The jirga of the urban jagirdars-Ahmad Rafay Alam

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Some months ago, I wrote about how the Government of Punjab was to decide on how to run its operations (“Local government vs. development authority,” July 28). At the time it was uncertain whether the new government would continue to employ the local government setup introduced by Pervez Musharraf in 2001 or rely on development authorities like the LDA and PHA to carry out the obligations of its mandate.

The government wound up not choosing from these two options. Instead, it reintroduced the office of the divisional commissioner and, in effect, created a new tier of government administration that would ensure policy implementation oversight in development works. What the Americans, in their lingo, would call a “District Management Czar.”

In Lahore, one of newly-appointed Commissioner Khusro Pervez’s first decrees was to order the reopening of the Minar-e-Pakistan. That hideous monument to the Lahore Declaration of 1940 had been shut to the public by the PHA a few years ago after it gained infamy for the number of people who kept throwing themselves to their deaths off the top of it. This marvel is currently listed on Wikipedia’s List of Suicide Sites.

The idea of having high-level oversight over development works isn’t exactly new. It has been floated by plenty of people in the context of urban management. People point to the local government administration, the LDA, the PHA think themselves geniuses for figuring out that too many cooks spoil the broth and ask whether it wouldn’t be prudent to have a single supra-body coordinate their functions. To quite an extent, the vague powers and duties of the newly reintroduced commissioners seem to be just the stuff such a supra-body would be made of. But to govern a city like Lahore requires more than supra-administrative control over provincial development authorities and local governments. Let me explain.

The best way to think of the governance of Lahore is thinking of it as a collection of independent jagirs. Over and above the CDGL, the nine TMAs, the LDA and PHA, thousands of acres of Lahore is governed by the Cantonment Board and the DHA. There is no law, policy or formalised practice that regulates the way these two bodies interact with the rest of the city and provincial administration. They are fiefs unto themselves.

Thousands of acres of land in the city also fall under the possession of Pakistan Railways. This land is managed by the Railway Administration and so, for example, every time someone comes up with the idea of developing Railway land into 5-Star hotels, they rarely, if ever, do so by informing the CDGL or the LDA, let alone conferring with town planners and urban development experts.

Similarly, the Evacuee Trust Property Board is vested with the ownership of countless properties throughout the city. For the past four years, the ETPB has been trying generate revenue by auctioning them off. (What is the point of it being a trust, I ask?) All the tenders published so far put the responsibility of complying with bylaws on the shoulders of prospective bidders and developers. The ETPB, like the other fiefs unto themselves, doesn’t feel the need to consult the local government, development authorities or urban planning policy. And then there are the hundreds of private housing societies that operate under their own, individual, bylaws, regulations and practices.

There are other parcels of land in the city that fall under the ostensible control of the provincial government or equally vague official entities. The Fortress Stadium Management Committee is a case in point. I can think of no legal cover for this entity that has, over the past three years, allowed the commercialisation of land surrounding the Fortress Stadium. No environment or urban-planning assessment of this commercialising has ever taken place. The GOR areas in Lahore are another good example. Apparently, GOR-I along the Mall is a fief unto itself, answerable to no local byelaw. But that’s a topic better suited to a whole article. Then there are the Federal Government properties. You get the point.

Usually, when one stands and argues in favour of decentralisation, the Bogeyman is often pulled out and into the debate. How is one to coordinate the efforts of so many decentralised agencies? Most local government, one is told, are corrupt, inefficient and don’t have capacity. Wouldn’t it be madness? For sure, one is repeatedly told, we need a singular authority that administers the entire urban area.

What is madness is the total lack of coordination between existing agencies and government bodies. What is madness is the corrupt and inefficient bodies that currently lack capacity. The fact is that we are already living in a state of urban planning anarchy. Why someone would think a rational decentralisation backed by coherent policy would be worse than the current state of affairs is beyond this commentator’s grasp.

Nevertheless, the effect of this Bogeyman of an argument is that urban managers fearful of failing forward, decide to fail backwards. It is in our ethic that district management can only be conducted with an iron rod wielded by senior officers. If only the world still worked like this. A survey of previous attempts to “appoint” a solution to urban problems will reveal but one conclusion: that the model of adding tiers of hierarchy does nothing to improve management. Why persist when all previous attempts in a similar vein have done nothing but get you to the current state of urban crisis?

The failing of the District Management Czar strategy isn’t that it is a supra-authority. It’s that it isn’t a broad enough supra-body. The new commissioners will lord it over local governments and development authorities. But their powers end when dealing with equally important urban players like the Cantonment Board, the DHA, Railways and the other jagirs that dot our cities.

The problem is that, at the moment, there is no law that grants urban planning authorities the permission to deal with and engage these other players. Nor is there a policy or formalised practice that attempts to do the same. The jagirs that operate do so with their personal interest in mind. There is no concept of an overall framework. The Tragedy of the Commons or the Prisoner’s Dilemma best illustrate why the current framework will almost certainly fail this city.

There is, however, political will. Urban issue are becoming too mainstream to ignore. In this situation, the only sensible thing to do is to create a platform where all the players in the urban development sector can meet and be free to air their thoughts and present their problems and challenges. A jirga of jagirdars, so to speak. Each will be given their due, allowed the space to air their grievances and present the challenges they face. No hierarchy should be imposed that will ruffle proud feathers. But most importantly, the players on such a platform will have an overview of the various interests that form the city. The jirga can meet and hammer out its own rules of procedures and so on. Despite the relative simplicity of this concept, it is surprising to learn that such meetings do not occur.

Urban management is an issue that all of Pakistan should be aware of. Within a few years, this country will not be the same rural, agricultural land it was. In another decade, most of the population will live in urban areas. Demographic statistics suggest that this urban population will grow from 58 million today to approximately 180 million by 2030. We need to figure out how our government structure can cope with the housing, sanitation, health, education, employment and recreations issues this change will bring. Out with the old and demonstrably unsuccessful management experiments of the past. In with new and improved solutions to the challenges of tomorrow.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx.

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