Devolution of powers: the challenges ahead

The impediments to full provincial autonomy under the 18th Amendment need to be tackled despite the odds

Perhaps the best thing about contemporary Pakistan is the way its governance arrangements are being restructured to undo the bitter, brutal legacy of centralisation. Had we undertaken such reform decades ago, Pakistan would have been a far better place. The 18th Amendment reflects a board political consensus on how Pakistan can actually evolve into a real federal state as opposed to the notional federalism of the past where provincial autonomy had become a residue of central patronage and not guaranteed by the Constitution.

Nevertheless, the devolution of powers in 2011 faces two major dilemmas. First, the provinces are currently operating as centralised bureaucratic apparatuses with little or no powers and accountabilities at the local levels. Second, and perhaps far more important, the provinces have to build their technical and political capacities to handle the new powers and functions, which are now flowing at an unprecedented speed. These two challenges are the real test of civilian governments and it remains to be seen if they can handle it lest another messiah or messiah-proxies enter the arena and reverse this process. Knowing Pakistan’s history, anything is possible. This is a country plagued by lack of political stability and policy continuity. We shall examine the pitfalls and challenges that lie ahead in this transitional process.

Progress so far: During the first two phases of the devolution, 10 of the 48 ministries at the federal level were to be devolved. The Committee set June 30th 2011 as the deadline for this process. Taking up these recommendations, the federal cabinet devolved ministries for special initiatives, Zakat and Ushr, population welfare, youth affairs, and local government and rural development to the provinces in December 2010. The provinces also inherited office buildings, equipment, development funds and projects for fiscal year 2010-11. All international matters of these ministries were transferred to the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) and some planning-related matters to the Planning and Development Division. However, overall planning of ministries that are being transferred or will be transferred in February 2011 will be the responsibility of provincial governments.

On April 5th, 2011 the second phase of the devolution process commenced, with the devolution of the ministries for education, social welfare, and special education, tourism, livestock and dairy, rural development and culture. According to reports, the Commission for Implementation of the 18th Amendment has also approved a plan for the transfer of three federal ministries, including sports, women development and environment, to the provinces in the third phase.

Unclear federal arrangements: While the centre has abolished ten ministries so far, there is a deadlock over the staff and resources. Provinces complain that they cannot pay the wage bill of surplus staff and centre has retained all the existing federal public servants, as any move to right size will be fraught with political dangers. Similarly, after June 2011, who will pay the staff? If the federal government continues to foot the salaries bill then it will not be able to rationalise its size and the temptation of recentralisation will remain. Secondly, the federal government’s move to shift attached bodies and autonomous organisations to Cabinet Division and such other dysfunctional ministries is even worse. There needs to be a more thorough assessment of post-devolution architecture of the central authority. It appears, with due respects to a great reformer, Raza Rabbani and his colleagues, patchy, ad-hoc and devoid of long term thinking.

Resistance by the bureaucracy: The Implementation Commission for the 18th Amendment has already voiced its concerns over how the federal bureaucracy is resisting reform. Add to this the vested interests whose power, pelf and rents are endangered and the plot thickens. As the case of Higher Education Commission (HEC) demonstrates, powerful lobbies can play the game of resistance well. HEC debate is being argued along the lines of why HEC is so effective instead of what justification does HEC have after the political executive has agreed devolution? There are vested interests such as drug companies that might find it easier to deal with central authorities than dealing with messy governance dynamics in the provinces. These issues require critical thinking and more technical options than simple case of ‘doing the devolution’ in a hurried manner. Above all, it also necessitates the need for civil service reform.

What happened to civil service reform? Since 1970s we have not initiated any kind of civil service reform in Pakistan. The 1970s reforms were partial and more symbolic than substantive. Now is the time to rethink the efficacy and necessity of federal services such as District Management Group (DMG) and Police. If the provinces are going to be managing their administrations should we not move to revamped provincial civil service cadres that classify officials according to expertise, skills, integrity instead of seniority and province versus federal divide. The federal government has an ideal opportunity to retain a highly trained and effective small group of federal officials instead of mammoth armies of ‘cadres’, CSS inductees and group-wise services, which work like clans and tribes rather than professional class of managers. We hope the federal government is going to do something about it. The best way forward is to pick up the thread where Ishrat Ali committee left it. The proposals in that report are fresh and lying unattended. Someone needs to read them.

Provincial capacities: While a few provinces, such as the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have started to make preparations for the new roles and responsibilities, the situation in Sindh and Balochistan is somewhat worrying. The key reason for lack of clarity relates to the political environment existing in these provinces. The federal government has the duty of helping the provinces out and the Council of Common Interest (CCI) must take note of the situation and appoint special purpose committees to review the situation. A good solution would be to use scores of officers who are currently sidelined as OSDs to start working on these lines. Leveraging existing resources is not only sensible; it will set a good precedent for the provinces too. Officers cannot be declared as idle; taxpayers are paying for their salaries and perks.

Education and health: The complete devolution of education is underway and the provincial education (and in some cases higher education) departments need to bolster capacities. This may be a good opportunity to engage in public private partnerships with the education institutes, think tanks and NGOs. Using domestic expertise can only help provinces handling the vertical programmes and improving the service delivery. Similarly, for health services, provinces need to gear up their resources in anticipation of the devolution of the national health ministry. A few experts, like Sania Nishtar, have raised concerns about the public interest areas that may be affected in the wake of devolution.

In particular, setting standards, managing health information, disease security, compliance with international regulations, and the regulation of medicines and related products are domains where the federal government has an edge. Dr Nishtar has opined that in most countries a ministry or a semi-autonomous public regulatory authority, such as the Food & Drug Administration in the United States, regulates medicines and drugs centrally, usually. Even countries such as India where some (but not all) aspects of drug regulation were previously decentralised, are now moving towards centralised regulatory arrangements. These are important policy debates that should start now and further delay may harm public interest in the short to medium terms.

Culture: With the abolition of central culture ministry the important areas of conservation of heritage and archaeology have also been decentralised. Most provinces lack the essential technical capacity to manage the old sites which are important for conservation. Lest we squander whatever we have, the provinces should immediately move to take federal staff or hire new ones to avoid disruptions.

Planning for the burgeoning youth: In a country where 65 percent of the population is below the age of 26 (and the new census may increase this percentage) the devolution of youth ministry requires special handling by the provinces. Currently, youth affairs are lumped with information or such other ministries and, therefore, are treated as just another bureaucratic outfit. In fact, planning and preparing for a young Pakistan is now an urgent priority. It would be best to add youth to planning and development departments along with authorities that are focusing on skills development. All these issues are interrelated.

Province to local: The most urgent complementary reform relates to the revitalisation of local governments that were packed by the current coalitions in the provinces. This has been an inimical development and the devolution from the centre will be meaningless if the centralisation at the level of province is not taken care of. It is necessary that the provincial laws – that exist in draft forms – are debated and approved by the legislatures. Political parties must remember that at the end of the day an election will assess their effectiveness in delivering basic services and not their stance on US drones or foreign policy shenanigans that occupy the central position in policy discourse. Pakistani state has to be rescued and that too at the local level where it interacts with the citizen. The current absence of local state can only endanger Pakistan’s future.

The recent resignation of Ishaq Dar, the Vice Chairman of the Implementation Commission, indicates the contested nature of the devolution process. Many analysts believe that smaller provinces are keen to push the agenda while Punjab has reservations over the way the process is being handled. It is, therefore, imperative that this process continues through a consensual approach and should not be derailed. Concurrently, provinces must fast-track their preparations and think of devolving powers and resources to local governments. The impediments to full provincial autonomy under the 18th Amendment need to be tackled despite the odds. This may be our last chance to do so.

The writer is a policy advisor and writer based in Lahore. He blogs at and also manages

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