Monday, January 2, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Dec 31, 2016

Return of the commissionerate system The Punjab cabinet has approved the controversial Civil Administration Ordinance (CAO). The new law, which has not been placed before the Punjab Assembly in line with the Punjab government’s reluctance to allow the elected representatives of the province a say in a measure that still stirs debate and dissent, replaces the existing District Coordination Officer (DCO) with the traditional Deputy Commissioner (DC). It allows the DCs to take decisions jointly with the District Police Officers (DPOs) in an emergency law and order situation and convene meetings for routine matters. The CAO is being promulgated in the context of the elected local bodies taking office from January 2, 2017. It has, however, engendered a turf war between the Punjab Administrative Services (PAS), the old District Management Group (DMG), and the police. There was a proposal on the table to give the DCs the powers of justice of the peace that at present lie with the District and Sessions judges. However, after stout resistance from the police, which wanted to retain the autonomy it acquired under the Police Order 2002 (PO 2002), the proposal has been ‘dropped’ despite the wish of the judiciary that this unnecessary extra burden be lifted from its shoulders. Intriguingly, the Punjab government feels it can give the DCs additional powers at any time through an executive order. Whether this portends leaving the door open to anointing the DCs with justice of the peace powers and reviving the defunct executive magistracy at some future, more opportune moment, is open to conjecture. Meanwhile the Assistant Commissioners (ACs) throughout the province were reported to be on a pen-down strike on December 30, 2016, arguing that the Punjab government has succumbed to the pressure exerted by the police for withdrawal of the justice of the peace powers to the DCs, a surrender that is tantamount to putting the district administrations in the uncomfortable position of having responsibility without authority, particularly over an unresponsive police empowered by the PO 2002. To add to the confusion, statements from the Punjab government suggest the newly elected and installed mayors and chairmen of district councils would also be part of the district administration along with the DCs and DPOs and this combination would be responsible for law and order. What is left unclear is what would happen in the event of a disagreement amongst these officers, especially the already at loggerheads DCs and DPOs. The penchant of the Punjab government, particularly Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, to bypass the elected Punjab Assembly and legislate through Ordinances is deplorable, particularly on such a far reaching and sensitive matter as the induction of elected local bodies after years of a vacuum at the grassroots and only after the provinces’ hand was forced by the judiciary. In the process, it has been subjected to a serious turf tug-of-war between the police and the civil service. The envisaged seemingly hodge podge district administration system under the CAO risks falling between the two stools of the existing autonomous police under the PO 2002 and the restoration (at least partially so far sans magisterial powers) of the old commissionerate structure. And that does not include the relegation of the elected local bodies to secondary position, despite their proposed inclusion in the district administrative architecture. Had the collective wisdom of the Punjab Assembly been tapped, perhaps the decisions would have been free of the pulls of rival institutions fighting for their exclusive turf. As it is, the police has hardly been improved by the autonomy granted to it under PO 2002. One only has to glance at its continuing reputation for inefficiency, corruption and the brutality of the thana culture to understand that its case for retaining that autonomy is weak. But whether placing it, as originally envisaged in the CAO, under a revived commissionerate system would not bring back the abuses of the old order cannot be ruled out either. For the moment, the civil servants are up in arms over the alleged ‘responsibility without authority’ slogan and the police is off the hook of executive supervision. How this will improve district administration and what will be the powers of the elected local bodies remain problematic.

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