Can Covid-19 trigger Pakistan’s digital revolution

Where the money goes
February 26, 2020
A letter from the aggrieved and the endangered
March 18, 2020

Can Corona trigger Pakistan’s digital revolution

Pandemic diseases are known to have reshaped politics, influenced social structures, demolished entrenched racial and economic patterns and altered the way societies live and function. Can COVID-19 be a catalyst for any such significant and startling change in Pakistan. Could Pakistan convert this inescapable catastrophic scenario into an opportunity for radically changing its archaic processes and bureaucratic governance?

The best thing about Coronavirus is its egalitarian character. The biggest boss and the lowest subordinate are just as vulnerable. Thus, the world has almost unanimously opted measures such as lockdowns, self-isolation, quarantines, cutting down on travel and avoiding all possible social and professional exposure. Working from home, skype conferences, online and distance learning, and payments and purchases using cards and cell phones are increasingly becoming the new mandatory norms.

 

Pakistan on the other hand has been caught off-guard and ill-prepared. Its colonial bureaucracy has worked hard to ensure that the country remains bogged down in age-old obsolete work processes. The government can neither imagine nor is equipped to work without its files, paper applications, CNIC photocopies, affidavits, notary publics, irrelevant forms and attestations. An army of clerks, Naib Qasids, steno typists, peons, office assistants, PAs and SAs run the actual show. The bureaucrats, in the sketchy hours that they spend in their offices, largely stay glued to the large screen TVs purchased at tax payers’ expense.

The state and the citizens seem to be wedded in a captive slave-like relationship. Citizens must bear the agony of long queues, hours of waiting, multiple visits and multilayered bribes to speed up even routine tasks. Corona may be a curse but could also be a blessing in disguise if it can dismantle this incompetent and obsolete system. Corona can force Pakistan to rapidly adopt a modern digital governance system that insulates its citizens from the tyranny of a broken down machinery.

Pakistan could immediately declare a digital emergency. Start with the motto, “No citizen shall be required to visit any government office for any service, permission, approval, license or to give or receive any payment”. The only three occasions a citizen must visit a government office is for biometrics at the time of receiving a CNIC, at the time of getting married and for sale or purchase of property. The next rule should dictate that no single piece of information once given to any government office shall be asked for or entered again by any other office of the state. Hence no one will ever need to submit a copy of CNIC, degree, marriage certificate, attestation or an affidavit to any office, if this information has once been already entered in any government record.

Start by preparing shared databases of all records. An information once entered in one database ought to be available to every authorized government department. These could be records of births and deaths, of children in and out of schools, of schools and teachers, of hospitals, doctors, medicines and diseases, of weapon licenses issued, of industries and services, of land and houses, of forests and trees and of solid waste, water and sanitation.

Over 9 million citizens could be immediately stopped from visiting hundreds of National Saving Centres to receive their monthly profits. Instead, the Saving Department must automatically transfer the profit to individuals’ accounts – a process on which the Saving Department has been reluctant and dragging its feet for the last 30 years. The same ought to be done for millions of pensioners and EOB recipients.

Over 7.5 million car owners who visit the Excise and Taxation Departments, often twice in a year, could be freed from this obsolete mechanism of payment. All taxes (motor vehicle and others) could be paid by citizens sitting at home and using their mobile phone money transfer systems – a norm in much of the western world.

Coronavirus is a calamity. It is also Pakistan’s biggest opportunity to make the great escape from its own atrophied bureaucratic processes and from years of poverty, disease, hunger and mis-governance. Let Pakistan’s finest professionals at home and abroad, come forward to accept this challenge.

Naeem Sadiq

Express Tribune

March 18, 2020