COMMENT: The seismology of devolution —Nazish Brohi - Saturday, April 09, 2011

While the HEC and those associated with it are entitled to contesting its devolution on technical grounds in terms of its governance structure and mandate, it is the moral high ground the arguments are appropriating that is problematic 

Bureaucrats, media, the development sector and intelligentsia endlessly voice the ‘system needs to change’ mantra. But now that the tectonic plates of Pakistan’s politics and system are shifting via the 18th Amendment, that very cacophony for change has switched to a plea for the status quo, with dire predictions of earthquakes and landslides.

The resistance to diffusion of federal power is evident most recently in the debate over the Higher Education Commission, and as more ministries and subjects come under the devolution axe, the panic will escalate.

This resistance is not couched in overt opposition to provincial autonomy, which would be politically incorrect given that this is what people have been demanding for over six decades, and instead invokes perceptions of seething corruption, incompetence, apathy, lack of will and capacity and kinship ties that operate at lower levels of power such as the provincial setups. Implicit is the judgment that somehow the national structures and Islamabad are sterilised on these counts.

Part of the critique is that when each province initiates its own policies and programmes, it will result in multiple and possibly conflicting directions and incoherence. This is the functional logic used by various international actors to support dictatorships in Pakistan that a single chain of command allows for better negotiations. On the other hand, this need for coherent integration bequeathed to us stranglehold concepts of national interest and national identity, along with their well-known vanguards.

The other set of arguments is that some things are too important to be left to ‘the locals’. This colonial argument has been debated endlessly in the old centre versus periphery paradigm. And that if those at the centre relocate to the peripheries, they would be stained by native neurosis. This debate was raised as recently as two years ago in as venerated an institution as the BBC World Service, in its deliberation of whether moving out of London and broadcasting from countries of focus would lower its bar of journalism and impartiality — and the argument was raised by transplanted locals working in the centre.

While the debate on devolution is important on its own terms, it is also instructive to consider who is making which points, and what each stands to gain or lose. Academia, civil society organisations and youth groups from across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) have passed a resolution two days ago through the Bacha Khan Educational Trust endorsing the 18th Amendment and devolution of the HEC. It has been the consistent demand of people across Sindh, Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and KPK.

While the HEC and those associated with it are entitled to contest its devolution on technical grounds in terms of its governance structure and mandate, it is the moral high ground the arguments are appropriating that is problematic. For instance, one of the points being raised is that this will pave the way for acceptance of fake degrees in future parliaments, whereas the condition of graduate degrees for eligibility for parliament has already been set aside. The HEC controversy was started after public opposition to its devolution by Dr AQ Khan who stated that progress of technology would stall and higher education would be decimated and devastated if it moves out of the capital’s control. He should consider interacting with people in Noshki and Chagai in Balochistan where he conducted the nuclear tests, and ask them about the sanguinity and wisdom of Islamabad judgments and the promise of technology.

This is not to say that no substantive issues will arise in the implementation of devolution. There will be definite complex problems, at this moment conjectural but not unanticipated. Provinces could cite culture, tradition and identity to introduce patriarchal stipulations such as compulsory segregation of schools or limits on women’s opportunities. In Gujranwala, there is already a contestation about removing reproductive and bodily health education from the curriculum. The Lady Health Workers who have been on strike no longer know who to demand their salaries from. But these will be the proverbial growing pains that concerned actors need to step in for, facilitate and iron out to strengthen provincial decision-making, and hold them publicly accountable, instead of using these as examples to halt diffusion of state power. The need is for renewed attention to the constitution, and for creating a consensual bar that cannot be lowered, through pledges and commitments to human rights that so far have remained rhetoric for international consumption and have created parallel bureaucracies such as through the Millennium Development Goals.

Those who supported the devolution plan of General Musharraf, which leapfrogged over provincial governments to local district levels, are now aghast at this turn of events. While supporting grassroots empowerment is safe, distant and romantic, decision-making power at the provincial level will result in redundancy of many Islamabad-based power brokers, be they ministers, bureaucrats, donor agencies, consultants or national level organisations.

Opposition to devolution via 18th Amendment is not just about not seeing the forest for the trees, but focusing on the parasitic fungi on the tree bark.

The writer is a social activist and an author. She can be reached

Source :\04\09\story_9-4-2011_pg3_6

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