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Accountability matters

Around 62 percent of Pakistan’s urban and 84 percent of its rural population does not treat their water before consumption, and as a result millions of cases of diarrheal diseases are registered in hospitals. A large percent of deaths in the country can be attributed to drinking of polluted water. There is no doubt that unsafe drinking water is a cause of many diseases including diarrhoea, typhoid, intestinal worms, and hepatitis. It is also a fact that an estimated 250,000 child deaths occur each year in Pakistan due to water-borne diseases.

It is also estimated that more than 1.6 million (Disability Adjusted Life Years) are lost annually as a result of death and ailment due to diarrhoea and almost 90,000 as a result of typhoid. Inadequate quantity and quality of potable water and poor sanitation facilities are associated with a host of illnesses and a study conducted by UNICEF found that 20-40 percent of the hospital beds in Pakistan are occupied by patients suffering from water-related diseases. According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, Pakistan is considered as a high risk country.

Pakistan has the worst sanitary conditions in the South Asian region and its total economic impact amounts to a loss of Rs343.7 billion, which is equivalent to around 3.9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). It revealed that 52,000 children die annually due to diarrhoea here. It also exposes that 14 million people still do not have access to safe drinking water and over 90 million are without improved sanitation. Approximately 50 million people defecate in the open and an estimated eight million people use shared toilets. The improved sanitation is critical for the reducing the risks of key diseases such diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera and typhoid.

Similarly, solid waste generation in Pakistan ranges between 0.283 to 0.612 kg/capita/day and the waste generation growth rate is 2.4 percent per year. Solid domestic waste is typically dumped on low-lying land. This land can be used for more productive purposes. Also, potentially valuable recyclable materials are lost due to dumping in this manner. Solid waste management is not only a big issue for large cities but small cities as well. There is no proper sustainable solid waste management system to collect 100 per cent household and factory produced garbage in cities and rural areas.

Recently, we have seen the formation of local governments in all the four provinces, the capital city and the cantonment areas. These governments are responsible to develop effective and sustainable systems of solid waste management, implement policies and fix responsibility on the polluters. But it is generally seen that the government departments having the requisite sources for service delivery do not always respond to the calls of these representatives in time, especially in far-flung areas. And there is no proof of whether they have completed a task or not.

In this regard, an interesting development and innovative initiative has been taken as part of a project named “Forming Digital Local Council (DLC) for Social Accountability of Public Service Delivery Departments at District Level”. It is spearheaded by the Local Councils Association of the Punjab (LCAP) – an Association of the Local Councils striving for democratic local democracy since 2006.

Through this initiative, the LCAP has established a model of meaningfully engaging remotely located and dispersed local councillors through online Digital Local Council (DLC) in seven districts of Punjab (Okara, Sahiwal, Pakpattan, Vehari, Khanewal, Multan, and Lodharan) with the financial assistance coming from USAID.

Anwar Hussain, chief executive, LCAP, says initially 1,400 plus councillors have been engaged to use the digital local council system, where they can send complaints, highlight deficiencies, make suggestions, and do follow ups to get the social service delivery issues resolved with the departments concerned. They can send text messages, write details of the story and upload snaps and videos to flash the issues. They can use smartphones to upload these through an application developed for this purpose.

He says a username and password is provided to each of the members of the DLC, so they have access to the system, and can file the complaints, upload pictures and videos of the issues of service delivery. For example, if there is a heap of garbage lying in a village, the concerned councillors will take a snap and upload it in the system with time and exact location mentioned on it. It will directly go to the concerned district level department with a copy to the offices of the District Coordination Officer (DCO) and LCAP. The public health department, which is responsible for provision of clean drinking water and sanitation and the district health responsible to provide basic health to the people will receive complaints concerning them, Anwar adds.

He says the material keeps inundating their official emails’ inboxes and this builds pressure on them to resolve the issues. The best part is that the software application developed for this purpose records all this content and can be retrieved any time to evaluate the performances of government departments and officials.

It has been observed that some government functionaries are not happy with this system as this gives proof of how many times an issue was raised. The system also reports on how many issues have been responded and how many not and the time taken to respond. A comprehensive report can also be produced for presentation to the heads of government and bureaucracy as LCAP has record of all the requests made by the above 1,400 councillors.

Mian Hasnain Ali Ramdey, chairman of a union council, says the DLC initiative is a creative and innovative idea to integrate local development efforts using modern technology. “Now we do not need to go to the offices of the service providers again and again as it is now possible to share our concerns with these departments round the clock using this digital platform,” Ramdey says, and adds that such an effective use of technology has not been witnessed in the past.

Similarly, Shabbir Hussain, chairman, Union Council 18, District Vehari, comments that in the absence of effective outreach and ignorance toward social service delivery, the DLC initiative is playing a great role. He says it is filling the existing gap to let the policymakers know when and where to take action. This initiative is also helping the councillors and government officials to enhance their skills to use modern technology to share information and plan better.

Anwar adds that under this project, the reports on missing facilities, delays and deficiencies are also shared with the media. The purpose of these press briefings is to sensitise the media and general public about these shortfalls in the service delivery at local level. Besides, shortfalls, or any improvement in the service system is also highlighted in the press briefings.

The copies of these reports are sent to the relevant district government departments. The DLC members can download all such reports from the LCAP’s website. The focus of DLC is on major services of local councils such as drinking water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, health services, etc.

Against this backdrop, it is hoped that the basic issues of the people are highlighted and resolved and their complaints not pushed under the carpet. The complaint mechanism has changed; and now the focus shall be on bringing a change in the mindset of the government servants. This will happen once they realise they are public servants and not their masters.

Ahmed, Irfan. Accountability matters. The News, March 25, 2017.

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