After numerous revisions, protests from various quarters and media frenzy, Punjab government has finally promulgated the Civil Administration Ordinance 2016, defining the new district administration structure. The media reports made it very clear that the new law has little to do with service delivery and more with the tug-of-war between stalwarts of police and Pakistan Administrative Service, over the much-prized issue of law and order. With the new law in place, the younger civil servants are perturbed about their future, politicians are anxious about their role, while citizens remain ambivalent as these changes seem irrelevant to them.
With the passage of time however, the role of DC underwent multiple changes. Land revenue became an insignificant source of revenue and the responsibilities of District Collector shifted more towards previously ancillary functions of registering land titles, mutations, partitioning of property and adjudication of land disputes. With rapid urbanisation, increased property valuations and frequent litigation, this function grew in importance but other more pressing responsibilities such as magisterial duties, coordination and local administration traditionally prevented the civil servants to duly focus on this aspect. Regarding the magisterial functions of DC, the major blow came through Law Reforms Ordinance of 1972. The magistrates no more had the powers of committal proceedings and public prosecutors took up the gatekeeping function. This led to a steady decline in the performance of mainstream judicial functions by DCs and ACs and these were instead taken over by magistrates reporting to the High Court. This demarcation was later cast in stone through the famous Supreme Court judgment of 1996, separating executive from judiciary and limiting the powers of executive magistrates to only four chapters of Pakistan Penal Code.
Despite these significant changes in role of DCs, their regulatory function grew manifold. Weak or mostly non-existent local governments (LG) further strengthened the executive officers, as they were often made responsible for municipal functions. These immense powers depicted the continued confidence, trust and authority reposed in this office by the successive governments. By the close of the last century, the withdrawal of constitutional protection, politicisation of service and thinning of inherent functions made civil service a much weaker and reviled institution, but the DCs very much remained fairly powerful individuals in their respective domains.
In 2001, came the infamous LG system, the brainchild of Musharraf government, altogether re-defining the structure of district administration. The system was highly unpopular in civil service and was seen as a ploy to further undermine the service structure and authority. So intense was this critique that a number of remarkable features of the new system were overlooked. Not only for the first time, a number of important provincial functions such as education and health were devolved, the office of the DCO, a modified version of DC, was made directly responsible for many important line functions. With their own budgets and multiple departments to run, the DCOs now took the form of effective chief executive officers of districts, not having to rely on provincial governments to draw authority. Land revenue became just one of the many functions under the DCO. Although the DCOs were made answerable to politically elected nazims, it was not hard to guess, looking at the history of LGs, that these political representatives would also be a temporary phenomenon. With nazims gone and DCOs exercising full administrative control of districts, the last decade perhaps depicted the period of most powerful district administration tier, this country had ever seen.
The recent operationalisation of LGs in Punjab necessitated yet another change. With only limited functions devolved to LGs and much of the functions taken back by provincial government, the DCOs were left with no inherent functions, with the exception of land revenue, which was diluted further due to establishment of Punjab Land Revenue Authority. There could be no revival of executive magistracy, in the wake of Balochistan High Court decision of 2011. Hence was the need for Punjab Civil Administration Ordinance 2016, not only to provide a legal cover to DCs and ACs but also to carve out a raison d’etre for their existence.
Keeping controversies surrounding this new act aside, it seems that the statute has attempted, for the first time, to legalise the regulatory function of the DCs. They have been given powers to inspect records, review public facilities and initiate and conduct inquiries, however, they have not been given any powers to take direct action but only to make recommendations.
Going forward, this new structure will have important implications for the civil servants. The Deputy Commissioners will remain extremely powerful in Punjab in foreseeable future, being the eyes and ears of a strong hands-on Chief Minister. They will be involved in a number of duties such as monitoring, supervising development work, joint responsibility of public order, emergency relief, etc. Moreover, land revenue function is likely to gain more importance.
Many of the powers enjoyed by DCs however, will in fact be a reflection of the powers of the provincial government and therefore in case of a weak Chief Minister, these offices are also likely to be extremely weak and ineffective. While the civil servants in field would feel more empowered with the formalisation of DC office, in due course they are likely to feel disillusioned with limited inherent functions and uncertainty about which skills they should develop in this increasingly complex governance landscape.
Khawar, Hasssan. A new direction for civil service. The Express Tribune, January 13, 2017.