In almost every Pakistani home on a typical evening, there is a passionate recounting of the day's stories of officials' bribery, merchants' cheating, WAPDA's overbilling, bureaucrats' nepotism and politicians' loot. It is always the others who are corrupt, not us. There is a national consensus that corruption is the number one problem of Pakistan. Yet it has spread in all areas of life, partially because it is woven into our social organization and embedded in the moral order.
Corruption is viewed as the malfeasance and immorality of individuals. It is regarded as a phenomenon of rotten apples in a barrel. Only if these individuals could be caught and given exemplary punishments, corruption will cease to be a problem. This is the model on which we work. Imran Khan, AltafHussain, or Nawaz Sharif, all political leaders promise us deliverance from corruption if they have the power to hound out the corrupt. From the Supreme Court to the village police, scores of agencies are engaged in catching the corrupt. Yet the malady continues to spread as the medicine is administered. We have to ask why all these anti-corruption measures have not had any effect.
Why are the pious, bearded guardians of morality corrupt as often as the liberals, moderns and clean-shaven? Aren't our society, culture and moral order fostering corruption? Undoubtedly corruption is a systemic problem embedded deeply in our organizations, social norms and personal behaviors. The individuals enact the expectations that the culture and society honor.
The disappearance of files from the record room is a well-organized activity in which, officials, consultants, house builders and common citizens participate as partners with little hesitation. On observing the scale of this process, Hull calls it the "marketization of government"
An exquisitely detailed account of the system of corruption emerges from the book, Government of Paper by Matthew S Hull (University of California Press,2012).It is a deeply analytical and penetratingly observant description of the functioning of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration (ICTA) by an American anthropologist in pursuit of his doctoral dissertation. The book is a testimony to the revealing powers of a competently done anthropology.
A Pakistani reader can readily identify with the observations of this book, because they are the stuff of his/her everyday experience. A reader will be nodding his/her head in agreement on almost every description of the experiences of the process of getting approval for house plans, elaboration of the system of filing, noting and decision-making in public agencies, observations of the play of Parchis and visiting cards as instruments of nepotism, and examples of land grabbing in Islamabad. The book leaves readers with a feeling of familiarity and identification with the narrative, which is the illuminating power of this book. Yet only an objective outsider, and that too a well-trained social scientist, would have uncovered the organizational culture and informal moral order of Pakistan's administrative system.
I must add that corruption per se is not the focus of this book. It has a theoretical focus on demonstrating the role of paper instruments (files, reports, maps, and office manuals) in "mediating relations among people, things, places and purposes", hence the title of the book. The paper trail is an active agent in defining relations among officials, clients, citizens and the state. Official paper organizes social relations formally as well as informally: who courts whom for what purpose. The operations of CDA and ICTA have served as the testing ground for this thesis, but Hull's illuminating observations of decision-making in these two organizations has yielded a rich harvest of insights into the corruption and inefficiency of Pakistan's public administration.
When a former chairman of CDA confesses to the author that "there is no one who can tell you what CDA owns", it should not be surprising that Islamabad's lands have become a hot commodity for encroachment and unauthorized transfers. The CDA does not have a unitary set of maps. In almost 50 years of the CDA's existence, the revenue land records and city planners' land maps have not been reconciled. Maps and regulatory documents "function as tools for building coalitions among government functionaries, property owners, businessmen, builders and land dealers". Land mafias are nurtured by such coalitions.
The approval of building plans turns into a process of "sale of official approvals". CDA's planners and architects run a trade in blueprints, forming partnerships with private designers, selling approvals and removing the files from the records to allow violations of the building rules. The disappearance of files from the record room is a well-organized activity in which, officials, consultants, house builders and common citizens participate as partners with little hesitation. On observing the scale of this process, Hull calls it the "marketization of government".
Adhocism in policy-making and rule enforcement is the story of the CDA and ICTA administrations. Policies are arbitrarily changed to accommodate political and social pressures and rules are applied selectively on the basis of how influential a client is. Hull exposes the official practice of noting and drafting on files for decision-making. The whole process is jigged to "avoid responsibilities (of decision-making) and sometimes raise money". He rightly calls it the "political economy of files".
Only an outsider can note the cultural underpinning of the visitors entertained by officials in their offices, the rituals of serving tea and responding to the requests for intervention. The effect of "office as a club" is highlighted by the example of an ICTA senior director who gets to review the files of the day after 3:45pm, sparing a cursory attention for less than half an hour every day after a whole day of entertaining visitors and petitioners.
Common people are victims of this corruption and poor organization, but they are also participants in perpetuating these ills. There is little evidence that given the opportunity, a citizen or a group is inhibited by any legal or moral considerations in pursuing their illegitimate goals. Hull, in Chapter 4, provides a detailed account of how the CDA has been almost permanently blocked in the acquisition of land for sector G-12 by villagers in BadiaQadirBaksh after they had pocketed millions of rupees as compensation for 263 acres of the land. Dummy houses were built overnight to claim payment for structures, land ownership records were forged, files of individual claimants are spirited out of the CDA office and the lists of claimants keep on expanding. He thinks that Islamabad is unlikely to expand any further in the West, after being stymied in G-12 for almost 40 years. The low initial awards for land values contributed to the CDA's troubles, but they have been long overlaid with the defrauding enterprises forged by alliances of claimants and officials. Social and cultural roots of the corruption come vividly out of this description.
Religiosity and pious purposes do not make the behaviors of the proponents any more principled. This has been the story of the development of mosques in Islamabad as chronicled in Chapter 5. Although the city's master plan provides sites for mosques in all neighborhoods, the building of unauthorized mosques on public lands overtook the mosque development policy of the CDA, particularly after the Islamization initiated by Gen Zia. Sectarian claims, Barelvi versus Doebandidenominational struggles for the control of mosques, and the moral justification of appropriating public lands in the name of the superior religious edicts have undermined the CDA's policies and public laws. There are now scores of unauthorized mosques in Islamabad. The CDA's attempts to remove "illegally constructed mosques" have resulted in agitations and violence. So different are social outlooks on this matter that the English media often describes the CDA's actions as "demolition of illegal mosques", while the Urdu media characterize such events as "martyring of mosques".
I was left depressed after reading this book, because it shows that the corruption is cooked in a stew of officials' incompetence, organizational incoherence, procedural mindlessness, ill-conceived policies, no-holds-barred pursuit of personal benefit and dysfunctional moral order. It does not leave much hope of change without major administrative re-organization, making decision-making transparent and national movements for moral and social reforms. Pursuing corrupt individuals is necessary but it is only a band-aid for our cancerous institutions.
Mohammad Qadeer is a professor emeritus at Queen's University, Canada and the author of the book 'Pakistan - Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation'