September Issue 2011
The Future of Local Governance: Commissioner or Councillor?
One of the major causes of the crisis of governance in Pakistan throughout the decades of independence has been the centre’s obduracy in denying the provinces their share of power as units of the federation. Now many decades are likely to be wasted due to the provinces’ refusal to devolve power to local governments that are fighting for legitimate space and recognition as the third constitutional tier of government. It is in this context that the ongoing — and often misleading — debate on the relative merits of the commissionerate and local government systems needs to be conducted.
Both the commissionerate and the local government systems are parts of the British colonial legacy, both had strong merit in certain given situations, and both have been defaced by Pakistan’s genius for corruption.
The commissionerate system is in reality the deputy commissioner system because in colonial India the most important unit of administration was the district and its chief executive was like a junior viceroy. He was called Collector as the first task undertaken by the colonial administrators was collection of revenue. As one charged with keeping the natives quiescent, he was given vast executive authority as deputy commissioner. Preventing resentment against the working of magistrates’ courts was also one of his important functions and so he was made District Magistrate and also put in overall charge of the district police. When local government institutions started coming up they too were placed under his stewardship.
The viceroy communicated with the rulers of districts through governors and the latter through several categories of commissioners — divisional commissioners to oversee the work of deputy commissioners and some others for special fields, such as financial commissioners for revenue matters, and judicial commissioners as provincial appellate authorities. Over time the judicial commissioners were replaced with provincial chief courts and then with high courts and the financial commissioners with Boards of Revenue. The divisional commissioners not only survived, they also multiplied as new administrative divisions were created.
This system remained largely unchanged till 2001, except for a reduction in the magisterial/judicial powers of the executive officers, subsequent to the long-drawn-out process of separating the judiciary from the executive — a process as hotly contested by the executive as its present resistance to democratic local government. Efforts to improve and modernise this system were no doubt made after the creation of Pakistan, but these were aimed at improving bureaucratic efficiency or making changes in nomenclature, such as designating sub-divisional officers as assistant commissioner. No change was ever contemplated till 2001 for promoting the principle of governance not only by the people’s choice but also with their participation. The commissioners, deputy commissioners, and assistant commissioners continued to rule in their traditional style.
While the administrative system described above followed a model designed to meet the colonial rulers’ interests — they needed effective administration and peaceful conditions to ensure regular transfer of profits from the colony to their home country — the local government evolved partly as an aide to the central authority and partly in accordance with increase in the natives’ capacity to manage their affairs. Although supported by a small revenue-generating capacity, mainly octroi charges, the municipalities established a creditable record in reducing the government’s burden in several areas, such as education, health, urban water supply, cleanliness and street lighting. The district boards fared less impressively, especially in areas dominated by landlords (such as Pakistan’s present territories). In these territories the district boards became like cooperative societies, feudal tools for perpetuating their political and social dominance. The British knew this but declined to intervene because the feudal support to their regime, especially their role in facilitating recruitment of troops, was too important to be sacrificed for the sake of honest management of district boards.
The colonial government also introduced a panchayat system, derived from the subcontinent’s history of self-management by village communities. Since this system implied government of the poor by the poor it was supported by the emerging middle class neither in the bureaucracy nor in political parties and was left to degenerate into the devilish jirga that now orders women to be raped, little girls to be sold to old slave-drivers and numerous other atrocities.
Now, the systems of administration and local government evolved by the colonial power were good in the context of their times. Three factors undercut their usefulness for an indefinite period. First, the demographic changes, the expansion and diversification of economic activity, and the discovery of newer methods of managing human affairs made periodic review and renovation of administrative structures and policies unavoidable. Secondly, the introduction of democratic principles of governance and a steady increase in the people’s capacity to manage their own affairs dictated changes in the systems of administration and policy both. And, thirdly, the havoc wreaked on the administrative and local government institutions by post-Partition rulers made their retention increasingly hazardous. A couple of examples will make this clear.
The Police Act of 1861 was not a bad law for its time and as an instrument of the colonial rulers’ policy. Likewise, the Penal Code of 1860 was one of the most advanced laws of its time. The number of additions/amendments made to both the laws over the past hundred years is sufficient to confirm the universal principle that law must go on changing in accordance with the spirit of times and the changing sensibilities of the community. These changes have not proved to be satisfactory because they focused on strengthening institutions without reorientating their working, without harmonising them with the ethos of a society professing to be democratic.
Besides, we must not overlook the progressive vandalisation of the institutions of governance. For instance, on the eve of independence we were full of ideas of penal/prison reforms. Criminal tribes were being motivated to live as law-abiding citizens on farms allotted by the state. Experiments for open jails had been launched. This momentum for reform continued for some years after Partition. The Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore was conceived as a semi-open jail. What have we done to all these schemes? The criminal tribes were evicted from the lands allotted to them and now cultivators of state lands in the Punjab are being terrorised and pushed into lawlessness. The open jails are in the hands of land-grabbers, and Kot Lakhpat has been made into as closed and suffocating a jail as possible.
The efforts made to change the administration and local government systems over the last 30-35 years have not been free from innovations in corruption in which our rulers have specialised.
The old system of administration, call it commissionerate or deputy commissioner system, served the colonial rulers well and it will serve equally well any government that treats the people as subjects and not as citizens. Everybody knows how political authorities, civil as well as military, used the administration to perpetuate themselves (by rigging elections for instance), to extract concessions and privileges for their favourites (by giving them lands, licences and permits), to suppress dissent (by making anti-democratic, anti-labour laws and regulations), and to punish political rivals (by abusing laws, especially the preventive detention laws). One suspects that the provincial governments’ love of the commissionerate system is rooted less in their desire to establish a clean and honest order and more to further their narrow party/personal interests. An added factor is their dislike for Musharraf’s devolution plan.
There was no problem with local government institutions so long as they were subsidiaries of provincial governments and took over some of the latter’s responsibilities. The central and provincial governments during 1947-58 may have been indifferent to the need for promoting local bodies beyond the point the colonial power had left them but were not hostile to them. Ayub Khan’s decision to use local bodies to subvert the inherited system of representative government sowed the seeds of the mischief that is now devouring Pakistan. Political parties and their nominally civilian governments began seeing local government institutions and their leaders as rivals in the race for power, and chose to denigrate them. The military rulers shared the political parties’ view of local government leaders and for that reason encouraged them by holding local bodies elections and increasing their powers.
Whatever interest Pervez Musharraf and his associates had in reforming the administration and empowering local communities — quite a few people initially accepted their benevolent protestations — they made a hash of whatever they laid their hands on. Closeted in their ivory towers they believed a vast multitude, divided by many interests, could be managed according to bookish exercises or as a military manoeuvre. They were right in assuming that the system of governance could no longer deliver and that the people of Pakistan had the need and the right to move, like the rest of the world, towards governance through community participation. Mainly, they made changes in the administration, enhanced the role of local bodies, and devised a new police system.
As regards the administration, the posts of commissioners and district magistrates were abolished and other offices redesignated. The provincial governments did not like the idea of directly dealing with a fairly large number of district executives. Not many tears were shed at the disappearance of the district magistrate but nobody could have liked the transfer of many of his powers and privileges to the police. The Parkinson’s Law of Multiplication was at work in the way district officers multiplied — EDOS and DDOs for revenue, education, IT and law, etc. The wisdom in assigning several districts to an official if the amount of work did not justify the posting of one in each district was ignored. The system became more cumbersome and the proliferation of cooks ensured that the broth was thoroughly spoiled.
The new police system had highly laudable sale points. The police force was to be freed of politicians’ control and made subject to public oversight. In the districts, the police were going to be under the elected nazims. But these lofty promises remained unfulfilled. The police gained autonomy but public oversight mechanisms, Public Safety Commissions, were either not created or could not work. The district nazims’ control over police was diluted in law and made inoperative in practice. The way to politicians’ meddling into police affairs was reopened by allowing chief ministers to interfere with provincial police chiefs’ tenure that was supposed to be fixed.
Similarly, the local government system introduced by Pervez Musharraf suffered from several critical flaws. It was in line with democratic norms only at the lowest level — the union councils and its nazims were directly elected. All higher chambers and office holders were elected ex-officio or through indirect elections on a narrow franchise. Corruption crept into the very foundations of the enterprise. Little importance was given to the local government institutions’ need to generate revenues by levying duties and they became addicted to federal doles. This had contra-democratic implications; the local bodies considered themselves agents of the money provider — the federal government. They got enormous funds without effective accountability mechanisms or due training in economic, people-friendly utilisation of resources.
Over and above these flaws, the Musharraf regime did not submit its plans to debate even by the assemblies it had created. That some kind of consultation with the people was done on the devolution plan and the Police Order before they were enforced is not denied, but these consultations were often command performances and civil society’s inputs were generally ignored, and Musharraf himself changed the consensus in his famous August 14, 2001, speech. Local bodies and the police were both provincial subjects, however the provinces were not only ignored while reform plans were being formulated but their concerns were also deliberately ignored. Thus, the provincial governments suffered the system only so long as the Sixth Schedule barred their intervention. The day the protection to local government ordinances under this schedule expired, the provincial governments had their daggers out. Their decision to break their pledges to hold local bodies elections confirms their determination to demolish the Musharraf edifice.
The provincial governments cannot reconcile to the fact that under the 2001 local government scheme the district governments have all the resources, and the credit for whatever development work they do will not come to the provincial authorities and political parties in control. One major issue is the control of land. The provincial governments as well as the local bodies want to use spare land or wherever any tract of land can be seized, as a means of extending patronage and building up electoral support.
The issue in the present debate is not which system is better than the other because no party is interested in efficiency in a non-partisan sense or in promoting public good. Each party wants to have a system that serves its own interest over and above all other considerations. The commissionerate and local government system both have some merit and some demerit. In the hands of honest and efficient politicians, both can serve a limited purpose though neither can adequately meet Pakistan’s present-day needs. The fundamental fact is that the commissionerate system has become outdated because it runs counter to the spirit of the age, it cannot make the transition from bureaucratic regimentation to governance by people’s consent. The local government systems of pre-Partition days, and those of 1975, 1979 and 2001 were all inadequate but they did indicate the right direction of change. The world is moving from the concept of maximum government by the state and minimum say by the people towards the ideal of minimum government by the state and maximum say for the people. Pakistan will cause itself grave harm by choosing to swim against the current. What matters is that forced marches will be as bad as doing nothing. The country must move towards representative rule at all levels with measured steps and by helping the people to be able to sustain each forward movement.
Quite obviously, there is need to re-examine the administrative system, the organisation of police service (not force), and the system of local government. For this, parliamentarians and experts should sit together and plan for the next five decades or so. As for the present, a hybrid system incorporating both the commissionerate and the local government systems (after purging them of their undesirable features) may be adopted. At the same time the accountability mechanism must be strengthened as weaknesses in this area undermine all laws and public organisations.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.