Remember the great petrol crisis of 2015? Remember how we all had to stand in lines for hours and hours to get a gallon of the precious liquid fuelling our cars? Remember all the angry screeds calling on the entire PML-N cabinet to resign? Remember the pundits gravely proclaiming that there was very evidently no system of governance in Pakistan? Remember all the hints, some open and some whispered, that none of this would have happened if the faujis were in charge?
Yeah, I thought not.
So what, you might reply. Look at how the government has mishandled the Shikarpur tragedy. Look at how upset the MQM is these days. Everybody must resign!
And my response, as I once told a junior lawyer in my office, is as follows: grow the hell up.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The great petrol crisis of 2015 was not a sign that there is ‘no system’ in Pakistan. Instead, it was a sign that we do have a functioning petrol supply system in Pakistan; in fact, one that we take for granted. The screams we all heard on social media and the op-ed pages of various papers were of people suddenly discovering that things were no longer working as they usually did. Those screams were caused by the breakdown of the system, not by the absence of a system. If we truly had no petrol supply system, we would not be driving cars. Instead, we would all be riding around on horses, because the supply for horses relies on locally grown plants and not fossil fuels imported from the Gulf.
Perhaps you think all of this is mere wordplay. After all, even if one concedes that there is ‘a system’ in place, isn’t it true that it is a terrible system, that everything needs to be changed?
Well, it’s not quite that simple.
We inherited the fundamentals of our governance structure from the British in 1947. With some exceptions, the basic architecture is sound. But like all old buildings, this one too is showing its age. In some cases, it needs repairs. And in some cases, it needs a major overhaul.
The most obvious candidate for an overhaul is the law and order system. As many people have written (notably, my good friend Ejaz Haider), the fundamentals of our policing mechanisms are not appropriate to a modern democratic system. The basic idea behind our police system, both as inherited and as it exists today, was to allow white people to beat brown people into submission. Serving the needs of the people was not a prime concern for the police system. Instead, the point of the system was to serve the interests of the rulers. And in its own crude fashion, the police system has performed that function ever since.
By comparison, the fundamental high-level governance mechanism in Pakistan (i.e. permanent civil servants embedded in ministries and answerable to democratically elected ministers) does not – at least in my view – require an overhaul. What it does require is some serious tinkering.
The main point that needs to be understood is that the age of the omni-competent bureaucrat has now passed. Yes, there was a time when pipe-puffing DMG wallahs would come back all bright and shiny from Cambridge and have the ability to handle whatever was thrown at them. But that is no longer true.
To begin with, and I say this with great respect, the quality of DMG officers is not what it used to be.
The British ensured that their civil servants were of the highest quality through the simple expedient of (a) paying them lavishly; and (b) giving them job security. Both those pillars have since disappeared.
Joining the civil service today is an act of fiscal insanity (at least if you intend to remain honest). As for job security, the constitutional protection afforded to civil servants was taken away by ZAB and replaced by a statutory right of action. Today’s civil servants are but one man’s whim away from the ‘khudday line’. What we have now is the worst of all possible worlds: bureaucrats who are both incredibly powerful and incredibly insecure.
I don’t want to slam all civil servants as incompetent crooks. If anything, I remain astonished by the plethora of incredibly intelligent and dedicated civil servants to be found in Pakistan. But you can’t run a country with the occasional exceptions to the consequences of national stupidity.
More importantly, today’s problems are orders of magnitudes more complicated than before. This is not to say that governance was simple in 1947. Instead, my point is that the expectations of government are that much higher today. No matter how intelligent, how competent, and how decent the best of today’s bureaucrats may be, today’s Pakistan requires specialist administrators – not generalists.
Note, replacing DMG officers with specialists is not going to make problems disappear either. Ironically, the petroleum sector is one of the few sectors where specialised governance has been introduced. What I mean by that is that in 2002, a large portion of the regulatory functions of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources were hived off into a separate, ostensibly independent entity called the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority.
The obvious question is then this: why does governance still suck in the petroleum sector?
The short answer to the obvious question is that reforming structures on paper is very different from actual reform on the ground.
For example, the Ogra Ordinance clearly specifies that its chairman shall be “an eminent professional of known integrity and competence with a minimum of twenty years of related experience.” Under the PPP regime, the chairmanship of Ogra was entrusted to a gentleman by the name of Tauqir Sadiq, an individual whose credentials when examined by the Supreme Court, seemed to consist mainly of a law degree from a bogus university. Sadiq subsequently fled to the UAE from whence he was recovered after a long legal battle. He is now the subject of a corruption case filed by NAB.
Sadiq was succeeded by Saeed Ahmed Khan, a retired bureaucrat. Prior to his retirement, Khan had worked as a federal secretary in the Ministry of Information Technology, Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and the Statistics Division. If you fail to note any experience in the petroleum sector, you will not be the only one. At the time of his appointment, one newspaper reported in blunt terms that Khan had “no relevant experience of regulating the oil and gas sector.” Fast forward now to January 2015 with Khan indignantly denying any responsibility for the Great Petrol Crisis.
Let me boil it down for you. Governance structures matter. If your governance structures are flawed, even putting the best people in place won’t change anything. But even if you have the best governance structures, you still need competent people in place. And if you want competent public servants, you still need to do what the British did: pay them very, very well; and protect their dignity.
Obviously, this is not the only path to a better performing government. Obviously, Pakistan can continue with its age old policy of paying peanuts. But as the saying goes: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
This column was published in The News on 7 February 2015