Feisal Naqvi

The Empire Strikes Back

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2009 at 3:29 am

In the halls of Islamabad, devolution is already dead. People gather in hushed groups to discuss its replacement, whether the local government system should revert back to its 2000 persona or if we need to go all the way back to 1979. But so far as devolution itself is concerned, there is no doubt amongst the powerful that its time has come and gone.

First, though, a little history, because to understand local governance in Pakistan, one has to revert first to the imperial model of governance – and by imperial, I mean Mughal, not British.

The Mughal model of governance operated primarily through the jagirdari system, i.e. tax farming. The emperor would thus dole out tax fiefdoms, large and small, to his favourites and those favourites in return guaranteed a certain amount of revenue: whatever additional amount they squeezed out of the peasants was theirs to keep. Of course, since the jagirs could be taken away at any time, the jagirdars had no incentive to manage wisely for the long term.

When the East India Company defeated Nawab Shuja-ud Daula at the Battle of Buxar in 1764, they took from him the diwani rights to Bengal, which included the right to collect land tax. As with all corporate assets, returns needed to be maximised. The British therefore introduced a system whereby Bengal (and subsequently, the rest of imperial India) was divided up into districts, each headed by a District Collector of Revenue (i.e., the DC).

As the primary representative of imperial power, the DC exercised control over all aspects of governance. The DC was simultaneously a judge (in his capacity as magistrate) as well as the executive arm of the state, exercising supervisory control over the police. Most importantly, the DC controlled the entire land record system through his position in the revenue hierarchy.

The end result was that the DC became the face of the empire, at least so far as the rural populations of the sub-continent were concerned. It is fair to say that in a very large number of cases, the men who served as DCs were decent, hard-working people who did their best for their subjects. But it is also fair to say that the DCs saw their role, both before and after Partition, in extremely paternalistic terms.

Local governance in Pakistan thus grew up under the heavy shadow of the DC. Local government bodies remained subject – both de facto and de jure – to the orders of the DC. For example, Section 156 of the Local Government Ordinances of 1979 provided that “if in the opinion of Government, anything done or intended to be done by or on behalf of a local council” was “against public interest”, the Government could “quash the proceedings”. This power of the “Government” was then further delegated to the Divisional Commissioners (for urban areas) and to the Deputy Commissioners (for rural areas). The only level at which the bureaucracy was actually subordinate to elected governments was at that of the province in that the provincial secretary of the department of local government was technically subordinate to the provincial minister for local government.

The devolution reforms of the Musharraf regime marked a decisive break with this history of executive dominance. In simple terms, each district was given financial autonomy and an elected legislature (along with elected sub-legislatures at the tehsil and union council levels). More importantly, the head of the district legislature (the Zila Nazim) was placed above the head of the district administration in much the same way as the chief minister of a province was placed above the provincial bureaucracy. Furthermore, the last remnants of the unified judicial and executive powers exercised by the DC of yore were wiped out so that judicial power became exercisable only by judicial magistrates.

The current consensus against the reforms introduced by the Musharraf regime therefore draws strength from two main sources: the first is the long repressed frustration of a still powerful bureaucracy which feels that its rightful role has been taken over by bumbling amateurs; the second source is a genuine frustration with the problems and delays inherent in a system designed not to maximise executive efficiency but participatory democracy. How genuine then are these concerns?

To answer the above question first requires appreciating the fact that there are two dominant perspectives from which to examine the performance of the post-2001 local governments: service delivery, and law and order.

From the perspective of delivery of services, the general consensus has been that the devolved local governments are a huge improvement over their predecessors. In simple terms, the fact that local governments are both locally elected and locally accountable has lead to significant improvements in the way in which development projects are both identified and executed.

The problem instead for the post-2001 system has come from the law and order perspective. Under the 1979 dispensation, the many hats worn by the DC allowed him immense discretion in dealing effectively with local problems. When the role of the DC was divided up between executive and judicial functionaries, the inevitable result was a loss of efficiency.

The last element behind the current outcry against the devolved system is the simple fact that the district legislatures in the Punjab are dominated by the PMLQ while the provincial legislature is dominated by the PMLN. Since the district legislatures and the zila nazims wield substantial authority at the local level, it has resulted in a diminution of the power available to provincial legislators as well as to the provincial executive. Members of the provincial assembly do not like being told that their wishes are being frustrated by the zila nazim and neither does the chief minister. The inevitable demand therefore has been for a repeal of the local government system as introduced by General Musharraf.

The devolution of power from the provinces to the districts is a complicated subject which evokes strong emotions. There is no doubt that the current system is flawedand that in particular, the mechanism for maintaining law and order under the devolved system needs to be strengthened. There is also no doubt that a system in which all powers are concentrated in the hands of one person or one office will always be more efficient than a system where powers are separated and exercised by separate bodies. The question, then, is one of values.

The problem with efficiently concentrated power is that it can be efficiently used to oppress one’s opponents. The problem with a powerful bureaucracy is that it can easily smother and override local concerns. The debate between values is not one that can be resolved easily. However, in the instant case, there is one key factor that militates against the DC-based model – the fact that we have already ditched it.

To explain, the transition from the old DC-based system of local government to the current multi-tiered, multi-body muddle was not an easy transition but one that came with significant costs. In the long run, there can be little doubt that we as a nation need to move in the direction of greater participatory democracy as well a system of separated powers. Whether or not we should have taken the leap in 2001 to such a complicated system is now irrelevant because having taken that leap, it makes no sense to revert to an increasingly archaic system. Instead, the sensible thing would be to try and work with the system so that its flaws can be overcome.

Sense and sensibility, though, tends to be in short supply in Pakistan. We can only wait and see whether good sense prevails or whether the remnants of empire succeed in resurrecting their privileges.

This article appeared first in The Friday Times issue dated January 30, 2009

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