Reforming institutions

September 06, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

WHEN a bus full of schoolchildren overturned in Kallar Kahar in 2011, killing almost all of the children, we were promised a ‘thorough’ investigation to not only determine who to hold responsible, but to ensure that regulatory failures were removed in order to reduce the chances of another mishap of this sort happening again. Nothing happened afterwards. Are our buses safer today? Are bus inspections better? Are drivers monitored better? Clearly, none of the above happened.

Every so often we have a CNG-related accident in a vehicle. We have lost scores of people in such incidents. How have regulatory and implementation structures been altered to reduce the chances of such incidents occurring?

Over the last few days, three people have died while in police custody in Punjab. One of the victims had a mental disability. Various government officials, including the IG Punjab, have promised that (a) there will be a thorough investigation, (b) the culprits will be caught and punished, and (c) such incidents will not be tolerated in Punjab. But is this the first time such incidents have taken place in the province? Clearly not. What did the government do the last time, or the last many times, such incidents occurred? How were procedures altered? Is there a credible system of independent inquiry in place? Have forensic pathology systems been improved? Is there more reliability in the system? Have these ‘improved’ systems started to act as a deterrence against police torture, use of excessive force and/or criminal neglect?

If the changes mentioned above had taken place, we would not be talking today about these recent deaths allegedly through custodial torture.

What promises were made the last time, or the last many times, that custodial deaths occurred?

Can we be sure, as the IG Punjab has promised, that such incidents will not happen in police stations in the province in the future? I do not think there is even an iota of credibility to his claim. It is not that the IG is not well-intentioned and/or does not share concerns about law and human rights as all of us do — I am sure he does, as do many other police officers — but the question remains: what are the institutional, organisational and other necessary changes that are being implemented to ensure such incidents do not happen? What processes have been put in place to study issues around torture in custody, illegal detention, neglect, excessive force and so on, and how are powers, duties, incentives and accountability mechanisms of police officers being altered to address weaknesses in the current systems? As far as one can tell, almost none.

There was a lot of talk of changing the ‘thana’ culture by introducing police reforms in Punjab when this government took over. But this has gone nowhere over the last year. Many of the people who were brought in to lead the change have already left their respective positions. The IG’s pronouncements are indeed not credible.

Allow me to give contrasting examples. Dr Richard Shepherd, a leading forensic pathologist in Britain for more than three decades, provides some enlightening accounts in his book Unnatural Causes. The investigations that followed one major train collision incident not only fixed responsibility and held people accountable, they provided the opportunity for the railway system, emergency services, police, hospitals and all other concerned services to work out (a) what things went wrong that led to the accident, and what was lacking in the subsequent provision of relief services, and (b) how these systems could be improved.

It took years for various committees and commissions to conduct the investigations and implement reforms. In the end, the concerned authorities could confidently say that rail safety systems had been substantially improved and that delivery of emergency services, in the wake of a disaster, would be smoother, much more efficient and quite effective.

When a boat, with almost 150 people, went down in the Thames, it initiated several processes, spread over a number of years, which reviewed and then reformed river navigation and safety systems almost completely.

When Dr Shepherd was called to look into the cause of death of a person in police custody, the questions of interest were as follows. While the person in question was resisting arrest and had to be forcibly restrained, did the police use an appropriate level of force to restrain the person? Did the restraints, in any way, cause or contribute to the death of the person? But the questions that came after these were equally important. If restraints or restraining methods were in any way a cause, how do we change the way that the police restrains people and/or uses tools for restraining people in order to ensure that while the effectiveness of the restraints remain, they do not impose excessive damage on the victim.

None of these changes happened overnight. In some cases, it took up to a decade for new processes to become institutionalised. There was the usual inertia against change. And sectional and personal interests were also involved in attempting to block these changes or to try to shape them to suit their interests. But change did happen. The institutions were strong enough to eventually push things through.

What is missing in Pakistan are the institutional and organisational mechanisms that can initiate, debate, finalise and then implement reform. This is why promises of accountability of individuals or institutions, from the IG Punjab up to the prime minister, ring hollow.

Credibility of and trust in state institutions can only develop when they deliver on services in a responsible and predictable manner, when they acknowledge mistakes of omission or commission that are made, when they commit to credible processes for learning from mistakes, and — most importantly — when individuals/institutions are effectively held accountable for their actions. This is as true of the rail system as it is of the intelligence agencies. We are nowhere close to this situation in Pakistan.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2019