THE provincial governments are again rushing changes in institutions of governance apparently without due deliberation.It seems our administration experts are determined not to grow out of their infatuation with ad hocism. The targets are the executive hierarchy in the provinces, the local government system and the police organisation.
The Frontier and Punjab governments recently started appointing regional coordination officers to discharge some of the functions the divisional commissioners used to perform till their posts were abolished under the devolution scheme of 2001. Now in Punjab the Land Revenue Act has been amended to restore the provisions regarding commissioners and other divisional officers.
While little is known about the Frontier government’s relapse into the commissionerate system, some explanation is available in Punjab’s case. It is said that the province’s administrative mechanism had been undermined by the abolition of the posts of commissioners and other divisional functionaries, that a commissioner could oversee the district revenue officers’ work and that he formed a useful bridge between the district and the provincial administrations.
It is obvious that after the restoration of commissioners the provincial heads of some departments will have their workload reduced and it will also be possible to increase the number of posts senior bureaucrats covet. But it is necessary to provide answers to a few basic questions.
Is the finding that the disappearance of the division-level executives had weakened the administrative mechanisms based on intra-executive deliberations or were any opinions from outside also solicited? Even if this finding is valid, is revival of the pre-2001 colonial design the only way out? Was any study done on the restructuring of the board of revenue after the abolition of land revenue or on its replacement with a less cumbersome system for maintaining land records, disposal of colony lands, regulation of horse-breeding grants, et al.?
Will the administration’s expansion stop at the revival of divisional functionaries or will more posts be added to the already overweight administration? And why can the governments not associate elected representatives with the planning of administrative reform instead of seeking their endorsement after the event?
Much less clear are plans to change the local government system. The devolution plan crafted by the Musharraf regime has often been criticised. The imposition of a single formula on all provinces, the exclusion of provincial authorities from the planning process, lack of effective means to regulate the windfalls of district governments, and local governments’ dependence on federal largesse while they have little power to raise their own resources — these have been some of the main grounds of attack.
Also known is the fact that the provincial governments will fight devolution of power to the district level more stubbornly than the centre’s resistance to demands for surrendering some of its powers to the provinces. Further, politicians are wary of a system all military dictators have used to block democratic governance.
While the need to meet these objections is manifest equally obvious should be the need to avoid replacing an arbitrarily devised plan with a similarly conceived alternative. Regardless of authoritarian rulers’ reasons for favouring them, the local government institutions have a pivotal role in raising the edifice of good governance.
The two-tier (federal and provincial) system of governance can answer the demands of neither efficiency nor democracy. Just as the provinces have an irresistible case for the decentralisation of the federation’s powers they will have to accept local governments as a duly defined third tier of constitutional authority. The provinces will do good to themselves and also to the people by approaching the question of local government through public debate and a careful assessment of possibilities of reform and of pitfalls on the way.
Similarly the suggestions being made for changes in the Police Order 2002 should be critically examined. This Order was designed to meet the long-felt need to replace the Police Act of 1861 with a more humane and adequately effective legislation. It was also conceived within the context of the devolution plan. The foundation of provincial governments’ hostility to this measure too was laid in the sponsors’ arrogance in denying them opportunity to be heard during the deliberations for reforms, despite the fact that policing fell within the provinces’ jurisdiction. They were unable to secure changes in the draft of the alternative legislation during the extended public debate on it.
However, the Police Order ran into rough weather soon after its enforcement. The federal authority’s love for its brainchild started waning quite early and it delayed the formation of the Central Public Safety Commission, which was needed to keep a check on the autonomous functioning of the police force, and the provincial governments started nibbling at some of the Order’s healthier provisions. While it was not possible to prevent the inspectors general of police, quite unnecessarily designated as provincial police officers, from supplanting home secretaries as secretaries to provincial governments the chief ministers succeeded in getting their right to superintendence, directly or through chief/home secretaries, recognised.
The police chiefs’ security of tenure, about which the authors of the Order had waxed a great deal, was also abandoned. It can safely be argued that the federal authority considerably weakened its case by failing to ensure the Order’s enforcement with the vigour and earnestness it warranted.
The provinces are now reported to be pressing for undoing the separation of the prosecution branch from the investigation wing. There are also reports of a move to merge the investigation and registration branches. The creation of separate branches for prosecution, investigation and registration functions of the police had been suggested by a number of expert bodies much before the National Reconstruction Bureau’s birth. These suggestions had grown out of many rounds of public debate and addressed the problems of inefficiency and corruption both. It is difficult to endorse the move for restoration of status quo ante in the absence of a cogent and convincing statement of objectives.
That all administrative mechanisms need periodic updating will not be denied. It is also possible that the changes in some key institutions of governance discussed here have been inspired by considerations of public good. But then the way to purgatory is often paved with good intentions. Ad hoc decisions may sometimes prove good but that does not establish a principle.
Sound administrative change must be backed by a considerable body of literature on the subject, a record of broad-based debate, and consultation with the representatives of the people. Pakistan has already suffered much from the tradition of ad hocism. It needs to break away from this style of governance instead of enlarging the scope of ad hocism.
Daily Dawn, 30th October 2008