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Governance through judiciary

Noman Ahmed | New Delhi |

Last week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered that only Qingqi rickshaws produced by government-approved manufacturers shall operate on roads. Not long ago, the SC passed an important verdict on water, sanitation and environmental conditions in cities in Sindh. It directed respective government authorities to abide by the various directives included in the verdict.

The top court has emerged as a monitor and judicial observer on matters traditionally dealt with by the executive but which have a direct bearing on the welfare of common people. The SC’s actions relate to issues such as breaches in public safety, inflation, violation of zoning and building by-laws, traffic congestion, prices of medicine, issues related to missing persons, organ transplantation, etc.

It is commonly observed that the executive at the provincial and federal levels has shown a steady decline in delivering services to the people. As per routine, the responsibility of the executive is to plan, deliver and manage the provision of mandatory goods and services to the public at large. Needless to say, while the judiciary can take stock of the situation and direct the relevant organs of the executive, it cannot acquire the role of the executive itself.

In desperation, the downtrodden and oppressed consider the SC and subordinate courts as the last providers of relief in almost every domain of public life. Much of the rot in the service delivery apparatus is by design, not by default. The government in Sindh has let loose such forces that they have contributed to the total retardation of respective administrative and regulatory bodies. The SC recently took Sindh land authorities to task for their illegal allotment of land in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal area on which a builder had constructed a residential complex, whose occupants are now at risk of losing their homes.

Regulation, monitoring and control of construction practices are an important area of public management. Social justice and the rights of all stakeholders are safeguarded if the buildings and structures are in alignment with prescribed plans, rules and zoning guidelines.

In reality, however, avaricious interest groups — with active support of the various agencies and tiers of government — facilitate the illegal development of buildings and structures. Acting on petitions and even exercising suo moto jurisdiction, the superior courts have taken action on several occasions, apparently to set technically and legally correct precedents for the relevant building control authorities to follow. Sadly, the reverse has continued to happen. The Makro Habib case in Karachi is an example. In its landmark judgement a few years ago on this important case, the SC ordered the demolition of the superstore that was illegally constructed on a playground in Karachi’s Lines area. That decision is yet to be acted upon. Moreover, many other such violations have sprung up in the same and other neighbourhoods of the city.

It is neither the responsibility nor the mandate of the courts to micro-manage affairs related to buildings and structures in cities and towns. However, in a situation where the government either shirks its responsibility or prefers to facilitate vested interests, the pressure to act increases on the courts.

The political will to correct what ails the executive machinery is simply non-existent. In many cases, the political leadership’s interests coincide with that of corrupt officers/functionaries. The few honest officers who do not comply with inappropriate orders often have to face the music. Recently, the inspector general of Sindh police was sent on ‘forced leave’ by the province’s political bosses; and it was only a stay order by the Sindh High Court that allowed him to resume his job. This Friday, the Sindh government again surrendered his services to the centre. A contempt of court notice has been filed and is to be heard. The message from unscrupulous political quarters is clear: toe the line without questioning legality and merit. The result is a breakdown of service structure, demoralisation amongst honest cadres and an overall collapse in institutional capacities.

The officer cadres used to be the executive’s backbone. An extraordinarily rigorous procedure was in place to fill these slots with men and women driven by a desire to serve. It was their superior abilities that enabled the bureaucrats of yore to carry out very challenging assignments. There was in those days a clear distinction between the political leadership and the bureaucracy. The judiciary used to work closely with the bureaucracy to fix matters typically afflicting society. The political process used to allow for such coexistence to a reasonable extent. The objective was to ensure an uninterrupted facilitation of people’s rights. The effectiveness of the staff/officers was due the attention they gave their respective tasks, rather than to pleasing their superiors. But a deep (and probably irreversible) rot has set in as a result of political interference, and it has eroded the capacity and moral fibre of working bureaucracies. The public sector has to be revived through a carefully designed approach. Bolstering and revitalisation of constitutional fora, such as parliamentary standing committees, for monitoring the performance of public institutions is a crucial step. These bodies must be given adequate teeth to help implement corrective actions and reforms. Considerable improvement can be achieved by securing the mandate of the civil and municipal services and by empowering their cadres. If insulated from undue political interference, many officers are still driven by a sense of service.