Inexplicable move

Tasneem Noorani

DURING the Raj, the British ruled through deputy commissioners (DCs) for more than a century, while we in our effort to overthrow the ‘colonial’ yoke 70 years after independence are trying out the third hybrid administrative system in 14 years. At this pace we will be experimenting with a new system with every change of government.

Punjab a few days back promulgated the Punjab Civil Administration Ordinance, 2016, restoring the office of the DC. A reading of the new ordinance leaves one confused as to the government’s objective in passing it at all. It neither alters the powers of the police, nor does the DC have anything to do with the new local government system.

The reason behind renaming the district coordination officer (DCO) as DC could prime facie have been to bring back the executive magistracy, for which there have been demands considering the current district administrations’ lack of effectiveness. Meanwhile, from the media, one got the impression that local bodies are being brought under the DC (not a desirable move), as the government wants to keep a check on them. A reading of the ordinance negates these perceptions.

The DCO under the previous system was the hands-on coordinator of many line departments and controlled the budget. The ordinance has restored the hierarchy of these departments while the DC has been given powers to inspect and call for the record, etc. That is, he has been made an inspector. When the DCO was under the nazim, he was the executive head of all local bodies (district governments which comprised various devolved provincial government departments including health and education). But now, while the nazim (mayor or chairman zila council) is not his boss, the DC also does not have anything to do with local bodies. This, if there are no hidden caveats, appears to be the right step to make local bodies more independent.

What was the objective behind reviving the DC’s office?

None of the DC’s inherent powers under scores of laws — including under the all-important Criminal Procedure Code that were taken away and redistributed under Musharraf’s devolution — have been restored. He has, instead, been given powers to inspect, call for the record, hold inquiries on public complaints about all provincial government departments except police and local government. So now there are three parts to the government in the districts; the police, local bodies, and the DC as inspector of all departments and their facilities, excluding health and education, for which district authorities are being made, which means the DC will have nothing much to do with them.

This desire to deliver a new-look DC, I think started with the desire to have greater control over police and revive some form of executive magistracy; but the police lobby proved stronger than the government which withdrew its proposals. The move could also have stemmed from a temptation to control the local bodies, as elected governments traditionally don’t like local governments, but that did not happen either.

As for the DC’s relations with police, Section 15 of the ordinance empowers him to call a meeting of all concerned for matters of public peace and order. While it assumes that all decisions will be by consensus, it does not mention how the lack of such consensus is to be dealt with. Similarly, Sec15(2) says that in case of a sudden law and order situation, the DC and the district police officer (DPO) will jointly take appropriate action. Now everyone knows the results when there are two commanders in a crisis situation. Meanwhile, for public assemblies and processions DC will give permission only after consulting the DPO.

Section 19 gives the DC power to probe any complaint from the public against any department — other than police and local bodies — and issue directions, and report to the government if the department ignores his directions.

In essence, the new DC is like the inspector general of all provincial government departments — police, local bodies, health and education excepted. He will not have any of the powers which he had earlier enjoyed. What is the need of the ordinance? It has piqued police cadres without bringing any useful change to the singularity of command in the district.

The downside of these frequent changes in the form of a new administrative system is that it takes years for the public, lawyers and officials to get to know a system and become used to it. Frequent changes to meet a regime’s immediate needs do not help good governance. A new system will require years before fully delivering results. Also, no amount of innovations will help in the face of politically motivated appointments or a bureaucracy de-motivated by poor personnel policies.

The writer is a former federal secretary.

Published in Dawn January 18th, 2017

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