The political-criminal nexus

18th Amendment has been reduced to a mechanism of dividing Centre’s financial pie among provinces


Durdana Najam July 15, 2020

Afamily somewhere in the worn-out areas of Karachi must be weeping their heart out, seeing the Joint Investigation Report (JIT) of the Baldia Town factory inferno that killed their loved one, tossed around for political point-scoring. Beating back that terrible incident must have been devastating. But that does not bother our politicians. Had they been concerned, the lives of 260 Baldia Town victims and millions of those who had perished over the last three decades in Karachi would have been saved. Had they been concerned Karachi would not have been divided into turfs among militant organisations for commercial gains. Had they been concerned those accused in the JIT would have been convicted. Isn’t it by now an open and shut case?

The JIT has identified the reason for the fire — a denial of the ransom money.

The JIT has identified the hand that had the factory set on fire — the MQM that ruled Karachi for over two decades with impunity.

The JIT has identified the person who had ordered to seal every door leading out of the factory to ensure that no one could escape the furnace that the perpetrators had decided to make the venue — head of the MQM Karachi Tanzeemi Committee, Hammad Siddiqui.

The JIT has identified the police officers, the lawmakers, the businessmen, and the factory’s administrator, who were involved in this gory incident.

The JIT has it all. But it has not been enough for the judiciary to act upon.

Over the years the judiciary in Pakistan has developed an insatiable appetite for witnesses, pieces of evidence, and unending prosecution. The incurable bulimia has made justice a forlorn adventure. The result is that every high-profile criminal proceeding ends for lack of evidence.

Every JIT and every criminal are assets in the basket of opportunities to keep the ship of the state rowing in the direction that takes the proverbial 1% to their destination. Whether it is extracting desirable results in elections or getting short-term financial gain from artificially created supply-side shortages, crimes committed by an elite is an instrument of convenience, not to be squandered in convictions for the so-called institutional reforms.

Politics that was supposed to be a tool to assume power on behalf of the people for their benefit has become their worst enemy.

When Ali Zaidi, Murad Ali Shah, Saeed Ghani, and Murad Saeed were trivialising the Baldia Town crime by docking each other in the chamber of blame and accusation, Karachi was drowned in darkness because of K-Electric’s depleted resources. At a time when most of the big businesses were closed because of partial lockdown, K-Electric’s claim of running out of resources was a difficult proposition to accept. In Karachi, what apparently seems a battle for resources turns out a fight for the turf.

Political parties in Karachi have become so used to protecting their power domain that to them even a healthy intervention from the federation is a design to pull the turf out from under their feet. The present crisis engulfing Sindh versus the Centre is layered with two complexities: the 18th Amendment and the financial share of the provinces in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award.

When the 18th Amendment was made, it set the dice rolling in the right direction. On a rare occasion, political parties of every ideological leaning sat on a common table to undo the dictatorial footprints from the Constitution and make it a representative piece of law. In the subsequent policy rounds, the mechanism to divide the Centre’s financial pool was derived from as diverse indicators as the size of the population, poverty ratio, landmass, etc. It was no more Punjab versus other provinces. It was each province with its own baggage to carry. Each province was expected, as a federating unit, to make choices and decisions that would ultimately strengthen the Centre’s overall vision for the country.

The unfortunate story of the 18th Amendment is that it has been reduced to a mechanism of dividing the Centre’s financial pie among the provinces. Whereas the spirit of the Amendment lies in the framework it provides for the administrative decentralisation to devolve and transfer power to the local government. According to the World Bank definition, “In a devolved system, local governments have clear and legally recognised geographical boundaries over which they exercise authority and within which they perform public functions.” To make devolution effective, civil services reforms were to be done so that the officer had the relevant skills to carry out the government’s obligations efficiently, equitably, and effectively. None of this happened in true spirit. Not until the Supreme Court intervened did the governments in all provinces drafted local bodies laws and conducted elections. As for the civil services reforms, the jury is still out.

Fehmida Mirza, the Minister for Inter Provisional Coordination, has rightly said that the 18th Amendment has not been implemented, not to speak of any conspiracy to make it ineffective.

The Sindh government has erroneously interpreted the 18th Amendment as legal permission to run the province as a personal fiefdom. Punjab, because of always being part of the party in the Centre, has been in a position to cover this tendency. But its failure to implement the 18th Amendment through devolution of power has been as stark as of any other province.

If anything this government should do with the 18th Amendment is get it implemented rather than only focusing on redrawing the NFC award. The solution to the financial crunch lies in reforming the taxation system and punishing the criminals sitting on untaxed wealth and the money earned from cartelisation. To being with each and every businessman involved in the sugar, wheat and fuel crises should be tried and convicted. The success of a government lies in applying the barriers the Constitution has defined for each power to keep it in limits.

The JITs concerning Uzair Baloch, the Baldia Factory fire, and Nisar Morai, the former chairman of the Fishermen Cooperative Society, are being treated like a pig in the Aesopian fables who, with a rope around his middle, was “hoisted squealing” into a ship, to have it comply with whatever the ‘naked power’ had in mind.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2020.

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