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Eight years down the road it will be appropriate to examine the extent to which the 18th Amendment; hailed by most as a turning point in our tortuous political journey, has helped governments serve people better. Wasn't that the idea?

One recognizes there is a lot more to service to people than a devolution of authority (shall one say 'responsibility'?), but in theory at least proximity to authority improves the chances of better service.

Perhaps more importantly, having the 'rulers' closer home adds to the ease, and rigour, of their accountability. At shorter distance their performance and probity become less myopic.

The 18th Amendment did more than abolish the concurrent list; in essence, the semi-presidential system, superimposed by the 'non-elected', was jettisoned and the 1973 Constitution restored to its federal parliamentary form.

In doing so it also sought to address the fundamental question of the Federation owing its strength to a strong Centre or a greater empowerment of the Federating Units.

It was a grudging devolution. Bureaucracy used its famed ingenuity to cling to authority. Education, health, labour, food and agriculture, environment, archaeology and culture, disguised under new nomenclature, were held on toon grounds of coordination, regulation, and research.

There are, inevitably, overarching issues that traverse provincial boundaries. Such questions need a resolution-focal-point. The architects of the 18th found the answer in a strengthened Council of Common Interests, mandated to meet at least once every 90 days.

For a variety of reasons, CCI failed to be the answer. The Centre appears unwilling to let go. The renamed Ministries had sowed the seeds of discord, best illustrated in Supreme Court decision allowing the federal government to own and manage hospitals in provinces.

The questions are of distribution of resources and rights. The fight is over authority: who gets to decide these questions. Caught in the cross-fire are the people, in whose name the fight is sanctified.

Take National Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases (NICVD), Karachi, for instance. From all accounts NICVD, which had already acquired an impressive reputation, furthered its performance under Sindh government's 'ownership'. It now has eight 'satellite centres' in Sindh.

How would it now pan out, assuming SC does not review its decision? Sindh government may not provide more funds, and the Federal government may not have enough to spare. Sufferers will be the people.

Governments are all about people. But it appears their interests fall through the cracks, as they haplessly watch enraged elephants take each other on - in their name. It is a fight over the means - authority and resources - that tramples the stated end of serving the people better.

Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, the provincial claimants of rights and resources have no desire to share these with the third tier, the local governments, despite overwhelming evidence that people's interests are best served by well-run local governments.

While they plead the 18th Amendment, they lose sight of Article 140A that the same amendment reinforced in no uncertain terms: devolution of "political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments".

PTI, who gloated over their claims of strengthening LG in KPK, and promised LG elections within hundred days, now look no dissimilar from their major political rivals. Ideology seems to have succumbed to Political realities, like in so much else.

Why do provinces put up such a gladiatorial fight over authority and resources when they are unwilling to share them with the third tier of the government that is best positioned to work for the people?

It is more about having an oligopolistic business model than securing Provincial rights. It is about getting a bigger pie, with as few slices as possible going around. It is about elite capture of state resources. It is the stuff hereditary politics is made of.

One is now beginning to get a whiff of the anti-18th smoke. The Islamabad-centric elite feel robbed of their pie and want to have another go at it. The provinces seem determined to resist it. Both will wait for the Umpire's finger?

The 7th NFC award was the financial cherry on the authority cake. Between fiscals 2013 and 2018 transfers to provinces from the divisible pool almost doubled. Punjab got an additional 431, Sindh 242, KPK 163, and Balochistan 88 billion.

What did the provinces do with this bounty? The current expenditures ballooned (Punjab 413, Sindh 218, KPK 156, and Balochistan 85 billion), almost entirely wiping out the additional transfers.

Growth in development expenditure, nothing stellar, was largely financed from Provincial taxes (that got a significant boost in 2016 through sales tax on services), with some help from Federal loans and grants.

The orthodox view is that greater developmental outlays help growth and job creation. But would you blame us if after all these years of development expenditure, mostly financed by foreign aid and borrowings, we are somewhat sceptical?

Besides the absorptive capacity issue and design flaws - wastage writ large - there is little evidence of positive externalities and multipliers.

They say some 70% of development expenditure goes to salaries, and because you can't throw people out these schemes have a way of perpetuating themselves. Time over-runs are almost structural, which in turn trigger escalation clauses and change-orders and cost over-runs.

Deliberately or otherwise, we are shy of carrying out independent evaluations of our PSDP schemes (of the kind, for instance, of Sukkur Barrage, available in our archives) to see their impact; if we are getting a bang for the buck.

Theory may be attractive but it will be a hard sell to establish, in our case, a correlation between higher PSDP allocations and betterment of people. Most are more likely to look upon it as a compact between rulers and contractors.

If the provinces have money to burn, and if the idea is to improve the lot of the common people, perhaps Bernanke's 'helicopter drop' (direct infusion of cash into people's pockets), that goes beyond a social safety net, may be more efficacious.

The answer, perhaps, is Universal Basic Income/Minimum income Guarantee. India is working on it and Rahul Gandhi has serious people like Piketty helping him design it.

Will the 9th NFC spare a thought for Universal Basic Income? Or, it will be the same old fight, in the name of the people, who will not be the ultimate beneficiaries?

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2019


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