The government plans to revive the executive magistracy system that was abolished by Pervez Musharraf’s regime in 2001.
The stated claim is that it would provide an appropriate price control mechanism at the local government level, which the government’s finance team cited as a contributor to the high inflation rate.
Until 2001, deputy commissioners (DC) acted as district magistrates, assistant commissioners as sub-divisional magistrates, and so on. They were redesignated as coordinating officers and their roles restricted to coordination.
District magistrates could hear most criminal cases except those which could lead to capital punishment or life imprisonment.
This conflicted with the division of powers as DCs were part of the executive, but had significant judicial authority as well. There was little concern that most administrative officials have little to no legal background.
It was like asking an accountant to perform heart surgery.
Supporters claim that after magisterial powers were taken away from DCs, there was no authority to check price hikes and profiteering or to penalise violators.
But this is not entirely true. All magisterial powers were distributed among the police, judiciary, local government, and coordination officers.
It is just that successive governments have shown little interest in enforcing them, perhaps because DCs are from the influential administrative services groups of the central and provincial civil services.
How influential are they? Despite the devolution being one of Musharraf’s better decisions, it was also one of the first to be partially rolled back through the reintroduction of DCs, albeit with reduced powers.
At the same time, the interest of previous governments in attempting to empower local bodies meant they still kept some power. This government seems less interested.
Who is to say that after returning price control powers to DCs, they would also restore all judicial authorities? The separation of powers exists in democratic governments for a specific reason — to avoid letting one branch grow too powerful.
The executive is controlled by politicians at best and dictators at worst. Both have vested interests. Giving them the ability to lean on administrative officials, who, unlike judges, always have to take orders from politicians, would be disastrous.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2019.