Two steps back

THE newly promulgated Punjab Civil Administration Ordinance 2016 (PCAO 2016) has fundamentally altered the administrative structure in districts of Punjab in many ways. It has reintroduced the office of the deputy commissioner (DC) along with the offices of commissioners and assistant commissioners in divisions and sub-divisions respectively. It has also formalised the DC’s control over line departments of the districts — the departments that provide direct services to the people such as health, education, communication and works etc. The DC has been given powers to supervise, inspect, inquire and evaluate performance of all public offices in the district except police and local government.

In policing matters, such as public order, the DC has been given a joint decision-making role, in addition to exclusive powers to grant permission for public gatherings etc. The DC has also been made custodian of the district accounts to use funds allocated by the provincial government for development, public services or relief in emergency situations, etc. Broadly, the DC has been given vast administrative, financial and monitoring controls over government departments in districts.

The important question here is: who is the DC accountable to? Greater powers and authority need to be followed by greater accountability. Indeed, he is answerable to the divisional commissioner and the chief secretary — a bureaucrat answerable to a bureaucrat and that is it. There is no democratic oversight except from the central office of the chief minister who is running a province of more than 100 million people.

New legislation has concentrated powers in the office of the DC instead of devolving them.

Given the DC’s vast powers and the government’s expectations of him, is this a reasonable performance management and accountability system for the district’s most powerful office? Who will evaluate performance, and with what tools, to determine whether the DC has been able to do justice to his role?

Indeed the District Management Group — now the Pakistan Administrative Service — attracts the brightest candidates amongst civil service aspirants and they must be respected for their merit. DMG is known as a monolithic entity amongst the various civil service groups and they follow their service interests, defined through their own lens, in a committed manner. So is the case with the armed forces and the judiciary. And they will continue to follow their interests defined within the context of their organisational paradigms. Their thinking and reasoning in defining their organisational interests may sometimes be flawed but that is how they have been conditioned to think in their respective professional environments.

However, it cannot be denied that legislation such as PCAO 2016 is a political function and a political decision, not a bureaucratic decision. The responsibility for checking the right boxes also lies with the political executive, legislatures and generally with the political parties. An analysis of the PCAO 2016 in terms of inclusivity versus exclusivity, devolution versus concentration of powers, checks and balances versus unaccountable authority, shows that somehow all the wrong boxes have been checked.

There is no evidence that this important legislation has been properly debated amongst the political parties or in parliament. The newly elected local government leaders — important stakeholders in the districts — have not been consulted either. The debate and negotiations probably took place mainly between the DMG and the police with the political executive as the arbiter. This is not how fundamental changes in the governing structures of the administrative units, such as districts, ought to be made. The process warranted more transparency and inclusivity.

Powers have been concentrated in the office of the DC instead of being devolved to the elected district assemblies. One conceivable explanation for the lack of trust in elected representatives of the local governments can be that these public representatives are not yet ready to take up local governance responsibilities. Ironically, this seems to be an extension of the argument often used by military dictators that Pakistan was not yet ready for the full democratic experience and that it was prudent to have a controlled democracy. Another explanation can be that our local politics is still too polarised, open to victimisation and abuse of power. Conversely, it can also be argued that abuse of power at the local level is more visible, felt more strongly and generates natural resistance.

Devolution and local empowerment are internationally recognised tools for efficient governance. It is important to help the local bodies grow as a political institution, to train and groom local leaders in politics and governance, the way it has been done in India through their local governments.

Centralising tendencies amongst the political executive and bureaucracy have been quite common in India as well, with bureaucrats playing a strong role as chief executive officer of local governments under the elected local government head. However, political leaders and legislatures in India have shown stronger commitment to the institution of the local government. The 73rd and 74th amendments in the Indian constitution, introduced in the 1990s with the strong backing of the country’s political parties, have significantly strengthened local government there.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, as prime minister, also demonstrated his unequivocal support for stronger local governments and “deplored the tendency of the state governments to create parallel structures”. In 2004, the Congress government created a separate Ministry of Panchayati Raj. Mani Shankar Aiyar, an enlightened politician and MLA, was made the first union minister of this ministry (2004-09). He worked hard and made an impact by engaging state governments on local government reforms focusing on backward regions, activity mapping, a development index, empowerment of panchayats and accountability.

A relatively stronger system of local governments in India with their focus on agricultural growth has also, inter alia, helped keep its rate of urbanisation slower as compared to Pakistan and many other developing countries.

It is imperative that our political parties, legislatures and political executives realise the importance of the local governments in widening the democratic base, in people’s empowerment and service delivery. Instead, the PCAO 2016 appears to be inadvertently retarding the growth of democratic structures in the country.

Nekokara, Ali. Two steps back. Dawn, January 16, 2017.

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