Fear of devolution By Afiya S. Zia - Tuesday 12th April 2011

IT is ironic how the very vocal supporters of a seriously flawed devolution programme under Gen Musharraf, are opposing a more comprehensive devolution initiated by the current government.
These critics accuse the present civilian rule of being a spurious democracy, presumably in comparison to the `true` democratic military rule of Musharraf. Many such allegations have not relied on legal or constitutional definitions of democracy, not even sociological arguments; but almost always on encryptions, such as the personalities of leaders, their academic (fake) qualifications or their naked profiteering from office. These may be important in assessing the quality of government but not necessarily in measuring its democratic worth. Instead, in the cacophony of political opinions, it may be fair to say that there have been two streams of more serious critical arguments concerning the flaws and shortcomings in the democratic credentials of the current government.
The first and most crucial misgiving over the democratic merit of this government has been with regard to its clash with the judiciary and the subsequent inability to resolve the institutional balance of powers. However, several commentators have held that the judiciary itself requires introspection regarding its own role in this impasse.
Second, the lack of resolve to govern when it is crucially required has exposed this government`s role in weakening democracy. By choosing to relinquish its authority, be it on issues of law and order, succumbing to unelected, non-representative religious lobbies, surrendering Fata to the army and US-led operations, reneging on reassurances to Balochistan, this government has been criminally irresponsible. Such rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights responses have amounted to lost opportunities for strengthening serious democratic change afforded in the post-Musharraf period and for which Pakistan will pay a price certainly.
However, any student of democracy will verify that those mechanisms whereby power is thwarted from a centralised system and redistributed, is a necessary component of a fair and representative political system. Even the most vociferous critics of military rule were honest in their assessment of the devolution of 2000 and acknowledged that in principle this was a feature of democracy. Of course, the political motivations behind such fig-leaf moves seeking legitimacy were immediately exposed in the contradictory outcomes. Some appreciable grass-root empowerment went unsupported due to the deliberately unsustainable projects that were launched.
The passing of the 18th Amendment is one of the very few parliamentary initiatives that suggest that this neutered government can actually be effectual if it resolves to be so. All the more reason, that oppositional voices should be muted on this point. Instead, even some pro-democrats are now objecting to the dismantling of federal ministries. Strangely, several `progressives` within civil society, who in theory have been supporting devolution, provincial autonomy and all the usual slogans that liberal democrats carry, are now demonstrating ambiguity over the wisdom of relinquishing authority from some institutions that were `doing good things` in their centralised capacity.
Granted, there has always been historical concern over possible challenges to basic liberties in the name of culture or provincial parochialism. The proposed Hasba bill in what was the NWFP is an example of such apprehension but this was resolved by invoking constitutional pre-eminence. The committee of the 18th Amendment has made it clear that constitutional supremacy and protection of fundamental rights defines the spirit of the devolution of federal authority. All the constitution is meant to do, after all, is to give us cover.
The fear of provincial elite capture, nepotism and ineptness are some of the excuses forwarded by critics. In reality, such criticism stems from a collaborative fear of loss of influence. This is particularly true of those who have made careers by way of establishing networks by pursuing personal relationships with the offices of government, the bureaucracy and donor agencies in Islamabad. It`s no secret that the more savvy and privileged maintain homes and offices in the capital to locate themselves within easy access to the corridors of centralised power. Under the 18th Amendment this may just prove to be a losing investment — not in terms of real estate but by way of power-brokering and procuring projects and contracts.
International agencies would prefer not to wander outside the confines of a city where, traditionally, the mountains have been coming to them. Now, there will have to be more direct interaction with the messy, less familiar, and non-urbane provincial actors and without the interlocution of friendly consultants to advise on the pre-decided fate of projects.
An additional reason to worry is that devolution provides an opportunity for autonomous thinking, planning and development. Under devolution, the Millennium Development Goals and other international guidelines may well be realigned for more contextualised policies that are more relevant to local priorities. So for example, `education for all` may no longer be seen as some measurable tool for increased enrolment. Instead, provincial departments may prioritise their immediate needs as the protection of schools from being bombed or preventing harassment of women on campuses. Yes, we`re told it`s not either/or, yet the fact is that a lot of donor and federal funds prioritise tailor-made projects that lend measurable `outcomes` rather than being led by locally identified, non-quantifiable needs.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the people`s movements at local levels would despair at the sheer distance and lack of responsiveness between federal authorities and the voices of peasants, lady health workers or families of the disappeared.
The devolution process under the 18th Amendment is a tremendous opportunity for us to forge relationships, influence policies and immerse ourselves in our provincial environs. It`s also a responsibility that calls on us to reflect honestly on why we fear what is in principle a fair and democratic process. If we do not embrace opportunities such as this under the pretence of losing `progress so far` then we need to rethink our tools of analysis that have made us such slavish thinkers. If devolution fails this time around we only have ourselves to blame.
The writer is a researcher who writes on socio-political issues.

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/04/12/fear-of-devolution.html

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