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September 24, 2020

Reform now

Opinion

September 24, 2020

There are mixed signals about the direction our state and society appear to be taking. Both have scored a victory in limiting the ravages of Covid-19. An indicator that, despite the negatives, the nation has the potential to forge ahead.

Failures are aplenty. Two years after vigorously targeting the two main opposition families for their alleged corruption, PM Khan has found another elephant in the foyer, corruption at working levels that most directly hits the common citizen. He has asked chief secretaries of the provinces to modernise the land records system and eliminate the culture of graft.

In a specific move, the government is working on reducing the salary and perks of the president and the prime minister. A commitment to wider austerity measures perhaps.

Briefly, there is rampant corruption at the working levels and a debilitating paucity of financial means in the state of Pakistan. The government was constrained to withhold pay and pension increases in the 2020-21 budget.

That is, however, only part of the bigger picture which is darkened by increasing criminality and lawlessness. The crime gangs are having a field day as the Covid-19 related lockouts are eased and millions try to go about their pursuit of livelihood.

The killers and dacoits who were lying low for months have returned with a vengeance. And the state is helpless. A grim situation. Take the police, the state arm designated to ensure law and order and come cracking wherever crimes are committed. The police force is increasingly ineffective on both counts.

The justice system that is essential to punish the criminals is woefully slow in reaching decisions. Both the police force and the judiciary require urgent reform to improve their efficiency. The PTI government, now in its third year in office, must introspect on how far it has delivered on its promise of justice or 'insaf' to the people.

Two parameters are relevant for assessing how the overall situation now compares with the earlier decades, and where Pakistan stands on a comparative scale within our region if not globally.

Pakistan has at times been described as a failing state. A German scholar, addressing a distinguished audience at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad affirmed some years ago that dire forecasts notwithstanding, the country had not failed. That is only partly reassuring if the country does not succeed or progress either in a reasonable manner.

It is increasingly evident that Pakistan is a soft state where criminals rule the roost and citizens face the consequences of a corrupt and inefficient law and order system. This is happening while high-level committees endlessly toil over reforming the service structure but not ponder over this almost broken system of police and justice.

It is no secret that like other government departments, lower-level police officials are often busy supplementing their modest incomes. Many of them join the service by bribing some parliamentarian or other officials. They are simply not up to the challenge of fighting crime.

It is astounding that while the thana bears the primary responsibility of curbing the incidence of crime, the federal and provincial governments are mostly engaged in turf wars over the posting and transfer of senior police officers. Not surprising in a society where personal or clan interests trump welfare of the people. It is about time that the higher ups start cracking the whip to send some fear in the hearts of criminals, mollycoddled too long by the police and the political class.

Now some 'good' news. Pakistan is not alone in maintaining a pathetic level of performance by governments. Nor can it be singled out for pitiable achievements in raising the standards of human development.

The Subcontinent, with the exception of Sri Lanka and parts of southern India, remains one of the most woefully poor and backward regions of the globe. In a recent comparative worldwide chart of per capita GDP in purchasing power parity terms, Sri Lanka appears at 98th, India at 122nd, Pakistan at 134th and Bangladesh at 147th places.

Is any more proof needed to show that the political leaders and administrators of these nations have failed to uplift their respective societies in the race of development? What ails the South Asian nations to trail way behind many parts of the globe which stood below South Asia at the onset of decolonisation?

Starting from home, there is loud chatter that the bureaucracy has not been up to facing the challenge of delivering socio-economic development. The hold of a generalist administrative service at the cost of professionals is once again under attack. Major changes are needed in the civil service structure as well as in their terms and conditions of employment. However, the emphasis quickly shifted to money matters because the increasing burden of pay and pensions is considered unsustainable. Ways have to be found to lessen the burden of what is known as Establishment Charges for the economy to stay afloat.

In order for the government to retain its credibility, charity must begin at home. The prime minister's example to cut expenses must be followed by federal and provincial governors, chief ministers and members of the legislature. The opposite keeps happening as the assembly budgets and members' emoluments and privileges are always on the increase.

The prime minister may be justified in saying that his government saved the country from a debt default. He needs to remain alert that the monster of default still lurks around the corner and will remain there unless the economy receives a boost and austerity measures are followed across the board with no holy cows to be spared.

An equally big challenge is how to improve administrative efficiency and assure appointments and promotions on professional competence and merit. The PTI government may still have some time to prove that they not only proclaim but practise tabdeeli.

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