Whither Writ of the State? Costs of Breakdown of Law and Constitution in Pakistan

[To understand the context of this post, please read At What Cost! Why Compute Economic Costs of Faulty Political Decisions]

Whither Writ of the State? Costs of Corruption and Nepotism in Today’s Rangeela Shahi Daur

I often see reference to the “writ of state” in talk shows and in the writings of columnists in newspapers invoked typically in the context of the Talibans threat and urging the need for military action. I wonder why these specialists fail to see the “writ of the state” being violated every day in a systematic manner by all and sundry in nearly every walk of life.

Who can stop the sons of the powerful from breaking the traffic laws or even committing heinous crimes? Is it possible for the traffic cop to stop a land cruiser with black tinted glasses when over speeding or breaking traffic signals or driving dangerously or threatening the other traffic with armed escorts? Taking the cue, breakdown of the writ of the state is visible on every intersection, every signal, and every place where a bus/mini bus stops, and in every taxi and every rickshaw running without a meter and every car driving outside the lane! It is visible in every government office where there is public dealing. Bigger the office, bigger the breakdown of the writ of the state. Why can’t we see that Taliban threat is just one of the more visible manifestations of  the breakdown of the writ of the state, and is simply a logical consequence of the breakdown of state institutions that has taken place over the last so many decades.

Our existence is not only being threatened by the so called Talibans but is being threatened on a daily basis by various gangs and mafias in a systematic manner. I compare this state of the affairs to the situation prevailing during the weakening of the Mughal Empire (early eighteenth century) when the breakdown of the writ of the state and breakdown of the control of the central administration enabled all sorts of groups to rear their heads and create havoc. Known famously as the “rangeela shahi daur“, Marahttas, Rohillas, Sikhs, Afghans (Nadir Shah, Durrani) and all sorts of gangs and private armies would descend on cities and would indulge in loot and plunder and took control of vast areas. To protect themselves, people started paying protection money (or bhatta/taxes) to their area lords who maintained private armies, and who gradually separated from the Delhi rule and became independent princely states.

Isn’t this the same situation? There is a general breakdown of law and order everywhere as evident from the emergence of mafias and organized gangs of looters and plunderers, as people are forced to pay protection money to them and they act as a state unto themselves for all practical purposes:

Whenever we talk of the violation of the “writ of state”, it must start from the usurping of state, constitution and courts and other civil institutions by the military dictators. They trampled upon the law and the constitution for half of our existence directly and the remaining half by pulling the strings of the civil governments from behind, not letting them rule, and by calling all the important shots. To perpetuate dictatorial rule and protect its gains, influential groups and feudals were given a leeway and were allowed to morph into lawless mafias and gangs specializing in extortion of money through hook or crook; a distinctive attribute of the Rangeela Shahi daur was the captivity of state institutions by the private armies of the viziers and advisors. 

Most prominent among the gangs of today is the transport mafia that has destroyed the urban transport corporations (KTC, RTC, LTC etc), provincial transport corporations (PRTC, SRTC etc) and even the railway system (KCR and PWR and their branch network). Railway’s freight business was destroyed by the NLC (an official gang hoisted by dictators) and forcing the freight movement away from railway to the transport mafia, which not only destroyed the road network, but literally handed over the safety of main highways to gangs. The mafia colluded and worked in tandem with the police (city transports is often owned by police) and other government bodies in getting route permits, then getting the bus stops encroached and soon with the help of the powerful groups the entire infrastructure (huge maintenance facilities, parking lots, railway land, and rolling and fixed assets) was encroached upon or sold away as scrap. The pitiful state in which the people now travel (jam packed as sardines inside and on roofs of buses, squatting on the floor of train) is visible everywhere as these mafias run transport in a pitiful state and extort the price of their choosing as the state haplessly looks on. Transport mafias are the precursors to the urban gangs and pressure groups that we see around. Convenience of the travelers and commuters is always the first priority of a competent administration as exemplified by Sher Shah Suri and the establishment of the GT Road and its support infrastructure (wells, checkpoints, saraiye/motels). The breakdown of the safety, security and convenience of the passageways is the first outcome of the breakdown of administration as witnessed in the Rangeela Shahi daur.

Then comes the land grabbing mafia famously referred to by Ardsher Cowasjee as “plot-ocracy”. It started with the use of squatters by influentials to systematically encroach government land. But there is a more refined version to this crude tactic. Thousands of acres of lands are allotted to the favored individuals and institutions every year by every administration over the last several decades. Government land is forcefully occupied and then regularized or it is privatized illegally and sold away at throw away prices. Biggest landowner in Pakistan and the biggest land mafia in the organized government sector includes the military and its quasi institutions about which much has already been written. The trend again resembles the breakdown of the Mughal State during the Rangeela Shahi Daur when the commanders of the Mughal armies started proclaiming independence in the areas of their controls, as seen now in the cantonments, DHAs and feudal/wadera run territories that are virtually independent of the civil administration and hold the majority of the land in most cities and rural areas. These entities charge taxes/protection money from the businesses, which is not deposited in the state treasury, similar to what happened in the Rangeela Shahi Daur.

During the Rangeela Shahi daur, nepotism was at its height. People related to those in power got all the benefits and lucrative postings. We see a similar thing today. We have the drug mafia protected by the most powerful in the state. We have the sugar mills mafia that forces the prices down by creating surpluses during the buying season and then jacking up the prices during the selling season by creating shortages. They make money by creating shortages by first exporting the sugar out, and then importing/hoarding and selling at high price. By creating entry barriers, they do not allow new mills to be established and neither allow the farmers to make their own brown sugar. A racket about which even the state institution like Competition Commission of Pakistan expresses helplessness. Poor farmers are forced to park their tractor trolleys for weeks in miles-long queues on roads leading to the mills and not buying the cane until its weight reduces due to evaporation of the moisture content. We also have the wheat mafia that exploits the poor growers by colluding with the fertilizer mafia and the government institutions to jack up the fertilizer prices just when the sowing season is about to start, and reduces the selling price of wheat when the produce is ready for selling. Much has been written and documented about these practices but the state institutions are helpless or in collusion with these powerful groups.

There is this racket of fake medicines mafia that run their life threatening business with impunity under the very eyes of the regulators that extort money when they fix the prices and when they go for inspections. About fifty years ago, the system of such inspections was really stringent and now it has evaporated. Thirty years ago we all used to drink tap water. Supply of clean filtered water was ensured in every city. Even the five star hotels used to serve this water. But, the filter plants were encroached, and the entire infrastructure of filtration and supply of clean water was handed over to the tanker mafia and the state responsibility was abdicated to appease the powerful mafia of the water bottling industry.

Loans write-off mafia was a big business in Zia’s time continuing till today where the art of taking a loan, defaulting and then getting them written off became the popular way to become rich. Banking mafia is paying only 1.5% on certain deposits while charging +20% on the loans. A spread unheard of in the world under the very eyes of the world bank supported central bank.

Adulteration mafia responsible for the substandard quality of edibles works with impunity under the watchful eyes of the inspection mafia that only ensures that protection money is being paid to them. Police mafia owns the police stations that are auctioned and that extort money from anyone and everyone. It is a misfortune of one to get entangled with them. In the court hearing on breakdown of law in Karachi, an official admitted that all agencies are taking protection money or bhatta.

Mafias in government departments have made government a “khairati idara” to provide salary without any work. The number of ghost employees is legendary. No one can tell with surety what is the strength of the real employees in schools, municipal corporations, provincial or federal government. There are ghost schools, ghost teachers and ghost employees. 

Oil companies cartel mafia charge whatever they want as OGRA looks on. The art of collusion is perfect. Electricity stealing mafia in tandem with NEPRA condones theft by allowing the utilities to slap the cost of theft on to the poor paying consumer. Energy sector mafia makes everyone blush. NAB and NRO allows mafias to go Scott free without any accountability. During the recent Supreme Court case hearing, a judge remarked that if we are allowing the big fish to return a percentage of looted amount and go free without a blemish to their existing jobs, then why should not the state allow all the petty thieves and dacoits to return their looted wealth and go scot-free! [1]

Let’s see the genesis of this situation emerging in Karachi. It all started with car jacking and a whole underground economy of stolen cars and their fake identity papers sprung up with the connivance of the police. Then came the menace of mobile snatching, which started as individual acts but then morphed in to organized gangs. The gangs began getting protection from police as well as political parties. Then came the menace of bhatta mafia. Beginning as a fund raising drive, it soon morphed in to big business. The gangs were few and the markets were many from where the bhatta was extracted. Then as the gangs increased and the space started shrinking, territories were defined and demarcated. Gangs had to coalesce together into bigger units and were adopted by one or the other political parties. Target killings is one of the symptoms of the territorial wars fought to demarcate the ownership of the boundaries where one or the other gang would rule. The situation is much akin to what happened during the alcohol prohibition in 1930s leading to gang warfare in Chicago and New york and other cities of USA. Territorial disputes would often lead to gang wars. This is what we are witnessing in Lyari today.  

I think the columnists identify the responsibility of the state but stop short of apportioning the responsibility on the state institutions and fail to find the parallel to the rangeela shahi daur during the twilight of Mughal rule which was accompanied by such marauding hordes. Centralized decision making in the hands of the dictators destroyed the entire culture of distributed decision making at different tiers of the government. Now no one makes any decision any where. For all decisions, they look at the center. Just recall the paralysis of the administration as exemplified by the Sikandar episode near the Red Zone in Islamabad. One man was able to command the attention of the entire nation and hold it hostage for more than five hours, prompting and forcing a courageous Zamurrad Khan to take law into his own hands and act.

When the state fails to perform, the vacum left has to be filled by someone, anyone who has the courage can fill it and will fill it. The result is the destruction of the writ of the state and the emergence of the “rangeela shahi daur” of today where the hordes of Nadir Shah Afghan and Durrani resemble the talibans,  marahttas are the gangs, rohillas are the mafias, and subedars are the agencies and government institutions. All states unto themselves. Whither the writ of the state?


[1]  SC assails NAB chief’s powers to let accused go off scot-free

See Also other posts on Pakistan History 101: 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *