State of failure


Failing states hurt the poor, marginalised and lower sections of society because they are left to the mercy of non-state actors of varying strength and influence. Our ruling classes have not paid sustained attention to the crisis of the fading state because they benefit more from its absence
There has been persistent debate about the declining capacities of the Pakistani state for the past nineteen years, since the end of our third military regime. All functional, effective and robust states must perform some primary functions, which include providing rule of law, access to justice, social peace and individual security, individual rights and liberties. This list is not exhaustive. Modern states invest in the development of infrastructure, provide basic social services and regulate the economic life of society to ensure equity and fair competition in the market place.
With each successive government, civilian as well military, we have seen further erosion of the power of the state in all areas of its fundamental responsibilities. The thousands of ghost schools, instructors absent from classes in public colleges and universities, filthy government hospitals without doctors, and widespread corruption in government departments are visible signs of the Pakistani state’s thinning out.
This dismal picture, however, is not uniform; there are places where conscientious teachers, doctors and government employees continue to perform their duties to the best of their abilities. But their numbers have been on the decline and so has the writ of the state.
Recently the issues of Talibanisation in the tribal belt, warlordism in Balochistan, interior Sindh and southern Punjab, and the dramatic episodes of kidnapping by Lal Masjid clerics have monopolised our attention. They are glaring examples of a weak state getting weaker, to the extent of absolving itself of the vital task of protecting citizens and maintaining good order in society.
For a very long time, our state has had a nominal presence in the vast rural periphery where, since colonial times, its functionaries negotiated a space and a role with a powerful social class of tribal chiefs and feudal landlords. Very rarely did the state challenge the parallel authority structures existing beyond major cities. When it did, it was only under political compulsion and the state soon retreated to its peripheral role. Its assertion of power was temporary, targeted against individuals and did not become institutionalised.
No longer is the waning of the Pakistani state confined to rural and far-off regions where murders, kidnappings for ransom, honour killings and violation of human rights are quite common. Have a quick glance at the political history of our major cities — Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta and Peshawar. Are they better governed than Rajanpur, Jacobabad, Dera Ismail Khan or Dera Bugti? Perhaps in a small degree; but the pattern of decay of our state institutions is written in bold letters all over these places. Barring posh elite areas, all localities of our major cities stink with heaps of uncollected garbage and flowing sewerage. Greedy individuals, criminal gangs, and clerics of all denominations continue to encroach upon public parks and get chunks of them allotted by using money, influence and threats.
The streets of our cities present a picture of anarchy closely resembling our fractured political life. Thousands of vehicles and auto rickshaws burning engine oil, emitting thick smoke, without any order in the traffic, and every other person honking to get his or her way, is a common sight. You may walk for miles in our cities without finding a pubic toilet if you are pressured by nature. And we hope to attract foreign tourists?
Readers who think I am exaggerating the slow death of our cities or their problems should venture off the main thoroughfares in any part of Lahore or Karachi. We have waited for too long with patience and some hope that our next government will do better than the present one. All declared efforts of cleaning up the mess, providing good governance, improving efficiency and making government servants and elected representative accountable have fallen into the same rut. We, the ordinary citizens of Pakistan, have become perpetual victims of our own fantasies and the betrayal of our leaders, who lead us without our consent.
The syndrome of a weak state that I have sketched above has earned another name that I dread to mention: the failed state. My sense is that our plunge to the rank of failing state has been very steep, and time will not be on our side if we continue to miss chances of re-empowering the state.
But then, the primary question is, what type of state do we wish to empower: a predatory elitist state, or the one which is representative of popular will, defends public interests and functions as our collective protector?
Failing states hurt the poor, marginalised and lower sections of society because they are left to the mercy of non-state actors of varying strength and influence. One of the important reasons why our ruling classes have not paid sustained attention to the crisis of the fading state is that they benefit more from its anarchy or absence. Tribal chiefs and feudal lords have an interest in keeping the state at bay, so that they can maintain their fiefdoms. They have exploited the weakness of the military regimes to their advantage in exchanging political loyalty for greater influence, and running local affairs through the assistance of the district bureaucracy and police.
The political nexus between the military and the landowning elites has considerably ground down the functional autonomy and impartiality of the district administration. This disorder is equally visible in urban areas as well. The influence of the political class over government departments has been accepted as a political necessity to help loyalists gain credit for jobs, transfers and helping offenders escape the law. Gone are the days when political interference was a bad word. It has become an accepted norm because it links government officers with centres of political power and helps them get placed in juicy positions.
Aligning the bureaucracy with the political interests of the ruling groups has turned the principle of rationality, a central pillar of the modern state, on its head. Therefore the crumbling of the state on the margins or at the centre does not come as a surprise.
States cannot be reformed, or their efficiency and legitimacy re-established without democracy, something that supporters of autocracy portray as a major flaw in the governance of Pakistan under civilian regimes. It is true that elected governments cannot be absolved for their failure to provide good governance, but the last seven years have been no different either.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.