Efficacy of disaster management in Pakistan

Despite all the constraints of resources, the civil administration has performed admirably well in the past


Syed Akhtar Ali Shah April 08, 2020
The writer is former secretary to Government Home and Tribal Affairs and a retired IG. He holds a PhD in Political Science and currently heads a think tank ‘Good Governance Forum’. He can be reached at [email protected]

Why is Pakistan perceived to be an ‘ungovernable’ state, a label it never carried in the past? Can anything be done to restore it to the track that it derailed from? These are the core questions posed by Ishrat Hussain in his book Governing the Ungovernable. Today, the issue of governance has gained more prominence and relevance due to the emerging challenges arising out of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting the whole gamut of life. To tackle such disasters, governments world over have developed disaster management bodies from the central government right down to the community level.

Pakistan has also had its share of disasters in the last at least 14 years in the form of insurgency and terrorism, earthquakes, floods and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The people of Pakistan have always demonstrated resilience while coping with such problems but the efficacy and flaws in the operations of disaster management at various tiers also surfaced during such times. As disaster management has a deep correlation with overall governance, it should therefore be analysed from that perspective.

Under the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), Pakistan modelled its proactive Disaster Management by enacting the National Disaster Management Act 2010. The act establishes three tiers for the disaster management system: national, provincial and district. The National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC) is composed of the prime minister, leaders of opposition, cabinet ministers, chief ministers and the DG NDMA amongst others at the national level, with the responsibility of laying down policies and guidelines for disaster risk management and approval of the National Plan. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), in line with the act, serves as the implementing, coordinating and monitoring body at the national level. It has also developed a framework under the National Disaster Risk Management Fund (NDRMF) which provides guidelines for disaster risk management at national, provincial and district levels.

The NDMA also claims to have formulated a response plan (NDRP) in 2010 outlining the specific roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder involved in dealing with emergencies. Similarly, a National Disaster Management Plan was conceived with a total investment of $1,040.9 million with its main components being human resource development, multi-hazard early warning system plan and instructors’ guidelines on community-based disaster risk management.

We, in this part of the world, inherited the present system of administration from the British. Run by the civil servants at the policy and operational level, the bureaucracy acted as the bedrock of the system also called the steel frame holding together the Indian Union. The administrative architecture, providing symmetry was built in such a way that the civil servants occupied the posts from the federal secretaries down to the level of district magistrates and assistant commissioners. This ensured cohesion, good communication and coordination at all levels. Departure from a well-functioning system has upset the architectural symmetry. The beauty of the old system with civil servants at all levels was that they worked in harmony and enjoyed a cordial relationship with each other. It was always easy for one civil servant to speak to another for the realisation of organisational goals. The British Raj was dependent on the power of the barrel, but policy decisions were always taken by civil administrators.

Despite all the constraints of resources, the civil administration has performed admirably well in the past. I state this with my own experiential knowledge while dealing with the earthquake relief measures in 2006, management of 2.5 million IDPs in 2008 and the management of floods in 2010. At every stage the initial burden was taken by the district and divisional administration under the overall policy guidelines of the provincial government. No disaster management plan without the active role of the divisional and district administration can pay dividends. Even in the present crisis, it is the district administration which is mainly instrumental. In this traditional system, tiers of governance are in sync with the Home Department and the chief secretary at the provincial level, and with the secretary interior, cabinet secretary and the principle secretary at the federal level.

While a NDMC and NDMA are in place, setting up parallel bodies such as the National Coordination Committee and the National Command and Operation Centre is a sign of bad governance. Such arrangements run counter to the need for cohesion, unity and optimum utilisation of resources and synergising efforts and will further result in the degradation of the civil apparatus.

In departure from well-established principles of public policy and historic context, intrusive tendencies into civil institutions develops cracks which lead to the crumbling of the entire edifice of the administration. Disarray, diarchy and deviation from the law and policy run counter to good governance. Following the rule of law, the NDMA Act provides the legal framework and the guidelines and policy plans formulated by the Commission. Let us adhere to the law and policy and also develop the capacity of the civil administration in consonance with the principles of public administration.

The suggested remedy by Ishrat Hussain in his study is the resuscitation of institutions functioning under the executive, legislative and judicial branches of governance in order to enable them to become sufficiently strong to effectively translate these polices, programmes and projects on the ground. By doing so, it is possible to make up for lost time because effective, responsive, and well-functioning institutions would help minimise the politics of patronage, unshackle the entrepreneurial energies of the private sector, assure delivery and equitable access to basic services to the citizen, and empower civil society and local governments. National disaster management is no exception to this remedy.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2020.

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