Friday March 24, 2023

Reaching the grassroots

August 22, 2018

After last month’s elections, public debate was focused on the nature of the incoming government and its cabinet – as in any other democratic country.

Just a decade ago, a period of martial law had ended in the country. Before this, we had the witnessed dismissals of four elected governments – that too over a period of 10 years. Pakistan has come a long way in terms of the relative consolidation of democratic traditions.

The question is: why have we failed to sustain democracy? We couldn’t protect democracy because we kept the democratic project restricted to a tiny ruling elite and excluded a large segment of our rural society from the decision-making related to their own lives at the local level.

For the most part of my life, I experienced democracy at an arm’s length while living in a village in northern Punjab. The democratic process changed nothing for me or my family on a personal level. We saw one election after another pass with much fanfare, expectation and regularity. These elections only refreshed my family’s old grudges against others, providing them one more occasion to settle their scores against those who didn’t deliver on their promises.

However, elections and the performance of the governments couldn’t change much in terms of our living conditions in the village. Only those who won elections from villages could gain much in terms of their collective wellbeing. Elections, or the state at large, haven’t deliver development at the village level in the past 70 years. If you visit my village today, you will have to cross open drains and flowing sewage on broken streets to reach my house

The disparities between urban and rural lifestyles and development trajectories isn’t accidental. It is part of a serious political neglect and an urban bias in the development policies of not just the previous government but successive governments that have ruled the country. Poverty and deplorable living standards are essentially a rural phenomenon. There are millions of people in Pakistan who are poor. Around 71 million of them live in rural areas as per the recent planning ministry’s survey (employing multi-cluster poverty survey techniques, which my friend Arif Naveed at Cambridge University deployed for the first time in Pakistan in an SDPI study in 2012).

Unless state power isn’t shared equally with villages, our rural areas will remain poor and underdeveloped. The modern state, its policies and systems are essentially run by urban experts and reported by our media that is too willing to appease metropolitan markets. The issues of millions of people who live in villages remain at the backburner and no one in the mainstream is willing to champion their cause. The answer doesn’t lie in following a traditional incremental path. We need an entirely new approach that marks a departure from the past to address these challenges.

This approach involves acknowledging the issue and then resolving it by treating villages as partners in development, and entrusting them with state powers often enjoyed by urban institutions. I have discussed this strategy in detail in my book, titled ‘Transforming Villages’. We must consider five critical points in this regard.

First: poverty in Pakistan is essentially rural because state institutions are ineffective and practically absent at the village level.

Second: effective local government system could have filled this gap – and still can – but three powerful offices (despite their best intentions) are against devolution, including the office of the CM, the chief secretary (and their deputy commissioners), and the district level members of the national and provincial assemblies (MNAs/MPAs). Local governments in the country remain weak in the foreseeable future, even though it should remain our main policy goal to strengthen them.

Third: the status quo is not acceptable. Villages are further declining, with human rights violations, unemployment (due to the youth bulge) and unattended sanitation issues running rampant. Almost all villages have extremely low standards of living.

Fourth: Learning from China and Korea’s experience, and Pakistan’s rich and successful encounter with participatory development and voluntary sectors, we must create a village-level permanent democratic institution – a village social – with members from individual households.

Five: A village social will have its own legal entity and bank account, and will function as an independent institution with the newly-created office of the assistant commissioner outreach on a partnership basis. This office will be a resourced technical agency with expertise in rural transformation. The annual development plan for rural areas will be executed directly through this new proposed structure of the state that will be linked with the village social on a partnership basis. Third-party service audits will ensure that funds are delivered and executed in a timely manner.

We have wasted a great deal of time in paying lip-service to rural poverty in policy and subsequently following a faulty development design deployed through our failing civil services and dysfunctional sub-district state structures. This needs to change. If villages aren’t mainstreamed and developed, they will have no incentive to stand up for a democratic system. The future of democracy in Pakistan, therefore, lies in addressing disparities and deepening the state’s writ and relevance at the village level.

It is time to act on this goal.

The writer is a public policy specialist and author of ‘Transforming Villages: How grassroots democracy can end rural poverty at a rapid pace’.