Monsoon tests weak structures

Updated August 05, 2019

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Municipal authorities blame their poor performance on the over-reliance on provincial governments and paucity of funds. — Dawn/File
Municipal authorities blame their poor performance on the over-reliance on provincial governments and paucity of funds. — Dawn/File

There can be no excuse for the loss of life, property and man-hours on such a large scale caused by predictable seasonal rains.

The provincial government’s claims about better governance ring hollow. The rain exposed once again the poor capacity of civic bodies and utility companies to handle drainage and power supply issues.

When reached over the phone, administrations of all major cities blamed their weak performance on the over-dependence on provincial hierarchies and the paucity of funds and skills to deal with the challenge.

Business leaders expressed disgust and disappointment at the persistent apathy shown by the government. A PTI leader used the situation to discredit the process of devolution that in her opinion has backfired.

Derived wisdom tells us that the chances of containing monsoon damages, restoring the affected infrastructure and rehabilitating the marooned people are brighter under a devolved system of governance. Unfortunately, the devolution process that started in 2010 did not follow the natural path that would empower cities, districts and unions despite the high cost of wavering on the commitment.

Municipal authorities blame their poor performance on the over-reliance on provincial governments and paucity of funds

“Even the avoidable ravages of the expected monsoon, year after year, fail to mobilise the powers that be to fix the system. It leaves people, businesses and the country’s fragile economy to the mercy of nature,” commented an analyst.

The incessant rain last week did break the prolonged heat spell in central and southern Pakistan and provided drought-threatened farmers with relief in rain-dependent areas. But it again bared the governance fault lines as sewerage, transport and electricity infrastructure crumbled and caused prolonged power outages and standing water on roads, runways and railway tracks, disrupting the mobility of goods and people.

Civic bodies watched helplessly despite being informed in advance while the incessant rain inundated low-lying areas in economic nerve centres, such as Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Hyderabad, leading to disruptions up and down the supply chain.

The acting president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Muhammad Ejaz Abbasi, called for a scientific assessment of tangible and intangible losses caused by the monsoon.

“We are receiving complaints from our members in different parts of the country. The government turning a blind eye to the problems of the already stressed business class will not translate well for the economy,” he said by phone from Islamabad.

Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar sounded dejected. “It is painful to see my city and its people suffer like this. The sad fact is that no one is ready to own this city that keeps the wheels of this country’s economy moving,” he said, referring to the PPP and the PTI.

“I have insufficient staff, suction pumps and machinery. I have limited jurisdiction rights. The provincial government has taken over all revenue-generating bodies, leaving us high and dry. Funds I get from the province barely cover salary and pension liabilities. Electricity supply to my head office has been suspended as we don’t have funds to clear the past bills. I can only wish I could help ease problems, but we can’t function without money,” he said.

He argued in favour of further devolution in financial, administrative and political spheres in line with Article 140-A of the Constitution.

Lahore Administrator and Commissioner Asif Bilal Lodhi was concerned, but not bitter. He blamed the overlapping of old and new systems of governance for adding to the problems at critical junctures. He also supported the idea of strengthening the lower tiers of government.

He mentioned that the new Local Government Act in Punjab has yet to become perfectly operational. “A chain of command and control at the city level by the elected mayor can work better for Lahore and its citizens,” he said.

Peshawar Administrator Khudai Nazar believes that things are moving in the right direction in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “There is always room for improvement. We are trying to improve the service delivery with a clear chain of command and control and the provision of a single window to attend to all matters of civic issues in Peshawar,” he told Dawn over the phone from Peshawar.

Quetta Administrator Tariq Javed Mengal said the current provincial government is aiming to strengthen the local bodies. “Encroachments have rendered natural drains dysfunctional. It will help us devise a more effective strategy if we have access to scientific and evidence-based studies,” he said while admitting that the administration lacks a systematic database for the city. He said improving the sewerage system is high on the government’s agenda.

When reached over the phone, Minister for Interprovincial Coordination Fehmida Mirza said she was not happy with the performance of the provinces that are more empowered financially. “Why did they not prepare to minimise the fallout of the predicted monsoon rain? For Sindh, I can say with confidence that the government lacks both will and the capacity to deliver.

“They have more resources at their disposal, but they are not being spent to match the needs. There is no defence for the government in the province that failed its people,” she added.

Currently, the federal government is pondering over ways to ensure better cooperation among the provinces for sharing the financial burden of common responsibilities, she said.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 5th, 2019