Demolition job - Asif Ezdi - Monday, April 11, 2011

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service For once, Raza Rabbani is right. As he told the Senate on March 29, the only education-related subject that remains with the federation after the passage of the 18th Amendment is “standards in institutions of higher education.” Only functions related to this subject can therefore be assigned to (or kept with) the Higher Education Commission of the federal government.

In most countries, provision of education to citizens is the foremost duty of the state, after maintenance of law and order and ensuring of security from external threats. But in Pakistan the government at the national level has been divested of virtually all responsibility for education. Education is, as the prime minister has the habit of saying, a provincial subject and therefore not the concern of the federal government. Pakistan is now probably the only country in the world which does not have a national education ministry or a national education policy. This is a mind-boggling thought, considering that Pakistan has among the poorest educational indicators in the world.

Since education forms the foundation on which a country’s future is built, the abolition of the federal education ministry will give further momentum to Pakistan’s race to the bottom that this government has been pursuing so assiduously. It is a national catastrophe bigger than any that the country has faced in its turbulent history. And it is entirely manmade; or, to be precise, it is a crisis created solely by the incompetence, petty-mindedness and short-sightedness of our politicians.

The entire membership of parliament and all those political parties which voted for the 18th Amendment share the blame for having brought on this disaster. Some of them are now trying to absolve themselves of their responsibility and are asserting that the abolition of the HEC is not required under the 18th Amendment. This is nonsense. The fact is that, with the scrapping of the concurrent list, the centre has forfeited virtually all responsibility for education, as for over 40 other subjects which were previously in the concurrent list.

No amount of legal jugglery can now give a new lease of life to the HEC without a constitutional amendment. Political parties from the opposition woke up to the issue only after the academic circles voiced their serious objections and drew attention to the harmful effects that such a step would have on the higher education system. For the PML-N, Ahsan Iqbal has said that there is no “constitutional compulsion” for devolving the functions of the HEC to the provinces. Similarly, Waseem Sajjad has suggested that the HEC could be brought within the federal purview by treating it as a “regulatory agency under a federal law” or a matter covered by “inter-provincial coordination,” both of which are subjects on the federal list. This is nothing but legal sophistry.

Zardari and Gilani have been completely silent on this issue. Clearly, education is nowhere on their radar screen. But our lady information minister has dismissed the uproar at the impending abolition of the HEC as nothing but “media hype.” According to her, this entire “hullabaloo” is nothing but political point-scoring.

She has a point, sort of. It is a legitimate question why there is so much “fuss” over the dissolution of the HEC, one of the subordinate bodies in the education ministry, when hardly a voice has been raised over the shredding of the ministry itself. And the education ministry is only one of ten ministries that have been wound up, more or less quietly, under the 18th Amendment. the ministry of population welfare and the ministry of culture are among the other major casualties. In addition, several other ministries, among them labour, health, environment, minorities and women’s development, are now going to be axed before the end of June.

When the Implementation Committee set up under the Eighteenth Amendment is done with its job, about fifteen out of the forty-or-so ministries that existed before will have been trashed. After this huge demolition job on the Pakistani state has been completed, the country will have no national policy on education, on labour, on health, on population welfare, on environment or on culture, to name just a few of the affected areas.

It is shocking that the downsizing of the state on this massive scale is being carried out with virtually no debate on the pros and cons. The public is still in the dark why this step is being taken. The abolition of the concurrent list was agreed upon by our benighted politicians in deals made behind closed doors, with little thought having been given to the consequences for the future of the country.

All this has been done in the name of provincial autonomy and “devolution.” Provincial autonomy is no doubt a desirable goal. But the scrapping of the concurrent list will only cripple the federal government without giving any additional powers to the provinces. There will be no “devolution,” because the provinces already had power over the subjects given in the concurrent list.

The main reason why the provinces felt powerless against the centre was that, once a policy or law on a concurrent subject had been framed at the national level, they had no authority to modify it in order to meet their own special local requirements or conditions. This problem could have been easily remedied by empowering the provinces to modify a national policy, or federal law, by a qualified majority in the provincial assembly. There would then have been no need to take the extreme step of scrapping the concurrent list.

Many members of parliament who joined in the unanimous adoption of the 18th Amendment last year have since then been dissociating themselves from the move to scrap the federal ministries dealing with matters on the former concurrent list. In December, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education agreed unanimously that the formulation of curriculum and national education policy should remain with the federation. The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Minorities Affairs has also recommended that the minorities affairs ministry should not be transferred to the provinces. The Senate Standing Committee on Women’s Development similarly demanded last week that the ministry of women’s development should remain with the federation.

Outside parliament as well, concern is growing at the abolition of the concurrent list, as its full implications begin to sink in. Workers have been staging protests against the “devolution” of the Workers Welfare Fund; the pharmaceutical industry has demanded that drug registration, pricing and manufacturing should remain a federal subject; and climate-change experts have opposed the devolution of the environment ministry to the provinces.

All these problems could have been avoided if, before deciding on the wholesale scrapping of the concurrent list, there had been careful deliberation on each item, with inputs from the federal and provincial ministries, experts and the private sector. When it was suggested on the floor of the Senate to Rabbani last month that there should have been a clause-by-clause discussion of the 18th Amendment in parliament, his reply was typical. If the bill had been debated in parliament, Rabbani said, there would have been no 18th Amendment. In other words, parliament is there only to rubberstamp decisions taken elsewhere. Rabbani also dismissed all those who question his wisdom, saying that they represented “vested interests” that are waging a crusade against parliament. His way of thinking is obviously very close to that of our military dictators. Thank God he does not wear a military uniform.

Whatever Rabbani might claim, the 18th Amendment, of which he is the proud author, has achieved not so much the devolution of powers to the provinces as the demolition of large parts of the state of Pakistan. Last month, he received the Nishan-e-Imtiaz from Zardari for his pains. Rabbani’s award was well-deserved, but for services performed in a field very different from the promotion of constitutional democracy: being the country’s most diligent demolition man.


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