Maze of governance
By Tariq Mahmud
IN a recent move, the Sindh government repealed the Local Government Ordinance 2001 and Police Order 2002 replacing these two flagships of the Musharraf era with the Police Act 1861 and the Local Government Ordinance 1979 only to reverse the latter act within no time.
The office of the commissioner which also stood activated went through a quiver motion, an expeditious revival, and what followed was stunning midnight demise.
The local government ordinance has now to be presented before the provincial assembly and it will be interesting to see the manner in which this bill is steered through. The latest move by the Sindh government has, however, created ripples in some quarters whereas in this debate at the other end the office of the commissioner is being termed as a colonial legacy. The Police Act 1861 has been dubbed as an archaic law reminiscent of the British period. The Local Government Ordinance 1979, is getting flak as the handiwork of a dictator.
There is a need to correct the misplaced emphasis. An impression is being created as if the commissioner’s office is a substitute for the local bodies system, which it is not. These are two distinctly separate domains working in their own area of responsibility. During the Basic Democracies era in the 1960s, the district and the divisional bureaucracy had formal sway over the local councils but a significant departure was made in the Local Government Ordinance 1979.
An institutional arrangement of the district coordination committee, headed by the chairman of the zila council was put in place giving him overriding powers in coordinating activities throughout the district, resolving inter-council disputes and performing the role of planning and development in key sectors of primary healthcare, education, rural water supply, livestock development and farm to market roads. The deputy commissioner as the chief executive officer of the district coordination committee under this formal arrangement reported to the chairman of the zila council. The same position was occupied by the mayors in metropolitan areas.With the promulgation of the Local Government Ordinance 2001, the office of the commissioner was done away with and his revenue judicial functions were entrusted to lower-level functionaries who were under the direct control of the zila nazims. The nazims more often did not care to distinguish between their political and administrative role.
A frequent overlap of these roles in turn affected the working of these revenue judicial officers. It was overlooked that in a steeply factionalised Pakistani society the nazim was the repository of both development and regulatory functions and also controlled a hierarchy of officials dealing with revenue judicial matters. In 10 years, the revenue administration saw a marked deterioration resulting in serious dysfunctionalities.
The nazim system did throw up enviable names like Niamatullah Khan and Syed Mustafa Kamal, but at the same time, the commissioner system reminds us of its own prodigies. It is difficult to forget the names of Zafarul Ahsan, Musarrat Hussain Zubairi and many others who left deep imprints on the public mind during their careers.
Zafarul Ahsan is remembered as the builder of modern Lahore, he laid the foundation of new habitats and was the spirit behind the settlement and development of vast barren tracts of ‘Thal’ in western Punjab. Musarrat Hussain Zubairi’s name has been part of the folklore in the desolate expanses of Cholistan. The Rohilas of Cholistan, hitherto nomads, got a taste of settled life owing to his resolute efforts.
Under the 1979 Ordinance, the only interface the commissioner had with the local councils was not by virtue of his office but as a ‘delegatee’ of the provincial government, performing functions of oversight. If and when the need arose these functions could be parked in an independent statutory body.
Coming to the revival of the office of commissioner in the hierarchy of revenue administration, it should be seen in a larger perspective. The agriculture sector continues to be key to our economic breakthrough. A reasonably good level of growth in this sector has always been happy news for the overall economy. We need to harness the full potential of this sector.
The country will have to move towards a broad-based income tax net for the key area. Despite the rising input prices there is appreciable surplus income in this sector. Our growing deficit is touching alarming levels. The only option available is to generate and mop up indigenous streams, agricultural income tax being one of them. We will, therefore, require an efficient and well-structured administrative machinery to perform this Herculean task.
This goes for all administrative tiers including the positions in the revenue districts and the divisions.
Laws are like living organisms representing both continuity and change. The Local Government Ordinance 1979 did not come from the blue. It was mainly based on the Municipal Administration Ordinance of 1960 which in turn had its genesis in the municipal enactments dating back to 1911. Not much had changed in terms of the ‘business processes’. The only change brought about was in the composition and modes of election of local councils and their interface with government tiers.
The Police Act 1861, at the same time, is by no means a perfect law, but to decry it on account of its colonial origins does not seem to be the correct way to proceed. This act was an ‘evolving law’ and had been absorbing changes through amendments all these years. Vintage should not be the cause for alarm as what was not colonial in this part of the world? We had the largest hydrographic society spawned by the colonial rulers in Sindh and Punjab that transformed production relations in the plains of the Indus and the allied river system. We are still reaping the dividends, with our road and rail network triggering all-time connectivity.
We need to think through the issue in its entirety. The importance and urgency of the local government system cannot be put aside. A system based on functional and financial autonomy with a self-regulatory mechanism is the need of the hour. At the same time, the provinces cannot be slowed down in taking steps which in their wisdom can help retrieve their fast-eroding writ.
The writer was previously home secretary Punjab, additional chief secretary former NWFP and secretary interior.