconian law, said Zahir Shah, a resident of South Waziristan District.
"That situation [of FATA's segregation and inequality] exposed the area to a host of proxy wars that degraded its socioeconomic conditions," he told Pakistan Forward.
"Many opportunities will come to improve residents' lives because of the historic merger," he said. "The residents who lived in constant fear are no longer depressed but instead look towards a better tomorrow."
In the past, federal health, education and social departments did not serve the tribal areas, Shah said. "But we will see an era of development that will create thousands of jobs and help establish infrastructure for better health, education, energy, water and sanitation."
The tribal population has made immense sacrifices for peace in Pakistan, said Gul Zafar Khan, a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) candidate running in general elections in Constituency NA-41 Bajaur District.
"It is because of our relentless efforts against militancy that a century-old system has been replaced. We have started our journey towards democracy," he told Pakistan Forward, adding that it will be impossible for militants to carve out a niche in the new democratic setup.
"FATA has been headquarters for terrorists for more than a decade," said Khan. "It was easy for the militants to stay untouched without a full-scale administrative hierarchy."
Kamran Mahsud, secretary of the FATA Students Organisation, pinned great hopes on the merger.
"It will bring sustainable peace into an area that terrorists historically have exploited," he told Pakistan Forward. "Credit goes to all political forces for their unflinching support; they created a top-notch merger plan, and all deserve congratulations."
"Reform is the only way to secure durable peace in the area," Mahsud said. "The [residents] have taken a sigh of relief and are waiting to reap the benefits of the new system."
The merger will undoubtedly boost business, Ziauddin Ahmed, a Peshawar-based economist, told Pakistan Forward.
"The tribal districts have mines and gold that have remained untapped because of terrorism and the lack of rule of law," he said. "We hope the extension of national law and an end to violence will pave the way for industrialisation and investment to better [tribe members'] lives."
"Thousands of local residents who have been working ... in other parts of the country will return once they see improvement back home, and that will boost the economy," he said.