Critical appraisal of devolution in Pakistan-By Rustam Shah Mohmand

THE underlying theme of the so called devolution of power launched with such fanfare in 2001, was decentralisation of the administration down to the districts and empowering elected representatives.
But behind this facade of creating a new set of elected administrators, there was a more sinister motive — the weakening of the principle of provincial autonomy enshrined in the constitution.

The system is supervised by an elected head that is above accountability. All administrative powers are concentrated in an ‘elected’ nazim. But the system does not institute any supervisory control over his actions and decisions, violating the universally accepted principle of ‘authority with accountability’. To say that nazims report to the chief minister is preposterous and absurd. How can dozens of nazims, in Punjab for instance, report to the chief minister?

The whole philosophy behind this plan was to create an entrenched constituency which would play a role in the exercise to legitimise state institutions. This was short sighted and therefore, short lived as proved by the events that followed. The system has however damaged our administrative institutions further by giving the law and order functions to the nazim. Handling of law and order, in any civilised or semi-civilised society, is the principal function of the government which is exercised through a cadre of civil servants who are appointed through an impartial and merit-based system, and are trained and motivated to perform their duties in accordance with the law. How could a nazim, an elected person with known affiliations and prejudices, be expected to assume the responsibility of exercising control over law enforcement agencies?

And what has happened is most shocking; as ever, the teeming millions of this country remain silent spectators while their lives are being adversely impacted. There is no captain of the team in any district. Consider some appalling implications: complete mob rule in Lahore and Peshawar in the wake of the anti-cartoons agitations; collapse of the state administration in Hazara division of NWFP following the earthquake of October 2005; collapse of authority and order, mob rule and mayhem in Karachi on May 12, 2007; collapse of administrative authority in Karachi on April 09, 2008.

Who was present to handle the carnage when a former prime minister was killed? With scores of people being killed every week across the country in bomb blasts etc, it is clear that the system has deteriorated beyond repair.

The administration has simply abdicated its role and responsibility in combating not only acts of violence but also street crime. When there is no one to assume control, the result is anarchy. In Swat, the situation became so bad that the nazim fled and never returned to his “place of duty” for well over a year! So much for nazims taking responsibility for law and order!

The revenue administration is not delivering either. Such was the beauty of the old system that the district collector also happened to be district magistrate and that facilitated his handling of revenue matters and revenue cases which affect the future of 80 per cent of the people. In administering revenue laws, the district collector was aware that his decisions were enforceable because of the powers that he wielded under the law.

In an agrarian country the fate of millions of people depends on an accurate and updated maintenance of revenue records. Every year, thousands of disputes arise regarding claims over land ownership and with outdated revenue records, countless have been left in the lurch. If we consider the magnitude of the problem and the disappearance of the administrative and legal machinery to deal with revenue cases and consequential disaffection and frustration being caused to millions, we can understand the degree of public anger and how potentially risky the situation has become. Nazims cannot contribute to improving this situation. The poor citizens deserve better.

To compound the woes and suffering of the common man, the main law enforcement agency, that is the police, has been left virtually without any supervision. After the magisterial watchdog that operated for so long so successfully, vanished, the police have been let loose on the people. No wonder human rights abuses have sharply increased; rampant torture, extortions, custodial killings have become the order of the day.

In a country where more than half of the population is illiterate, where more than one third of the population lives below the poverty line, where access to justice is limited, there is a dire need for an effective district coordinator. There is no option except to revert to the old system of a district magistrate. After all, who demanded the abolition of the system of district magistrate? Was the regime empowered or had the consent of the people to introduce such structural changes in basic administrative institutions?

This was a provincial subject and this change amounted to usurping the rights of the provinces to formulate policies for their own areas. Was the man entrusted with this huge responsibility actually suitable for it in terms of his credentials, knowledge and experience? The fact is that we have sacrificed our time-tested systems at the altar of political expediency. We have destroyed the fabric of administration for mundane, petty objectives.

If the new government does not take stock of this grim scenario and does not revert to the old system, it would be fair to assume that the old dispensation continues. Then it is a folly to call it a ‘new government’. In which case, the unjust system, motivated by an evil intent, would perpetuate itself.
The writer is a former interior secretary.

Source: Daily Dawn, 26/6/2008

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