Frontier Stations
By Shakil Durrani
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199406036
434pp.

Governance, management, and administration in the central, mainstream or urban areas of Pakistan is a subject often discussed in popular literature, but what happens in the remote areas of the country is sparsely covered. Information about these areas becomes the centre of attention only when someone who has held important, top positions chooses to write about it.

That’s why it is appreciable that Shakil Durrani, a civil servant who has been elevated to some very senior administrative positions, has shared his experiences of the far-flung areas of Pakistan through his book Frontier Stations.

One can call it the inside story by a civil servant, a memoir, an autobiography, or a book about the Pakistani administrative services. Well-written, well-edited and well-structured, Frontier Stations is divided into five parts.

Part One is a recollection of the author’s memories of his early education, school and college days, some apples of his eye and then starting his career in the Civil Services. It also talks about his transient tenures as a chief secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Sindh.

A civil servant shares his experiences of the less-discussed remote areas of Pakistan in a well-written seminal book that also serves as popular history

One chapter in this section is devoted to tales from the frontier. The author tells an intriguing story of the Afridi brothers, a pair of brave and resilient frontiersmen who won prestigious military gallantry awards, but from opposing countries — one received the Iron Cross from the Germans in March 1915; a month later the other brother was awarded the Victoria Cross by the British. There is also a detailed unpacking of the Pashtun code of Pashtunwali and Durrani gives fair space to both the good and bad of it.

The tales in this chapter tell us about a contested and difficult terrain, where governance has long been an uphill task because of the region’s history of being a borderland largely informed by its geography. But we cannot absolve any instances of mismanagement by simply rendering it a geopolitical issue.

The author has pointed out the lack of imagination, will and sincerity of purpose in governing well, and discusses in detail the difficulties and barriers that collapsed the writ and authority of the state in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and why the state faced difficulties in restoring it.

The former princely states of Chitral, Swat, Dir and the Malakand Agency, and erstwhile tribal areas that have had a forbidden past and an uncertain future, are discussed in part two, titled ‘Romance of the Frontier’. This section takes us to the past of tribal areas, from early visitors to modern visitors and dignitaries, the tribesmen and their motivations, the tribal institutions and what makes these areas as complex as the proverbial riddle wrapped up in mystery inside an enigma.

Why these areas were considered a buffer zone and how they were governed through legal means such as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) — which the author calls a time-honoured and fair customary code, but unfortunately much maligned by the people who do not understand its spirit — are the subject of analysis here.

The FCR is effective because its spirit is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of retribution in the criminal court system as practised in the more settled areas. The formation of special forces such as the Frontier Corps and the celebrated New Forward Policy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto are explained as visionary policies. Durrani details post-9/11 events and their impact on the region, and what caused the merger of seven tribal agencies in KP is also explained.

In Part Three, expressing his admiration for the services, values, honesty and integrity of some civil servants in the past, the author laments the falling standards of present times. The chapters in this section witness the disfigurement of leadership, lack of good governance in practice and rampant corruption and incompetence. Poor service delivery and lack of reforms in police and the courts of law have encouraged the jirga system and alternate dispute resolution mechanisms which, in turn, have weakened the writ of the state.

The Trophy Hunting Programme was designed to reduce illegal hunting of endangered wildlife and has led to an increase in markhor populations in the north of Pakistan
The Trophy Hunting Programme was designed to reduce illegal hunting of endangered wildlife and has led to an increase in markhor populations in the north of Pakistan

What makes some issues critical and of utmost importance, while others are termed less important? It depends on how we assign meaning to them. Sometimes we trivialise a complex phenomenon because of our own inadequate knowledge and information about it. Such is the case with concerns about climate change and wildlife.

Part Four, titled ‘Critical Issues’, draws the reader’s attention towards the endangered wildlife of remote Pakistan. Illegal hunting and a reckless attitude of the people towards conservation has endangered the mahseer fish and the markhor goat. Durrani recounts that he initiated the Trophy Hunting Programme in 1993, whereby culling of wildlife would be regulated. This would increase animal populations as well as earn Pakistan millions in revenue, and also generate a respectable source of employment for the locals.

Since the author has also served as chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), he shares his experience, knowledge and understanding about the water and power issues and, being a keen observer, gives insight how to manage the power sector.

After water and power issues, the most known crisis is of railways. No national leader except for Gen Pervez Musharraf has tried to stem the rot pervading in railways. The degradation of the environment is another issue of utmost importance, yet one about which nobody bothers. There is a dire need for land-use planning, even in Islamabad for example, where the master plan regulations are often flouted by both the state and influential people. It appears that unless effective land-use planning is adopted, the entire country will ultimately become one large slum.

Part five is about power brokers and the egos of military rulers and self-serving politicians. Durrani retrospects that many violent events — such as the riots of May 12, 2007 in Karachi — could have been forestalled and a peaceful way out could have been chosen, had the authorities wanted. This section ends with a wish for dynamic and dedicated leadership which can ensure that the country moves ahead in all spheres of life.

While discussing his journey as a civil servant, the author narrates the intricacies involved, noting that to perform one’s professional duties under tremendous political pressure is like living in a glass house. Durrani writes that he holds the record for not completing tenure at any of the posts he has held — “competent” authorities always found a way to have him removed because of his differences with them.

In his words, he discovered that competent authority was, for the most part, usually incompetent. This is a bitter fact about the life of civil servants; they have to either accommodate certain interests or face the consequences of being upright and dead honest.

One might be tempted to call this book the story of an elite exception, but it is popular history as well. When engaging in critical analysis of information, popular histories very often do not dwell on why past processes evolved as they did. Instead, explanations based on a single causal influence are offered. It is for the academics to take this book as a seminal work to be used to make sense of later developments in Pakistan’s administrative services.

The reviewer hails from Azad Jammu & Kashmir and is a lecturer at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.

He tweets @Sohail_QAU

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 20th, 2022

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