Death Of The Districts: Local Roots Of Pakistan's Governance Crisis

For effective implementation of laws, there is a need for a strong, energetic and an accountable executive at the district level

Death Of The Districts: Local Roots Of Pakistan's Governance Crisis

The future might hold considerable hope and opportunities for Pakistan; but for the present, matters remain less sanguine. The serious political divisions, domestic insecurity, unceasing terrorism, trans-border violence, low human development indices, widespread unemployment, colossal corruption and poor governance offer a striking parallel between a number of profoundly destablised states and Pakistan.

Amongst our neighbours, Sri Lanka, despite defaulting on its debt payments amid a large-scale economic and financial crisis, and the Maldives, are placed in a higher human development category. Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have all been categorised in the medium human development category. Only Afghanistan at 182 on the HDI ranking is a little worse off than Pakistan.

It is best not to read the latest UN Human Development Report, ranking our Land of the Pure at 164 out of 193 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI). The ranking reflects its silent, deep human capital crises, “due to historic disregard of human development investments.” The majority suffers in silence, being fed on pious hopes and awaiting salvation in the world hereafter.

The Pakistani tragedy is easily explained. The parliament/provincial assemblies have ceased to be relevant; the executive is comatose and the judiciary largely dysfunctional. Either as a cause or an effect, the intellectual and integrity quotients of those who occupied the seats of power, with some exceptions, are now reflected in our sad lives.

There must be a central cause for this failure. There is one, and it certainly is more institutional than individual neglect. The failure lies in the constitutional, legal and administrative muddle that prevents energetic implementation of the laws and policies at the lowest tier. To this may be added the pernicious ‘stay order’ culture of the judiciary to understand why good governance is in ruins; trillions are stuck up in taxes due, corruption enquiries are routinely stayed for years and accountability rendered toothless. Merely enacting laws and notifying policies by federal and provincial governments provide no surety that these laws would be effectively implemented on ground. And the truth is that laws are not being effectively implemented because the functioning arm of the state in the districts is seriously fractured.

Were the constitutional provisions and statutes faithfully implemented, for example, another 25 million children would be in schools under Article 25A of the constitution. (The claimed literacy ratio of 60% is also not accurate and can safely be halved if an objective definition of literacy were applied). Human rights, physical security, prompt justice and basic needs are similarly ignored. Essential needs like water, utilities, health, education and skill development are simply not available to all.

The realisation must sink in that the rights of the people and obligations of the state can only be undertaken at the district level. The legal and institutional neglect of the implementation arm of the state at the lowest tier has turned weak and wobbly after General Musharaf’s devolution and reorganisation . The people live and work in the districts yet all power is vested in the nebulous federal/provincial governments. The disconnect between the two is obvious making governance in the districts largely dysfunctional.

Today, the districts do not have the authority or the means to function energetically even where the laws exist to provide relief. No department of the government including the office of the Deputy Commissioner and all line departments can enforce or implement the prevalent laws effectively. There is open resistance by entrenched groups, whether it be in the form of the encroachment of land, theft of irrigation and drinking water, nonpayment of electricity charges, forest felling or tax evasion of all kinds. Before the devolution setup, the District Magistrate would negotiate with the opposing elements from a position of strength with the police on standby. No longer does this happen. The Model Town killings in 2014 and the Faizabad dharna fiasco 2017 may never have occurred if District Magistrates had been available on site to establish a dialogue.

Ponder a partial list of the mandated responsibilities of the State at the district level. Districts deal with the discriminatory treatment of religious minorities; land grabbing by influential ‘mafias’ through private roughnecks; the oppressive conditions in prisons; denial of the rights and dignity of destitute orphans, women, children and transgender sections; the adulteration of food stuff and consumer products; the black marketing and hoarding of sugar, fertiliser, cement by the manufacturers and middlemen; encroachment and transfer of auqaf and state lands in collusion with the revenue officials; the resistance of police stations in registration of criminal cases; the casual, delayed, corrupt and biased criminal investigations leading to very low convictions; the extortion demands and ransoms collection by criminal gangs; the delays, the costs and corruption encountered in courts.  

Then there are issues regarding the inability to collect abiana, agriculture income tax, property tax and the refusal of businesses and retail outlets to register with the income tax authorities which costs the state hundreds of billions annually. The default list is long but the theft and losses of another one trillion rupees occur every year in the electricity and gas distribution system in the districts. The default of the authorities in traffic management, environment degradation, water losses and failure to check the unsustainable population growth rate is making the country unliveable.

The default and shortcomings mentioned above are a direct consequence of the near absence of the State authority in the districts today. For effective implementation of laws there is need for a strong, energetic and an accountable executive at the district level as this tier must remain strictly impartial and objective. Armchair experts and symposia specialists may be forgiven for recommending fairy tale solutions; many of the Devolution Plan authors in the NRB might never have been aware of what the rural areas look like. There is no doubt that there would always be the need for a viable elected local government system in the districts responsible for municipal administration, local development needs and holding officials to account. However, given our diverse and divisive conditions only an impartial executive can deliver executive justice. The public representatives emerging out of partisan elections at the local level cannot effectively and rigorously implement the laws relating to the rights and obligations in the society. Two decades back when the ignorant experts in the National Reconstruction Bureau placed the district police under the local nazim all hell broke loose and the orders were immediately revoked.

While on the subject, one may also mention that among the immediate priorities of the times ought to be to mandate the district administration for ensuring that all out of school children are promptly provided with school education in government, private, community or mosque schools with the full time involvement and support of the Assistant Commissioners. Similarly the Family Planning programme needs to be rejuvenated at the subdivisional/tehsil level to ensure a ‘Zero Growth’ rate in population increase which, interestingly, Bangla Desh would soon achieve. Here again the Assistant Commissioners need to be empowered to provide complete logistical and legal support to the staff of the Population Welfare and Health departments particularly the Lady Health Workers and the Lady Health Visitors. The Benazir Income Support Programme must also become an organic partner to both these initiatives.

The district magistracy in the past served as a pivotal link between the government and the local population, ensuring the implementation of policies and the governance framework at the grassroots level. In the Al Jihad Trust case of March 1996, the Supreme Court of Pakistan restricted the scope of executive magistracy by defanging it, but recognised its responsibilities. In response to the decision in the Al Jihad Trust case, the government issued the Legal Reform Ordinance in November 1996, which redefined the role and function of executive magistrates. The Ordinance was enacted as an Act of Parliament under Legal Reforms Act in July 1997 during the Government of Pakistan Muslim League. However General Pervez Musharraf took a very drastic step and abolished the age-old institution of executive magistracy via the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Ordinance 2001.

The new government in the country needs to seriously consider undoing the flawed changes introduced by General Musharraf’s team, failing which any of the world’s currently designated “failed states” would soon surpass Pakistan in the UN rankings.

Shakil Durrani has served as Chief Secretary KP, Sindh, AJK and GB and was also Chairman Wapda. He can be reached via