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Tuesday May 28, 2024

How to shore up the state

By Foqia Sadiq Khan
May 13, 2023

Pakistan is a serious nation-state; despite the fact that it may function in a ‘flailing’ way and may have other shortcomings and weaknesses in its structure. However, there have been some obvious and some not-so-obvious efforts for the past over two decades to de-state-ize and informalize the state in Pakistan and we must call out such efforts, mobilize to counter them, and shore up the state so that it delivers for the majority of people in the country.

A civil servant Mujtaba Piracha has written a book titled ‘Property Taxes and State Capacity in Pakistan’. The book was published in 2022 and I have been quite critical of it as well, in my writings for another publication. However, ‘Property Taxes and State Capacity in Pakistan’ makes two important points (beside others) that are worth re-capping: Musharraf’s local government system over two decades ago has weakened the bureaucracy and there is often a collusion between the lower-level tax officials and local level influentials/politicians that deprives the exchequer of its due property tax which is not properly assessed and collected due to this localized collusion. Mujtaba Piracha calls it informalization of state.

As was pointed out in the press and other media reports of that time, one of the reasons Mullah Fazullah was able to consolidate his hold over Swat in the early 2000s unnoticed by those concerned and those who should have been in the know was because the office of magistrate was abolished under Musharraf’s local government system. Magistrates used to keep an eye on their areas from the perspective of law and order and would report and deal with any emerging threat in this regard. Since the magistracy was abolished, there was a vacuum at the local level and the new local government system proved to be inadequate to watch and eliminate social disharmony and extremist forces – hence the operation in Swat in 2007. It would have been avoided had the local bureaucracy’s role been not cut to size.

My own thinking on the efficacy of local governments has evolved over time and now I see local governments being presented as a panacea for all ills with a bit of critical mind. Sure, local governments are great at creating and channeling citizens’ demands and participation in the affairs of the government. Local governments would also be very effective in monitoring development projects and holding the concerned accountable for service delivery and timely provision of infrastructure and social development projects.

As in the case of some other countries, local governments can be made truly independent and made to compete with other tiers of the government and the private sector for the allocation of resources – so that they spurt productivity and innovation. However, to the extent local governments' model can work in Pakistan’s context has its limitations and they have to be kept in mind and not mindlessly brandish local governments as an answer to all our governance problems.

The Pakistani state has serious capacity issues. After the 18th Amendment, even our provincial governments struggled to shore up their capacity to deal with all the functions that were devolved to them. These capacity issues would likely be more severe if everything were devolved to the local governments level. Then, there is always the danger of collusion of the local influentials’ interests with those of the local state officials. Imagine the real-estate sector being so strong in Pakistan and with the devolution to the local governments level, this sector can collude with the local officials even more at the cost of the public interest.

So sure, local governments should be made part of our constitution even in a more binding way and local governments elections should be held in a timely manner and the next leg of devolution must ensure devolution from the provincial tier to the local government tier. However, all this must be done while keeping the local governments capacity in mind and not at the cost of weakening the federal and provincial bureaucracy. There is something to be said for the ‘steel frame’ of bureaucracy and the supposed impersonalization of service delivery that is part of its mandate. In other words, sure, we should have local governments but not at the cost of weakening the state apparatus and provincial autonomy.

Similarly, some ludicrous policy suggestions have been made recently on privatizing the education system in Pakistan and instead giving a handout of Rs3000 to parents to educate their child wherever they want. We have called out this bad idea in these pages right when it was made a few months ago. Recently, Dr Faisal Bari has also done a proper demolition job of this grab-the-soundbite suggestion of replacing public education with some voucher scheme. Suffice it to say, it is part of the same obvious and not-so-obvious efforts to weaken the state in Pakistan.

The PTI's government launched a massive strike against the education sector through its disastrous Single National Curriculum; something that the present PDM government is continuing with and expanding further. Then, comes Dr Miftah Ismail’s idea to do away with the public education system in the country. In other words, de-state-ize and further informalize the state. There is no doubt an urgent need to improve the education system in the country; however, it does not mean dispensing with it as part of so-called ‘reforms’. Teachers in public schools, other than providing education, are part of the state’s infrastructure who are called out for election duties and such other functions. In other words, don’t fold up the state. Make it work for the majority instead.

The recent ‘meltdown’ of various state institutions needs to be seen through a similar prism. The Pakistani state is authoritarian and oppressive, but it is the only state we have. We have to strengthen the state structures so that they deliver to the most. Common people benefit by having access to state institutions and not by the rule of some shadow structures.

There are strong rumours that we may soon have an emergency declared in the country. My generation has lived through the long Zia and Musharraf dictatorships. We will also live through any other emergency or authoritarian rule. However, we need to shore up the state structures now even more than ever before and prevent this ‘controlled implosion’ of the state that might have an international angle to it as well. Resist de-state-ization and informalization of our state.

The writer is an Islamabad-based

social scientist. She can be reached at: fskcolumns@gmail.com