Three key obstacles ought to be addressed for Pakistan to end its endless journey of poverty, inequality and misgovernance. To limit its “bursting at the seams” population, to completely digitise all aspects of its governance and to downsize its dysfunctional bureaucracy. Thanks to Covid-19, it seems to have already accomplished the third task. As if it was a virus under a 20-second soapy attack, the Government of Pakistan, in less than seven days, stood literally dissolved and fallen apart like a house of cards. The bloated bureaucratic machinery that, for 72 years, stubbornly blocked every road to progress was effectively dismantled by an insignificant fatty membrane.
Pakistan desperately realises the need to help and make things better for its ordinary and forgotten citizens. It has mustered enough funds and good intentions — both being necessary but not enough. The reason is simple. Pakistan does not know who its ordinary people are, what their names are, where they live and what they do. Not only that, it has no record of the existence of its 60 million unregistered children. It does not know who and where its 25 million out-of-school children are. It does not know who, how many and where its homeless, unemployed, daily-wagers, plumbers, street vendors, masons, janitors, bus drivers, house maids, cashiers, street children are, besides a host of other individuals who need support because they cannot work from home.
The fact of the matter is that we do not know the facts. Pakistan has remained a ‘data-less’ society for 72 years. Our digitally-challenged bureaucracy has kept Pakistan bogged down on forms and files, on photocopies and affidavits, and on signatures and stamps. In simple words we are digitally unprepared — to cope with the current crisis and for creating a better future. Pakistan thus has a stark choice. Make radical changes to its governance and processes or simply be forgotten by history.
While cell phone apps may serve a limited commercial or a task-based function, they are not a replacement for a national digitisation programme. Pakistan needs to develop digital, integrated and shared databases and processes for every function performed by the federal and the provincial governments. These could relate to teachers and students, births and deaths, workers and incomes, land and revenues, taxes and transactions, salaries and pensions, industry and workers and health and hospitals. The list is endless.
The government must publicly state the three underlying principles of digitisation. First, that no citizen will be required to visit any government office to give or receive any service, permission, approval, license, document or payment. Second, that no single piece of information once given to any government office will be asked for or entered again by any other office of the state. Third, that no one will ever need to submit a copy of the CNIC, degree, marriage certificate, attestation or an affidavit to any office.
As a first step towards downsizing the bureaucracy, Pakistan should halve the salaries of all government employees from Grade 17 to Grade 22 and give them an option to leave. Just selling off their generously allocated government vehicles would easily fetch about Rs200 billion. Instead, thousands of IT graduates can be employed and a national IT organisation can be set up to develop hundreds of new paperless and ‘bureaucracy-less’ integrated digital processes.
The decisions our government takes in the next few weeks will probably shape our country for years to come. We must act quickly and decisively. The new system ought to focus on improving the lives of our most neglected, weak and vulnerable segment of society. Limiting population, eliminating bureaucracy and restraining obscurantist ulema, muftis and the Ruet-e-Hilals should be the top priorities for a post Covid-19 Pakistan. After all, a modern state cannot be built on vague and nostalgic ideas of cities that existed a thousand years ago.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2020.
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