The devolution saga

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 By Raza Rumi

The debate on the scrapping of Musharraf’s devolution experiment cannot hide or ignore two key imperatives. First, that all military dictators have a penchant for local democracy at the expense of provincial autonomy and the country’s parliamentary structure. Second, never has Pakistan been so vulnerable to state’s fragmentation and erosion of trust in public institutions. This is why the elected government, with bipartisan consensus, has proceeded to restructure the 2002 Local Government Ordinances.

But, the debate remains obsessed with the district management group (DMG), a cadre that is a much weaker and tainted inheritor of administrative structures instituted by the Mughal and British empires. Therefore, the proposed restoration of executive magistracy has been termed yet another big conspiracy by the supposedly powerful DMG, which allegedly has influenced the political elites to revive the colonial institution of the district magistrate. The simple question is if the DMG were so powerful, it would have saved its field structure and magistracy nearly a decade ago.

The reality is that political elites have realised that given that they do not have trained cadres of armed men and intelligence apparatus at their disposal, they cannot govern. The elected nazims are a good way to articulate development policy priorities but the police had at best kept them a secondary partner as far as law and order was concerned.

Beyond the simplistic law and order formulation, the regulatory functions of the local state inherent in the local and special laws had come to a standstill during the last decade. District judiciary cannot be expected to make field visits and place themselves in public domain given the requirement of their jobs and functions. Hence, the prosecution for things to do with public safety, hygiene, environment and delivery of public goods also suffered under the Musharraf-Naqvi-Aziz production that flopped at the local box office.

This is not to say that more autonomy at the local levels is not required. If anything, decisions relating to education, health, water and sanitation need to be devised, debated and implemented at the local level. In this respect, the local governments performed well. The utilisation of development expenditures increased dramatically from the historical averages of 30-35 per cent. What remains to be assessed, is, whether increased expenditures were converted into public services such as better health care, school attendance and improved urban and rural sanitation. If anything, Pakistan’s development culture is heavily tilted towards infrastructure ‘schemes’ that have highest commissions and kickbacks for the implementers. Services are rarely a priority from the federal to the local levels.

Over the past few years the police, neither trained nor equipped to handle law and order situations, assumed exclusive public peace responsibilities. A few incidents that we all witnessed, such as Dr Sher Afghan’s thrashing by charged lawyers, are a case in point. It was the police that were handling the situation while the army of nazims in Lahore was nowhere to be seen. Similarly, gaps and power vacuums at the local level were felt by provincial administrations everywhere. Non-uniformed civilian state was missing in action thus making the situation confounding and chaotic. Not surprisingly, we have seen frittering away of provincial governments’ authority in several parts of the country, especially in the northwest.

If executive magistracy were such an anathema, the Indians would have done away with the district magistrates long time ago. After all, they implemented policies that are inconceivable in Pakistan, be it land reforms, re-demarcation of provincial boundaries or an independent election commission. There is a strong, well-functioning local government system in India that has organically evolved over the decades. The demarcation is quite clear: development and public welfare is the domain of the elected local governments while implementing national and state policy and ensuring law and order are the preserve of district magistrates. Of all the places, Malaysia also retains this institution and the question is why it was not disbanded there if this were such a bottleneck to national development.

The truth is that media analysts and sections of intelligentsia that are vociferously arguing against the return of district magistrates are the ones who were at the forefront of supporting the launch and implementation of ‘local democracy’ by a military dictator and his cohorts who have all escaped accountability for putting the country in a royal mess. Was the support of well-known NGOs and other presumably ‘independent’ actors to Musharraf’s expensive experiment not against the fundamental tenets of democracy and constitutionalism?

We are an unfortunate polity. Who will pay for the monumental cost – financial, human and institutional – that the ill-fated devolution plan invoked? Why were the taxpayers and the hapless citizens made to undergo such transition? The ultimate need for our governance institutions – whether magisterial or elected – is accountability. Internal accountability mechanisms are all but mere lines of rules and regulations; and electoral accountability is almost a favour that the establishment bestows on the political elites when the former cannot manage the system anymore.

The sheer arrogance of the National Reconstruction Bureau in the late 1990s has now come to a full circle. Its closed door imposition from the above has failed, reaffirming that Pakistan is a diverse coalition of provinces, political and ethnic groups, and not a garrison where marching orders are obeyed by all and sundry. In addition to arrogance, the plain hypocrisy of decentralisation was astounding as it left the cantonments and Islamabad outside the ambit of devolution. This illogic was embedded in the experiment. To top it all, the promised devolution of powers from centre to provinces never occurred thereby confirming its political intent: revival of Ayub’s basic democracies in the twenty-first century. The way local elections were scripted and managed by ‘angels’ is a separate, well-known story.

Now that the circle is complete, it is time to take stock of what happened during the period that local governments functioned. Needless to mention, the entire system should not be undone, a temptation that is ever-present. The state and service delivery institutions have to be responsive and accessible to people with suitable mandates, powers and resources. Therefore, the politically attractive option to re-provincialise development functions must not take place.

Second, the new system should be simpler and understandable for the public. The way LGOs were framed was non-consultative and thereby full of jargon, complex structure and tiers. Local accountability mechanisms were never implemented, such as the monitoring committees and district ombudsmen. Even for a restored deputy commissioner, a local ombudsman would be a good check.

Thirdly, the Police Order 2002 needs to be re-evaluated, as it is another case of half-implemented reform package. Essentially, all the provisions that increased police powers and made it locally unaccountable were implemented while the ones that pertained to public checks were either ignored or effectively subverted by the clever officials. In Sindh and Punjab, given the high levels of urbanisation, the police need to report to those who manage the cities without undue political interference.

Finally, the provincial departments and unwieldy bureaucratic machinery is also a part of the problem. Therefore, local governance at this critical juncture of our survival requires that the state is as close to the people as it can be. You cannot govern Gwadar from Quetta, or Dera Ghazi Khan from Lahore. This is a compulsion of geography and demography. Local government reform must take place in tandem with provincial reforms.

The citizens are simply interested in services and results. Administrative shenanigans are more of a problem for the chattering classes. Any change in the system should be cognisant of this overarching requirement.

The writer is a development professional and a writer based in Lahore. He blogs at and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama e-zines. Email: razarumi@

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