The Devolution Phenomenon

Columnist Col (Retd) TAHIR HUSSAIN MASHHADI makes a case study of the demands for devolution of power to the grass-roots level

Along with the revival of the economy, devolution and decentralization of power from the centre to the provinces and from there to the local bodies is the most challenging task before the present regime. These important items of Gen. Pervez Musharraf agenda are inter-linked to the introduction of grass-roots democracy, future development and provision of better social and civic services emerging from a more active and beneficial interaction of the masses in governance. Success in these two spheres will play a big part toward the establishment of a truly democratic, more acceptable and lasting political order in the country. A healthy debate has generated focusing on this important subject. Gen. Musharraf and his team's frequent and emphatic pronouncements of their intention to introduce devolution of power to the district level has however assumed a tinge of controversy. Doubts and apprehensions are being expressed regarding the regime's real intentions and motives regarding the overall process of restoration of democracy and the regime's concept or brand of devolution and decentralization of power they wish to introduce. From day one Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been emphasising in unequivocal terms his intention of carrying out genuine devolution of political and economic power to the provinces and from there to the local bodies. This declared resolves so openly and repeatedly expressed by the Chief Executive should set all fears and apprehensions to rest. Devolution of power is a internationally tested instrument of governance, it will facilitate the present regimes declared goal of strengthening the federation, removing provincial disharmony and most of all restoring national cohesion. Head-way in this critical area will go a long way in also facilitating the other declared agenda points of Gen. Musharraf such as ensuring law and order, providing speedy justice, depoliticising the institutions, rebuilding the shattered national confidence and morale. All-important aspects of the commendable resolve of the military regime to pave the way for the advent of true democracy in Pakistan.

The existing political and administrative structure with its highly centralised state power is fundamentally incapable of effectively responding to the challenges of the times and providing proper or popular governance. The economy, the prevalent political system nor our culture is susceptible to the present mode and style of governance, as it is primarily rooted in centralization of all power. The national experience and habit of replacing one abnormality in governance with another never ceases. This leads to frequent departures from the law and constitution on grounds of 'law of necessity'. We have been unable to break the shackles of convenient status quo and emerge out of the shadows of egocentric, personalized and class-based governance. The government therefore never become just, equitable, objective or concerned. Democratic and political foundations are built up slowly and it takes decades to establish and develop a viable and lasting political culture. This is the essential factor on which the basic foundations of a healthy democratic order and political culture of the society as a whole is built. This culture reflects the attitudes, beliefs, values and aspirations of the citizens. We have miserably failed to evolve ourselves into a tolerant, peaceful, progressive, forward looking and prosperous society possessing a distinct political and social culture. Perception, understanding and tolerance is missing from our social fabric.

The main problems confronting the nation have been purposely ignored and the unimportant, petty and peripheral issues have been receiving ad hoc attention. Concentration has always been symptoms rather than cure. Our national politics turned into a deadly game of power, pelf, privileges and loot. The result has been amply demonstrated as most horrendous. The functions of politics and public policy has degenerated into egoism, sychophanty, lust for power and race for a share of the loot. Our leaders and intelligentsia as a whole make no real effort to understand the nature or magnitude of the issues involved, nor the dynamics of social and political ground realities. Faulty diagnosis have invariably lead to incorrect prognoses and wrong remedies. The existing feudal and elitist structure permeates the elite classes preserve entrenched in socio-economic inequities and ensures the political status quo. It strongly resists a fair redistribution of power and staunchly protects the interest of the elite. The nexus among elite classes represents the power block in which all authority is concentrated. The real power in Pakistan has always been in the hands of a very small coterie of rulers. Autocracy and centralised rule practised by our past rulers both military and civilian be they so called democratic or military or quasi-military has maimed the spirit that binds us together and has been responsible more than anything else for the decay and decomposition of our polity and society.

Unless, the people, as a matter of their basic fundamentalist right, policy and law are allowed to manage their own cultural, economic, political, civic and day-to-day affairs, the country will continue to face gruesome threats to its ideological, cultural, social political, constitutional and even geographical barriers. Only by giving power to the people to whom it actually belongs can the future well-being, stability and unity of the nation be ensured. As long as the politics of our country revolve around myopic lust for concentrating power at the centre and passion for absolute power by our leaders remains the dominant theme or expostulate of our politics national stability, cultural vibrancy, law and order, economic progress, peace or harmony will remain an elusive and far fetched dream. Power has to be shared and a viable and lasting system developed so that the masses are rid of the present anarchy and oppressive centralized system of administration. Local self-government enables the local communities to manage their primary social and civic tasks. To make the present structure of the local government effective a great deal of restructuring and modification has to be undertaken. The local bodies have to be granted more financial and administrative powers. They must be granted powers to levy and collect revenues. Devolution without enabling the local governments to raise and manage financial resources and form their own policies is not likely to achieve the objectives of empowering the people to run their own affairs. New local level judicial institutions have to be created. Existing ones have to be strengthened to resolve local disputes and provide cheap on the doorstep of justice. Arbitration councils of district and below levels have to be established as effective lower judiciary is part as the system of devolution.

The people must be encouraged to participate in governance, make their own evaluations and set their own priorities about essential day-to-day issues. People all over Pakistan are demanding greater self-determination, influence and participation in governance. The provincial disharmony that prevails in the country has arisen out of the neglect and the deprivation of the three smaller provinces. The imbalance in the power structure created by concentration of power at the centre has left the country and its institutions exposed to the disruptive effects of internal dissension and disharmony. It has weakened the state and aggravated the multi-dimensional crisis the people face in their daily life. All this naturally has resulted in the near disintegration of the political, moral and social fabric of the country. Decentralization of power to the provinces and from there to the districts will impart a great measure of stability and strength to a future democratic order and the nation. It will make the government more responsive to the hopes and aspirations of the poor and the downtrodden as they would be granted far greater participation in governance. Effective decentralization of authority is essential to ensure peoples involvement in government from the village to the national level. Devolution to the distinct level will create an institutional structure and base that gives people a role in local governance. Our society has many dissensions and it has to be protected from the threat of further division. Only through active participation of the masses and strong political institutions can the masses be welded together to make a strong and united nation.

Decentralisation and devolution ensures maximum participation of the masses in national affairs. The local bodies institutions provide the basis and easily accessible infrastructure for quicker and better solution of the day-to-day problems. Decentralisation ensures the provision of better civic and utility services by the state along with far more responsive governance. Local government institutions will have to be strengthened and empowered to dispose of a number of matters. Social welfare, public works, public transport education and health services along with maintenance of law and order should be the responsibility of local government. Devolution must be confined to appropriate areas of activity and has to be supported and controlled by strong and variable political culture. Explicit rules setting out the division of functional responsibilities among the levels of government will reduce ambiguity and increase political accountability. Good governance depends on public access to power being widely distributed and constitutionally shared. One of the most important aspects to watch in this process is the point as to whom the power is devolved and who captures it at the local level. Great care however has to be taken to ensure that devolution does not reinforce the grip of local power elites, tribal chieftains, landlords or even the mafias. The greed of the ruling elite has degenerated our society into a visible manifestation of corrupt polity, which perpetuates itself by large-scale loot, plunder, and destruction of our institutions, morals, culture, heritage and values. The mafia's representing various vested interests gain control and reign with impunity. Unless this political mafia culture represented by the ruling elite is eliminated, no democracy, in fact no government, democratic or military can ever hope to flourish or succeed in our country. The strange-hold of the political elite and their legacy of absolute authority and power needs to be crushed.

Power has never really been shared with the people from within the ranks of the proverbial toiling masses or grass- roots. A framework within which interest groups - political, economic, ethnic and sectarian - can compete and negotiate without restoring to all kinds of violence has to be provided. Decentralization in its pristine form entails real transfer of political, fiscal and administrative power to subnational units of government such as provincial, district or even lower levels down to the village. Decentralisation concedes that there is the central authority. It is an administrative concept whereby the central authority delegates authority for flexible administration. It increases the efficiency and responsiveness of government, improves the efficiency and responsiveness of the public sector and accommodates potentially explosive and diverse political forces. One of the main objectives of decentralization and devolution is to maintain political stability in the face of pressures for localization. We are unfortunately a nation which is deeply divided along geographic parochial, ethnic and sectarian lines. Decentralization therefore, is a crying need as it will provide an institutional mechanism for bringing all opposing and diverse groups into a formal, rule-bound bargaining process and thus restore, develop and encourage national cohesion and provincial harmony. Devolution of powers to lower levels are essential to a true and successful democracy as oxygen is for life. Decentralized government is more responsive to citizens' needs, easily mobilizes resources, is more effective in achieving its objectives, reduces costs and government expenditures provide quicker and easily accessible redress, relief and justice. It increases manifold the masses public participation in national and civic affairs, there-by greatly enhancing national unity.

The Constituent units have to be involved in a process and be part of mutual accommodation. To strengthen the federation, toleration, mutual trust and mutual recognition of all federating units and their people's rights is an absolute prerequisite. Inter-provincial tension and conflicts have to be removed. The federal government must regulate and manage all conflicts so that it primarily becomes a vehicle of social and political control designed to secure ethno-political coexistence. We are a federal state made up of various divergent ethnic, sectarian, cultural and social groups, which have varying political and economic interests. The issue of setting up a truly democratic infrastructure is very significant in the context of our present realities. Good governance can only come about if the public administration is provided with a sound system of institutions serving a healthy society committed to the rule of law.

The essential principal of federalism is the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. The local bodies have to derive their powers from the provinces and all the three tiers i.e. the federation, the provinces and the local bodies (district, etc) from the constitution. The constituent units, i.e. provinces, are devoid of effective power and powers for local government are non-existent. The increasing centralization of power in the federal list under the 1973 constitution has reduced the federating units (provinces) almost the nonentities. The centre now enjoys power to legislate in as many as 114 subjects. Effective exercise of sovereignty and participation of the people in the affairs of the state requires that decision-making levels be within the reach of the people to the maximum possible degree. While reforms are required in a wide range of areas over-centralisation of the state in all spheres of national life constitutes the crux of the problem. The answer lies in granting of more provincial autonomy which will lead to local autonomy. Provincial autonomy is the vital tier and the necessary condition. Local autonomy (district and below) cannot be introduced without first introducing, ensuring and safeguarding provincial autonomy. Devolution as a political concept implies that there is no 'centre of power' and the local government have the discretion to form their own policies. The devolution in Pakistan perforce as per requirement of national unity and greater integration has to be done within the decentralization system in which the provinces, districts and all local bodies have to follow national policies and must function subjected to certain checks as initiation.

Holding elections to local bodies and by granting them greater empowerment over local government to ensure greater public participation will go a long way in putting the country on road to real democracy and of solving most of the problems being faced by the masses. Participation in power has to be given to the masses who are struggling for recognition and their deserved due share in governance. Decentralisation and devolution of power is now universally accepted as the key reforms element. Greater empowerment of local governments is emerging as the main pillars of the decentralisation and devolution. Both have their own virtues and merits. Any action taken which may be misconceived as an attempt towards fragmentation of the provinces has to be strictly avoided. It leads to creation of unnecessary doubts, scepticism and apprehensions about devolution. Establishment of more provinces at present is a subject for the regime to steer well clear of. It is a very sensitive and dangerous volcano which can erupt at the slightest provocation. There is a segment of political populace in the smaller provinces that fear that the devolution and decentralisation process may be a ploy of the military regime aimed at elimination of the provincial tier of government and establishment of the unitary system by using the local bodies to boost and prop-up an even stronger centre as was done by Ayub and Zia. Although there is a crying need for more provinces, the present regime will do well to leave this most violate subject to the politicians and democratic alloy elected government to solve. In time the people themselves will clamour for more provinces and more manageable administrative units. Devolution of power properly and well done will pave the way for smooth transaction of power, return of proper democracy and establishment of lasting and stable democratic system. Success in a well supervised and well implemented devolution and decentralisation exercise resulting in the provision of good governance at local levels to the people will automatically lead to demand for creation of more administratively manageable provinces. Proposed electoral reforms package (with emphasis on devolution and decentralisation of power) has to be provided constitutional cover. This in the present state can be done by either reviving the assemblies or having them pass the amendments. By holding fresh election and hoping that new assembly will do the needful or by holding a proper transparent referendum encompassing all electoral and constitutional changes envisaged. It must be remembered that the military regime can lay down and for the time it is in power inforce the process of devolution, but only a tenderly culturalated community sense can uphold the scheme. The need for efficiency with the still greater need of unity has to be conciled. We as a nation have become weary of changes and hopeless for creative change. We all want unity without incurring the risks and labours of creativity. This is impossible. The people as a whole have to be moulded by guidance and inspired by principles, integrity and practical wisdom. The very thought and effort that exist in the inner souls of our people to go forward so as to arrive at the higher standard that we have reached, is by itself inspiring and invigorating. There is in our nation an inextricable connection between sprit and ideals and their merging into an energy yet to be utilised. This is the favourable indication that we will triumph. Introduction of devolution will face formidable challenges from the existing power structures as well as resource constraints. In spite of all obstacles the process of decentralisation and devolution must be initiated, it in the national interest must be initiated at the earliest. The national well-being demands it.