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NON-FICTION: A RURAL RENAISSANCE

September 09, 2018

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A 2014 file photo shows students outside the school as the building is considered unsafe. According to Javed Ahmed Malik, villages must have some degree of administrative autonomy in order to progress | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A 2014 file photo shows students outside the school as the building is considered unsafe. According to Javed Ahmed Malik, villages must have some degree of administrative autonomy in order to progress | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Development practitioners in Pakistan — particularly those who have worked at the grassroots level — rarely record their experiences and observations. The eminent exceptions to this general rule are Shoaib Sultan Khan of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), Dr Akhter Hameed Khan of the Orangi Pilot Project and urban planner and architect Arif Hasan, all of whom are titans in the field. But there are many others who may not have conceived of and implemented new models or launched new organisations, but nevertheless have consistently worked on grassroots development issues and spent lifetimes observing how the most vulnerable sections of our society live and work. Javed Ahmed Malik is one such practitioner who has the added advantage of having grown up in a rural environment. His book, Transforming Villages, is welcome not just because of its analysis of rural society in Pakistan but also because, as an insider, he has an empathetic and non-judgemental view.

Transforming Villages seems to have been written with students in mind, as its structure is logical, the language is simple (although the text could have been edited better) and the plan of the volume is explained right at the beginning. Broadly speaking, Malik begins by exploring the issue — that is, the neglect of Pakistan’s rural areas — and then almost immediately presents a possible institutional solution. The next few chapters are devoted to exploring this model further and discussing how, in the author’s opinion, it can transform rural life.

Simply put, the crux of the argument in Transforming Villages is that villages should not be passive recipients of state largesse, but active participants in the development process. One way to ensure that this occurs is to make the village the basic administrative unit of the state system. At present, administrative structures end at the union council (UC) level, where a UC is generally composed of around 10 villages. Malik acknowledges that the local government system in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) uses the village council as the smallest unit and builds the structure of sub-provincial governments from that point. But he also points out that local government legislation in Pakistan has been precariously placed, with changes in national political dispensations leading to changes in the local government system more often than not.

Making villages active in governance processes is crucial for national progress, argues a development practitioner

Thus, rather than depending on provinces to institute devolution, Malik’s solution is to institute a system of “village governments.” The author calls this lowest tier the “Village Social” and thinks of it as a self-governing entity that is responsible for basic social services — particularly water and sanitation and village infrastructure — and resolution of civil conflict. This approach has been used by non-governmental organisations, particularly the RSPN network which is based on the grassroots development philosophy of Akhtar Hameed Khan. But Malik espouses that this function should not be based on small project implementation, as it is in the case of NGOs, but essentially function as the lowest tier of the state apparatus — a formal service delivery structure. To this extent, Malik’s recommendation goes beyond the implementation of citizen community boards (CCBs). Introduced under the local government legislation of 2001, CCBs were essentially institutions registered by groups of private citizens to carry out development works under the aegis of the local governments. The Village Social suggested by Malik, on the other hand, is a permanent state institution which will be registered as such and have fiduciary responsibility.

The first question most readers would ask is why is such a parallel system being proposed when local governments are functioning in the country and, in KP, have even been constituted at the village level (with similar legislation now likely to be introduced in Punjab)? Malik answers this concern in the last chapter where he contends that political structures in Pakistan are inimical to the empowerment of local governments — neither the elected officials nor the bureaucracy at the provincial level are happy to concede power to local governments for fear of being displaced and, in the case of elected officials, being rendered irrelevant. He further contends that local organisations set up only to manage development are bound to fail (the CCBs being the obvious example) not least because of capacity issues and power struggles. According to Malik, it is the state that has to be active at the lowest tier of society in order to mobilise citizens who have historically been sidelined.

Malik goes into considerable detail in his last chapter to describe how the proposed Village Social will be constituted, legally and in terms of membership (with 15 households having one representative and 300 households forming a tanzeem [organisation]). He acknowledges that institutions at this level may not be able to do much in terms of ensuring quality of health and education services, but he does see a role for them in sanitation, dispute resolution and disaster relief, particularly when they are linked up with other local government and provincial structures.

One can agree or disagree with Malik’s solution and question the basis for forming new institutions when elected local governments do exist, in whatever form. But it is difficult to contest the essential premise of the book, which is that the state must do its bit to empower grassroots communities and create conditions for people to play a more active role in managing their communities, not through informal structures, but through formal institutions that function within the framework of the law. In the absence of such a state-sponsored initiative, informal institutions will continue to hold sway with their attendant patriarchal and largely non-inclusive predispositions — something that Malik talks about in a separate chapter titled ‘The Consequence (of Neglect)’.

Altogether, this book is a brave attempt to introduce a new idea on political organisation and to identify an innovative approach to tackle rural Pakistan’s multiple problems. With a new government in place that espouses devolution of power, this may just be a good time to start a debate. One hopes that Transforming Villages is one of the first steps in this direction.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

Transforming Villages
By Javed Ahmed Malik
Iqbal International Institute for Research and
Dialogue, International Islamic University,
Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9697576296
226pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 9th, 2018