South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

I. A. Rehman

HOWEVER strong the temptation for the PPP to call MQM’s bluff, the problems involved in this week’s sweeping changes in several key areas of governance need not have been ignored, for this is not a matter between two parties only; it affects the entire population of Sindh.

No doubt there were problems with the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2001 but there were problems with the legislation of 1979 too, and perhaps more serious ones. Replacing the edifice created by one authoritarian ruler with the handiwork of the dictator preceding him does no credit to anyone with democratic pretensions. The Zia system has been overtaken by events during the past 32 years. The most important development has been the realisation that good governance is impossible without consolidation of local bodies as the third tier of constitutional government with all necessary administrative and financial powers.

Besides, the 2001 local government plan gave a large number of people a new taste of self-government. Giving out a message that the area of local autonomy is being circumscribed is not positive politics. The Sindh cities will still be managed by elected representatives but the latter will have much-reduced powers. That this should happen to Karachi, which deserves to be treated as the country’s most advanced city, does not lead to a happy conclusion about the future of democracy in Pakistan.

The 2001 local government scheme was suspended quite a long time ago. It could not have survived the bitter hostility displayed by all the provincial governments. All those desirous of changing the local government order could have drawn up a new law instead of exhuming a Zia-period measure.

Similar is the case of the revival of the Police Act, 1861 in place of the Police Order, 2002. The original version of the order had some refreshing features, such as public oversight bodies and a certain degree of police service’s autonomy vis-à-vis the provincial political bosses. The scheme had an inauspicious start as the provincial governments never forgave the centre for imposing its fiat on them. The far-reaching changes in the law made in 2004 and 2007 (still in force in three provinces although the relevant ordinances have lapsed) robbed the scheme of quite a few of its plus points.

At the same time, no sensible person can uphold the Act of 1861 and one has lost count of the initiatives launched to replace this one-and-a-half century-old colonial legacy with a law to suit the needs and aspirations of a society that yearns for a democratic dispensation even if its credentials are suspect.

The essential point is that neither the Police Order of 2002 nor the Act of 1861 can be defended as appropriate to meet the demands of law and order and respect for the people’s basic rights and needs. Replacement of one with another is a retrogressive move and manifestly futile. A proper way would have been to draft a new police law, free from the flaws noticed in the legislation of 2002 and 1861. Some help could be secured from the proposals advanced at official and non-official forums.

The unscrambling of the scheme whereby Tando Allahyar, Tando Mohammad Khan and Matiari had been carved as districts out of the old Hyderabad district is an act of partisan politics, even if some administrative reasons can be advanced in its support. By creating these districts Arbab Ghulam Rahim clearly wanted to break a PPP power base and offer an advantage to its rivals, especially the MQM. Thus PPP can claim to have undone a wrong done to it. Yet, politics is not that simple. In the creation of districts in any part of the country, the party in power is usually guided by its own interest. But once a new district, or any administrative unit for that matter, is created a new elite comprising officials and public representatives comes into being. A reversal of the administrative arrangement is never popular. One wonders whether the Sindh government is aware of this.

Finally, thanks to the magical wand called the Land Revenue Act of 1967, Sindh has caught up with the other provinces by reviving the commissionerate system (nothing to do with commission agents?). The commissioners are responsible for revenue work although now its importance and weight does not seem to justify such highly paid officers.

In this case, it can be said that the matter has been examined by all the provincial governments and they are in communication with the federal government about changes in the Criminal Procedure Code without which the commissioners and deputy commissioner cannot have magisterial/judicial powers. It seems the lords of the bureaucracy, with the politicians in tow, have decided to have the old district and sub-divisional magistrates back in the game. These ideas are again somewhat regressive because the principle of taking all judicial/magisterial functions out of the executive’s reach cannot be compromised.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s political authorities appear determined to keep the people and their representatives out of the process of administrative changes. That the commissioner/deputy commissioner system helps governments to rule and control the people through bureaucrats is known. Why cannot somebody tell us what the other benefits of the system are? It is quite some time since the commissioners resurfaced in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There should be no serious difficulty in assessing the impact of their revival on administration and services. Has law and order improved? Are the people’s basic needs better met now? Have employment rates and working conditions improved, especially for women? Have ordinary citizens’ access to educational opportunities and health facilities improved? After all, these are the indicators by which an administrative model must be judged. Governance is much too serious a matter to be left to the whims and caprice of a few oligarchs.

It has been said by the Sindh government’s spokespersons that the essential package of reform now uncovered had been withheld for three years in view of the MQM’s reservations. If the package was fundamentally good why was it withheld only for the sake of saving a fragile coalition? Besides this is a matter of tactics. Everybody knows who is what in Sindh and all about the cult of violence and politics by hysterical hyperbole. The PPP may have closed the door to coalition on MQM; it must not give up efforts at promoting rule by conciliation and consensus. It must be made clear that this week’s decisions are of a transitional nature and that administrative reforms will be given a final form through the broadest possible consultations.

Tailpiece: The great success of the Pakistan squad at the Special Olympics has many lessons. First, Pakistan has a large body of competent special people. Secondly, these special people can do better than those who claim they are not special. Thirdly, instead of wasting money on various tournaments, world cups and Olympics we should take part only in events held for special persons. Finally, the special persons’ capabilities may be utilised by allotting them commanding heights in the various walks of life, beginning of course with institutions such as PCB, PTV, Wapda etc.

Source: Dawn – 14.07.2011