WE had an elephant at the so-called zoo in Islamabad who was feeling lonely after his mate’s death. Instead of finding him a new companion, which might have led to his rejuvenation, it was decided to get rid of him by sending him to Cambodia under the pretense of restoring him to his kith and kin. Seven deer have died of food poisoning at the Bahawalpur zoo. (Another case of misappropriation of the animals’ food budget?) Will we dispatch the surviving deer to a country that knows how to take care of them? This is the way we Pakistanis have adopted for getting rid of responsibilities that we cannot shoulder. It is a stunning reminder of our declining capacity to manage our affairs.

When we decided to repatriate a grey elephant to Cambodia we denied our long experience of looking after grey elephants that have been star performers at our zoos. Does this mean there will be no grey elephants at our zoos and our children won’t be allowed to see and play little games with elephants?

The zoos in our country, especially the ones in Lahore and Karachi, are older than the state of Pakistan, and along with them grew a fairly large number of people equipped with expertise in animal care. What has happened now that we cannot manage to look after the animals kept at state-owned institutions? If this trend of abandoning every enterprise that cannot be properly managed continues, we might end up by dispatching the government and its paraphernalia on a one-way ticket to Siberia or Antarctica.

The reasons for a palpable decline in Pakistan’s ability to improve upon the management of state-run institutions and services, or even to sustain the efficiency levels attained at any time in the past, need to be seriously probed, with guarantees of remedial action that may be found necessary.

Some of the factors contributing to administrative deterioration, which come to one’s mind off-hand, are dilution of knowledge and experience passed on by one generation to another; guarantees of increment in wages and promotion to higher cadres without a realistic evaluation of merit; horizontal and vertical alliances in the bureaucracy; disregard for experienced civil servants’ opinion by political upstarts; factionalism in services; exemption of some services from administrative and fiscal regulation; and the licence enjoyed by inexperienced politicians to override civil servants’ experience-based opinion. In some countries, serious problems have been created by lack of the civil administration’s right to oversee the functioning and financial affairs of the military establishment, which has acquired in these countries the status of a state within the state, and of course corruption, especially institutional corruption that is far deadlier a disease than individual malevolence.

Stable states value continuity of administrative services and changes in the political leadership are not accompanied with administrative overhaul, while in unstable countries, a change of political helmsman is followed by wholesale changes down to the bottom of administrative services, including especially police SHOs, and even the Ruet-i-Hilal committee must be replaced. Pakistan today appears to be experimenting with a model of a vastly expanded establishment by the creation of a political establishment over and above the traditional bureaucracy. The results will, of course, be watched with due interest.

Many years ago, there were extended debates on the urgency of improving administrative efficiency by replacing generalist bureaucrats with subject specialists in key positions, and some recommendations in this direction were reported to have been accepted. A realistic assessment of this experiment should help better utilisation of human resources.

The need to decentralise the administration has often been accepted, but implementation of recommendations to achieve this objective has never been easy. In Pakistan, the devolution of power from the centre to the provinces required extraordinary struggle by the latter and is still far from completed, and any further devolution from provinces to the lower echelons is still in the phase of dreaming.

Similarly, the possibility of replacing state-appointed functionaries with elected ones has not been fully explored because of deep-rooted biases against democratic institutions.

The view that Pakistan has increased its problems of governance by remaining faithful to the colonial model cannot be rejected by simply pointing to the replacement of a white administrator with an indigenous functionary, because the latter has often been found more aloof from the people than the former.

The axiom that the form and substance of administrative structures must keep abreast of changes in society, caused by advances in terms of knowledge and experience, finds few buyers in societies that cannot bury the colonial legacy. A decision about the extent to which today’s thanedar should be different from its colonial prototype must be made on the basis of public experience and not with reference to half-baked theories. It is several decades since the last administrative reforms were made, and the focus then was on achieving administrative efficiency. Now, a new round of administrative reform is required to focus on public service and accountability. Due importance must be given to disadvantaged citizens’ access to means of redress and creation of democratic forums for resolution of disputes.

In countries like Pakistan that face serious issues related to national security, the imaginary social contract has been changing in favour of the state at the cost of individual rights and privileges. There must be a limit to this undesirable process, as a citizenry deprived of its rights cannot play its part in realising the greatest good of the greatest number.

Good governance demands extraordinary alertness to the need of innovation, subject to the overriding objective of promoting public good and eschewing yesterday’s remedies to today’s problems. No society can progress if it insists on living in the past. The past is, at best, helpful in avoiding the pitfalls on the road ahead, and no greater folly is known to humankind than forcing any people to live in their past. Many of our present day failures to deal with matters of the moment are due to our love for tradition and wrong choices of instruments of change.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2021

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