Afraid of devolution? -by I.A Rehman

WONDERS never cease. In the second decade of the 21st century, the transfer of power to the units of a federation has been made controversial! Efforts are being made to help the centre retain the privileges that rightfully belong to the provinces.

No student of politics will deny that Pakistan broke up in 1971 largely as a result of the policies designed to make the centre strong at the expense of provincial rights and aspirations. Nor can anyone forget that the failure to restore to the provinces what has always been due to them poses the greatest threat to the state’s integrity today.

We are also familiar with the arguments employed while calling for making the hands of one ruler or another strong. It was said the country faced so many threats that a centrally organised security edifice alone could preserve its integrity. The centre alone had the mental and physical wherewithal to achieve economic progress. In an Islamic state there could be only one centre of power and Pakistan had a special reason to crush centrifugal forces and fissiparous tendencies which were being fanned by the enemies of the state — democrats, secularists, advocates of the nationalities’ rights, separatists, et al.

For six decades, the politics of Pakistan revolved around the federal question. Any stratagem that could prevent the state from becoming a federation was in order — the fiction of parity, the abolition of provinces in the western part of the original state, the imposition of martial law and the state’s declaration of war against the majority nationality and the smallest nationality both. No wonder almost all democratic movements in the country have had their origins in the federating units’ struggle for self-government.The central demand was that the centre should keep only three or four subjects such as foreign affairs, external security, currency and communications. All other subjects — internal security, local government, planning, education and social welfare — were to be restored to the provinces.

It is in this context that one should examine the national consensus on re-designing the polity by meeting some of the main demands of the federating units. The endorsement of the 18th Amendment by all shades of opinion in parliament is nothing short of a miracle. It not only marks a giant stride towards realising the promise of the 1973 constitution, in several respects it surpasses the 1973 consensus.

The 18th Amendment act may not be a perfect piece of constitutional legislation but the transfer of subjects from the centre to the provinces is not one of its blemishes. Indeed, that is the point of the highest merit in the whole scheme. Unfortunately, the amendment has not received from the people, especially civil society organisations that bear the heavy responsibility of guiding them, the attention it deserves, and the factors contributing to this situation need to be considered.

First, the process of demonising the politicians begun by the praetorian rulers in 1958 continues to this day. Although the politicians’ contribution to their fall from grace has not been insignificant they have been sinned against more than they have sinned. Some of the mud flung at them has rubbed off on parliament, and the people have developed a bias against it and against anything it does. Additionally, the professional critics of the government believe they must run down the 18th Amendment as part of a strategy to demolish it.

Secondly, the debate on a single article included in the amendment has overshadowed the nearly 100 other points of the reform. At the same time, the point on which the amendment could be criticised has been ignored — that it has bypassed the provinces’ right to judicial autonomy and ignored the plea for making the high courts the final courts in a large number of matters.

Thirdly, all those who claim to speak for the people have not adequately explained to them the link between a democratic constitution and their rights — to life, liberty, security, employment, development and peace. Most of them are wallowing in the belief that they have nothing to do with constitutional amendments because they are up to their nose in the battle to keep hunger and disease away from their doorsteps.

Fourthly, the provinces are considered tenants of the central rentier state and not its co-equal coordinates by Dicey’s definition.

These factors lend the voices of the denigrators of the scheme of devolution acceptability in the public they do not deserve on merit.

The most important argument against the devolution plan is that the provincial authorities do not have the capacity to discharge their added responsibilities. There is an element of truth in this contention just as it was there in the British argument for denying the South Asian people independence. The argument is as invalid today as it was 70 or 100 years ago.

Besides, the provinces cannot acquire the capacity for administering their affairs unless they are assigned this task. To say that devolution may wait till the provinces acquire the required capacity amounts to blocking their rights for ever.

Those who rely on this argument also miss the fact that fair governance is impossible until power is devolved from the provinces to local government institutions. The latter too are hit by the same argument. Any delay in the transfer of power to the provinces will also delay the empowerment of local bodies and communities.

Another argument is that there are matters of rights, equality and uniformity in development that can only be dealt with at the central level. This plea is valid only to the extent that citizens in all parts of a federation should have equal rights but the argument that the federating units cannot guarantee this is a presumption not backed by evidence and it also amounts to condemning the provincial communities unheard.

Besides, within the framework of an equality paradigm, different provinces have a right to address their social development with reference to their cultures and social sensibility. Those opposing devolution can invite the charge of ignoring Pakistan’s cultural and social diversity and the demands of a pluralist outlook.Nobody is mentioning the fact that those who have lorded over the people because of their grip over the levers of power at the centre and their beneficiaries have a vested interest in declaring that the heavens will fall if the provincial kamdars get a share of power. No surprise there. After all, the Raj and the regimes of Ayub and Ziaul Haq still have their defenders.

This is not to deny that like any major initiative devolution poses some teething problems but these problems do not cancel out the principle of democratic self-rule, which is the best form of governance known to humankind. These problems can be, and should be, solved through a sober dialogue. Nobody should be afraid of devolution; what we should be afraid of is the intrigue of vested interests to preserve a centralised state whose failure is choking the whole nation.

Courtesy : DAWN

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