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A non-participatory democracy

February 12, 2018


IMAGINE a group of citizens living in a densely populated lower middle-income neighbourhood in Lahore. Chances are that they will face any or all of these municipal failures: trash piles in a public space or in an empty plot; a dysfunctional sanitation system; an unpaved or patchy street; and non-functioning street lights. How would they go about resolving such collectively encountered problems?

One response would be to wait patiently for a bureaucrat in the municipal administration to take notice and divert some funding to their area. This could take anywhere between a year to never. Another would be to hope someone in their vicinity is a) well-connected, and b) able to lobby and redirect political attention through the local MPA/MNA, or since 2016, through a local Union Council representative.

This particular mechanism is likely to be most effective in competitive constituencies around election time when politicians become more attentive to voter concerns. In interim periods, political contact and responsiveness nosedives, as demonstrated by a survey conducted by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives in Lahore. Only 17 per cent of male respondents in their sample, and a shockingly low 3pc of female respondents, reported any contact with any political party worker in the four years after the 2013 general election.

The wilful secession of participatory rights is a pervasive feature of a number of domains in Pakistan.

The two pathways described are not abstract theorising; they constitute lived reality in vast swathes of a city of 11 million people. At a supply-side level, they point to two basic issues: the first is the outdated and highly opaque architecture of municipal governance, wherein little fiscal and administrative powers are devolved to elected local governments. In the functioning of an array of provincially controlled (and overlapping) bureaucratic bodies, most notably the behemoth Lahore Development Authority, citizen contact, cognisance, and responsiveness are the first few victims.

The second issue is the lack of organised contact between political parties and regular citizens, which undermines the former’s primary responsibility as aggregators and articulators of the latter’s interests. Pakistan’s parties demonstrate low levels of organisational capacity for such basic functions, which is one reason for both their episodic lapses into crises and the prevailing low levels of trust in political elites and processes.

There is, however, a demand-side component to this dysfunctionality. A third pathway to resolving municipal service-delivery issues at the neighbourhood level would have been collective action of some kind. This could take the shape of residents making monetary contributions towards resolving the issue on their own, or mobilising collectively to place sustained pressure on service-delivery concerns through associational platforms (such as a neighbourhood residents’ body).

Existing evidence from other contexts tells us that the odds of timely and efficient solutions through collective action are greater than a reliance on the salience of one or two well-connected individuals and the ephemeral generosity of elected representatives.

The participatory angle of politics and governance is largely missing in a city like Lahore. Part of this is certainly traceable to the bureaucratic and political context in which citizens find themselves. As mentioned earlier, parties are weak and poorly organised, while governance is centralised and bureaucratic. Such autocratic contingencies have helped perpetuate a weak associational culture, where the idea of coming together and forming platforms to resolve a collectively encountered problem is often not on the table.

This inadequacy is found across both high- and low-income groups. For poorer citizens, the calculus involved in collective action play a deterring role. The opportunity cost of time spent organising and mobilising is often very high, thus increasing a reliance on individual brokers and patrons for problem-solving needs.

However, even in Lahore’s middle- and high-income areas, where residents have both time and financial resources, participatory activity is highly curtailed and often limited to mosque and bazaar committees. This pales in comparison to urban India, where middle-class citizens utilise associational platforms for mobilising around environmental and service-delivery concerns. One major example from across the border is the ubiquitous Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), which have proven to be influential shapers of the urban planning process and are now emerging as important nodes of managing services.

There are few parallels to the RWAs or similar bodies in a city like Lahore. The vast majority of middle- and high-income citizens have entered into a bargain with benevolent despots — ie housing society developers (such as Bahria and DHA), where they forgo their voice and participatory rights in exchange for improved, private municipal services. This works particularly well at the start, when there are few pressures on services and developers are eager to establish their brands. However, when services begin to falter, citizens are left without a formal platform that allows for grievance articulation and redress.

While the discussion so far has focused on municipal services, the wilful secession of participatory rights is a pervasive feature of a number of domains in Pakistan. Another strong example of this was the parental reaction to an increase in high-cost private school fees a couple of years ago. For decades, two generations of parents and school owners were willing to keep each other at arm’s length as long as their basic bargain for above-average quality education in exchange for a fee challan was intact. As soon as the relationship faltered, however, parents were left with no option but to run to the government for regulation. This sub-optimal outcome could have been avoided if in the preceding years parents had pushed for increased involvement in the affairs of schools run on their money.

Demand-side weakness not only has adverse consequences for service delivery, it also contributes to the weak foundations of a democratic system. Associational culture, community participation, and mobilisation are central aspects of any healthy democracy, and given their absence, it is easy to see why democracy in Pakistan remains prone to crises.

The writer is a freelance columnist and an affiliate at the Consortium for Development Policy Research
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2018