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Decentralisation

April 03, 2018

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THE so-called Bajwa doctrine recently brought the future of the 18th Amendment that devolved powers to the provinces into question.

We were told that the military saw the amendment’s aspects dealing with decentralisation of powers as potentially risking Pakistan’s unity. At least as reported, the doctrine all but implied a preference for a rollback. While the DG ISPR later clarified the army chief’s reported remarks, the amendment’s proponents say that devolved power is necessary to reverse the anti-Punjab sentiment in the smaller provinces. Architects of the amendment have previously warned of dire consequences for the federation if devolution were to be reversed.

I believe in the merits of devolved governance. Yet, I have been torn on the 18th Amendment. This debate has never truly been about devolution in a paradigm that could strengthen the federation by ensuring citizen welfare — the essence of the theory of decentralisation.

The insecurity about a weak centre has always run deep in Pakistani leaders’ psyche. It underpinned the decision to use religion and Urdu as the only national language as the uniting factor after 1947. The same mindset dictated the obsession with governing East Pakistan tightly from the West pre-1971. One would have expected the 1971 debacle to end this debate in favour of decentralisation. The federal structure of the 1973 Constitution reflected this. Yet, no sooner had the Constitution been promulgated than terms codifying the devolution of powers from the centre down were (de facto) suspended.

The spirit of devolution has not been followed.

Developments between 1973 and 2010 when the 18th Amendment was passed confirmed that centralisation offered few answers to Pakistan’s problems. Security deteriorated; ethnic and provincial fault lines deepened; economic efficiency was low; and smaller provinces remained resentful of the centre and Punjab.

The amendment was presented as having revived the federal promise of the Constitution. The justification was a textbook vision of decentralisation: as political power and economic resources are devolved to levels accessible to the average citizen, government and governance will become more accountable and responsive, and lead to positive economic returns; this will check disillusionment and there’d be less to complain about the ‘other’ having usurped national resources. A less alienated polity would make for a less restive Pakistan.

However, the spirit of decentralisation was not followed. It wasn’t about transfer of powers from the centre to the provinces alone. For, as the theory of decentralisation goes, Pakistani provinces are too large for province-led governance to satisfy the prerequisite of being ‘closer to the people’. And, provinces do not align with the country’s ethnic fault lines but tend to be led by parties with vote banks skewed towards one or another ethnicity. Hence, minority ethnicities are bound to remain resentful of provincial government, being seen as undermining their interests.

A fair test of the efficacy of decentralisation requires genuine devolution of powers to local governments.

Those who critique the amendment hold sway precisely because, as executed, the arrangement is unlikely to be able to offer the kind of accountable governance promised. Politically, it has multiplied the hubs of elite power. A greater number of elite can now usurp state resources, but this is still an opaque, intra-elite redistributive mechanism that does little for citizens. Even those who may not see decentralisation as perverse, worry that without drastically improved governance outcomes in the smaller provinces, the amendment will enable Punjab, with the greatest resou­rces and residual capacity, to forge further ahead of the others economically. This will deepen provincial fault lines.

At the same time, the provincial elite now endowed with greater resources and empowered to reallocate them have little incentive to devolve this authority to the local level. All provinces have resisted doing so. The smaller provinces have supported positive political narratives around the amendment, arguing less in terms of governance accountability and more in terms of political gains for their provinces from a weakening of Punjabi domination. They can invigorate an anti-centre (and Punjab) discourse should the centre threaten to reverse the arrangement.

The decentralisation aspects of the 18th Amendment are vulnerable because they do not represent a truly devolved governance model. Yet, because the amendment purports this vision, it is allowing pro-centralisation voices to question the very suitability of decentralisation for Pakistan. This makes the case for a genuine move in this direction more difficult to uphold. Ironically, voices seized by championing the amendment without emphasising the need for grass-roots empowerment may prove to be its worst enemies.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C., and author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2018