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Implementing the Writ of the State is Critical for Good Governance

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By Hamza Naveed

After every tragedy, it is a very common sight to hear chants from various leaders, law enforcers, and politicians alike that ‘the writ of the state shall be restored. What is the ‘writ of the state’? To explain this, some basic but crude examples can be stated. Let’s say that you are driving on the wrong side of the road on Mall road in Lahore or Sharah e Faisal in Karachi. The chances of you being stopped for this traffic violation are somewhere around 50-60% in both cities. Furthermore, what happens next to you varies largely on the traffic warden who is dealing with you then and there, the kind of car you are driving, and whether you have the right contact numbers on your phone or not. Now consider driving on the opposite side of the main road in Dubai or Singapore or say London. The chances of you being penalized for this violation are somewhere close to 95%. You must be wondering what has all of this to do with the writ of the state. Well, let me explain a bit further.

A modern nation-state usually works on some laid down vision of what is permissible and what is not permissible in a country and how shall the state function overall. A written constitution you can say. From there onwards you have a plethora of subordinate legislation from national bills, provincial laws, and subordinate regulations right down to municipal laws. And then there are enforcers of these laws, bills, and regulations in the shape of civil servants, tax officials, Police, etc. The state monitors whether its citizens abide by these rules and regulations through these enforcers. Any violation or delinquent behavior on the part of its citizen to follow the laid down principles will be met with a penalty through these enforcers. It is the plainest explanation.

The writ of the state erodes when the citizens don’t fear being caught violating these laws or believe that they can not be held accountable for the violations of the laid down code of conduct. Moreover, the writ of the state erodes when the citizens feel they can buy off the enforcers. What can be worse; is the general feeling that everyone including the enforcers is violating the code of conduct so there is no need to comply with anything. It starts with small things, say a traffic violation, a small tax evasion, or an illegal radio transmission (ring any bells?). Failure to nip the evil in bud results in the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. We as a nation are now famous for creating some of the ugliest of them. We only start to react once things become out of control. That is because today a lone Police constable does not feel empowered enough to stop a violator in a land cruiser. An honest tax official doesn’t feel sure enough that he will have his back when he sends a legal notice to a big businessman doing tax evasion. By giving exemptions, leeway, and undue favors to the lawbreakers the trust between the institutions and its law-abiding citizens gradually erodes, and slowly it becomes a jungle out there.

The writ of the state is something intangible. You can’t see it, you can’t hear it, it can only be felt. The presence of thousands of gun-toting police patrolling the streets does not restore the writ of the state. Nor does the ubiquitous practice of “flag march” with law enforcement patrolling streets with full gear during sensitive times, restore the writ of the state. The presence of police everywhere, all the time is never possible. It is only a sense of being supervised or being protected at all times that makes all the difference.

Of course, the problem is not uni-dimensional. It’s a two-way stream. The police, tax officials, and civil servants i.e ‘enforcers’ have also made matters worse. We as a class have to be on a higher pedestal. We can not expect to earn the respect of the citizen if we fail to follow the principles and guidelines of the state. Unfortunately we the ‘enforcers’ have not set a very good example. Whether it is a trivial thing such as a traffic warden not wearing a helmet or as serious as hoodwinking the laws to amass unlawful wealth. In today’s world citizens have access to information on their palms. A traffic warden violating the law by driving on the wrong side of the road will become a viral video and in just a few hours will be seen by millions. Citizens see what is happening and react accordingly.

Pakistan a country of 220 million people is not an easy place to govern. Nevertheless, The state has slowly but surely ceded space to pockets of carnage and mayhem that challenge the writ of the state today. A ‘protest every month, illegal sit-ins, and tax evasions of the mighty speak volumes of how far we have ceded our authority. Today, there is no fear at all in the hearts of the lawbreakers and we as ‘enforcers’ feel helpless. This is because the all-important trust between the state and its citizens has broken down. 

There is a dire need to take back the space ceded to the lawbreakers. Strengthen the ‘enforcers’ by giving them independence and space to perform. The powers have slowly been taken away from the enforcers for fear of their misuse. The district administrators /Deputy Commissioners have ceded a lot of power from being able to take wide-ranging administrative decisions backed by laws till 1996 to be a figurative head of a district only with subdued enforcement powers. Till the mid-1990s, a single bullet fired in the air to disperse a crowd needed a nod from the magistrate before being fired but after taking away these basic powers from the district administration, no one seems to be in charge, resulting in chaos. The vacuum thus created has only benefited lawbreakers. The enforcers are to be blamed as well for overstepping their jurisdictions in the past, causing other state institutions and the public at large to mistrust them. But without an alternative, the nation is in a state of limbo.

It is unrealistic to expect change when you know that any rightful action taken, can be overruled over a phone call. We need to empower that traffic warden standing in the sun so that the chances of penalizing someone driving down on the wrong side of a road goes up to 90% and is not affected by the kind of car you are driving nor is it dependent on the contact list of your phone. Similarly, the enforcers need to increase their capacity and commitment to serve the law of the land rather than becoming a tool for enforcing the writ of the mighty only. Remember, the writ of the state does not require more guns, ammunition, or ‘force’. The writ of the state can be restored by taking small steps that require no force but a lot of courage and will so that trust between citizen and state is bridged again. Let us all strive to truly enforce the ‘writ of the state by playing our part diligently.

The writer is a civil servant.

1 thought on “Implementing the Writ of the State is Critical for Good Governance”

  1. Hafeez Ur Rahman

    This is an article worth reading. It pointed out the basic problems on which later the whole edifice of crimes build.One cannot root out the problem when he/she has to step down in front mighty criminals.

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