My photo

Resuscitating the DC

By Syed Saadat | From the Newspaper Dawn

A GROUNDSMAN from Pakistan on a visit to Lord’s Cricket Ground asked his English counterpart, “How come the grass here is so lush and green?” He replied, “All you need to do is water the grass daily, prune it weekly…” Our man interjected: “I already do that but still the grass in our grounds is not as fine as this.” The Englishman smiled and continued “…and keep doing it for 100 years”.
If only somebody could tell the Englishman that if Lord’s had been in Pakistan we would have replaced years of his hard work with our whims. That is what we did in 2001 to the system of the district administration, a system that stood the test of time and that had unparalleled credibility and institutional charisma in the subcontinent over the last century. The British made the districts independent units under the administrative control of a deputy commissioner (DC), who along with his team of assistant commissioners and first-class magistrates was responsible for almost everything under the sun.
The post-independence era saw that nucleus becoming less powerful with the growth of the industrial economy and a more inclusive political process, but still the DC remained the most recognised face of the administration and was considered to be the principal representative of the government at the district level. Our biggest problem is that we are in the habit of aping the West instead of emulating it; we need to know the dynamics of our populace before jumping onto the bandwagon of so-called empowerment of the people. Let us see how empowered the people have become since the change.
Prices of food commodities are soaring and there is nobody who can be held responsible. Cities like Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Islamabad are always under the scrutiny of the media and administration alike, and high-profile anti-encroachment drives can be launched there every now and then. But what about Sukkur, Turbat, Nowshera and Sahiwal? Oh I forgot, people have been so empowered that they can be left on their own.
The executive magistracy was an important part of the system inherited from the British and provided the requisite authority to implement the law in this region. We must realise that our people do not follow the law like the citizens of Europe. So, the need for a system that promises immediate relief or reprimand is necessary.
Before the system’s abolition in 2001, the administration officers exercised magisterial powers which meant the powers to try offences punishable up to three years’ imprisonment, grant bail in petty crimes, impose fines on transgressors and even to issue instructions to the police to baton-charge or use teargas against a rioting crowd. Post-2001 these powers were divided between the police and the judiciary. This has virtually meant an unbridled police force and the judiciary being dragged into something it is not trained for. You would not expect a judge to be shouting on a megaphone in an effort to calm down a rioting mob whereas the police are the arm of the state that is moved only when the use of force is inevitable. Nor is it there to negotiate.
So it was not a coincidence that the DC provided a perfect middle ground in a system that ran successfully for more than 100 years and is continuing to do so in India which is ethnically more heterogeneous and geographically far bigger than us. It is pertinent to point out that India retained the power of the office of the DC even after the introduction of the Panchayati Raj system (the Indian equivalent of local bodies) in the 1990s.
A decade of experimenting and an end to a constitutional bar on amending the local government law has made way for voices asking to infuse life in the dead DC for the sake of good governance. However, this is easier said than done as certain groups resist relinquishing the powers that the change bestowed on them. We have egos higher than the Himalayas and vendettas deeper than the Arabian Sea, and somewhere in between the cause of good governance is lost and the public forgotten. A quick return is important because the experienced officers, privy to the previous system, are thinning out due to
superannuation, and soon there won’t be enough officers to guide the younger lot.
Once we return to the old guard, the second step should be to revamp the performance evaluation of the administrative machinery of a district by forming an incorruptible high-profile monitoring council consisting of bureaucrats, members of the judiciary and politicians — all with unblemished reputations and known to be proactive. They should monitor closely the performance as well as the appointments of DCs across the country as a countercheck so that political and oligarchic influences can be kept at bay.
Lastly, this restoration should not be taken by the district administration officers as a return of their rule and an opportunity for self-aggrandisement. Maybe this hiatus was necessary to make the bureaucracy realise that the basic objective should be to facilitate the public and help the underprivileged. Our masses are such that if you do a little for them they respect you so much you want to keep doing it over and over again. Give yourself and them a chance, For they have suffered enough in the never-ending pursuit of power.

No comments: