Importance of routine

December 12, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE efficiency of the state apparatus has been questioned several times in recent weeks on account of its failure to take critically important decisions as a matter of routine.

The importance of following a set routine is not unknown to the Pakistan establishment. It has created mechanisms to review and revise prices of petroleum products every month. The acting president and acting chief justices of superior courts are sworn in as soon as these august offices fall vacant for any reason. The establishment’s codes and manuals must include many directives that may be described as auto-start mechanisms to ensure the smooth functioning of the administration.

One wonders whether the old colonial rule about the date in April before which ceiling fans in government offices could not be used and the date in October when they had to stop whirling is still followed, or whether the installation of newer cooling systems has made this routine redundant. This bit of routine is recalled only to emphasise the all too obvious need for continually updating the administrative routine.

The appointment of a new chief election commissioner before the office falls vacant should be a matter of routine. Everybody knew, or should have known, that the chief election commissioner was going to retire on the sixth of this month. Why was the process of selecting a person to fill this key constitutional post started almost at the end of the outgoing ECP chief’s tenure? Why couldn’t this process have begun some months earlier?

Serious complications can occur if the government deviates from its routine responsibilities.

Among other things the selection of a person to fill a constitutional office a month or so before his/ her induction affords the individual concerned time to familiarise himself/herself with the demands of the assignment True, an early start to the search for a new chief election commissioner might not have borne fruit before the retirement of the outgoing holder of office because the condition of agreement between the leader of the house and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly is not easy to fulfil.

There can be a situation in which neither of them wishes to see the other one’s face. More important, political parties in our country are rarely interested in choosing a person most suited to a job; each party is keen to have its favourite appointed. Nevertheless, if the process of selection is started well in advance of the appointment, and the qualifications of the nominees are shared with the people, the selection of the best of the lot could become somewhat easier.

It seems that the unfortunate and unnecessary controversy over the reappointment/extension in tenure of the army chief might have been averted had the defence ministry pursued the matter with the prime minister through the exchange of proper notes three months in advance.

There have been other situations when matters should have been decided in a routine manner. For instance, the term of the chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights expired in May this year and so did the terms of the commission’s members some time later. As a result, this important human rights watchdog has been nonfunctional for months. A new chairman and members should have been appointed as a matter of routine.

Those who suggest that the government does not want to have a National Commission for Human Rights may be unfairly critical of the government as it may not be guilty of anything more than the establishment’s traditional lethargy. In this case too, the process of selecting new commissioners should have been initiated in a routine manner several months before the retirement of incumbent commissioners.

The suggestion that holders of key constitutional offices should not be relieved of their charge till their successors are ready to take over sounds attractive, but considering the low efficiency level of the administration somebody might be obliged to serve two or more terms pending the arrival of his or her successor. Therefore, the best way out is to develop an auto-start mechanism to fill key offices.

The lack of interest in the affairs of the supporting staff of institutions that become nonfunctional can cause them severe hardship. Nobody seems to have cared about guiding the staff of the NCHR on how to look after the organisation’s assets even if they were expected to survive without receiving their wages.

Sometimes, the lack of a properly set routine can create serious complications. Many complaints of electoral manipulation were made after the 2018 general election. The government formed a parliamentary committee to resolve all complaints. Nothing has been heard of the committee for a long time.

When a reference to the committee’s dormancy was made recently, the minister heading the committee blamed the opposition for not pressing for the committee’s meeting. He might not have got away with such a facetious remark in a responsible democracy because a routine for the functioning of a parliamentary body is supposed to be set when the decision to constitute it is made.

The failure to decide matters in a routine way is perhaps most unwelcome when citizens’ entitlements are not conceded. Mr Muhammad Husain travelled all the way from Skardu to Lahore to seek the help of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in securing compensation from the Gilgit-Baltistan government for displacement for over 20 years. The residents of several villages in Skardu district were evacuated from their homes during the Kargil conflict. After much intra-government haggling, the GB administration estimated the compensation due to those displaced from villages in Skardu district to be Rs116,564,633.

After the compensation amount had been determined, payment to the people affected was a simple matter of routine. But two decades after being displaced the villagers represented by Mr Muhammed Husain continue to suffer unbearable hardship due to the denial of compensation.

The efficiency of a government is judged not only by its spectacular achievements at home and abroad but also, and to a greater extent, by its ­ability to meet citizens’ concerns in accordance with its normal routine.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2019