The institutional collapse of civilian institutions is grossly underestimated. The chain of command no longer exists in most government departments. Even able officers have been rendered ineffective. The unavailability of reliable record is the most widely-practised escape route by the unscrupulous who have now turned into all powerful ‘Mafias’. Only two institutions remain functional, the armed forces and to some extent the higher judiciary though it too has been affected by activism and militancy of the Black Coats after the ‘Lawyers Movement’ of 2007. In the recent valiant struggle against the pandemic, the importance of SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) has been highlighted and understood, combined with credible records, the performance of non-functional departments can be greatly enhanced thereby providing much needed relief to the public.

In his recent visit to Lahore the Prime Minister (PM) on hearing complaints against the bureaucracy, urged them to take decisions on merit. The importance of public welfare should also be enforced which is badly missing. Recently, I had the ordeal of facing the Settlement Department which is now a part of the Board of Revenue (BoR). For verification of documents, public hearings are held in the office of the Secretary. Mostly elderly people appear. It is usually an all-day affair. There is no waiting area or toilets etc. On seeing the plight of the people, I decided to bring the issue to the notice of the Chief Settlement Commissioner. Firstly, he did not have a clue about the facilities or the state of dilapidated record of the department. But he was kind enough to allow the use of his courtroom for the next hearing which had a seating area. I tried to use the toilet nearby, which I could not even enter, so I went to this office and complained. No official had ever been there or knew about its functionality as most officers have attached bathrooms.

Then came the records, which were mostly disorganised with unbound registers that had loose papers. I have never seen such an ill-kept record on the basis of which decisions are taken by the officers. As a child, I remember visiting the record room of the same department located on the top floor of the once majestic Faridkot House building. ‘Mumtaz Bola’ (Hard of hearing in Punjabi) was the record keeper. The entire records room was well organised and maintained. Movement of files was closely monitored and the contents regularly checked with page numbers and dates to ensure its credibility. ‘Bola’ was an interesting character but very conscious of his duties as most officers were at that time. My father always believed that he put up an act, in reality he was not hard of hearing. In order to avoid pressure and favouritism, he would insist on written requests instead of unrecorded verbal actions. By the time it was decided to wrap up the department and archive the record in 1975, I am sure ‘Bola’ would have retired. In 2014, by a masterstroke of the unscrupulous property grabbers, it was decided that all property records will have to be verified for any transactions to take place. Without audit or evaluation of the archived record, it was moved back to the department and declared functional and credible. Property owners are now required to get their documents verified from records that do not exist. I have suggested amendments to the 1975 Act together with a request for an independent professional audit of the available record before subjecting the public through this torture which has opened floodgates of corruption.

The first act of arson took place in the decade of the nineties when a PML-N rally burnt the entire record of the Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) office located in Kutchery Lahore. The DC of the time ran away without a fight to please his masters. The mob then turned towards the Lahore Municipal Corporation Record Room (LMC). The administrator, being an ex-soldier, defended his department. Firing took place, finally the mob dispersed and the vital record was saved. Today, the only credible record of the city is available there while almost all other record rooms have been burnt with LDA being the worst with repeated fires in their plaza.

Without credible record and effective SOPs, the state has lost its writ, Mafia’s run the show now. Records can be created and presented at will while the officers have to go along sheepishly without challenging the record keepers about its authenticity.

So the most convenient way forward is to work out a deal with the omnipotent ‘record keeper’ as he sets the tone of the case by presenting what de desires, the era of honest custodians like “Bola’s” is over. It is not just locating the relevant record, it is also its manipulation and misplacement if required. All this happens under the watchful gaze of the helpless state and its suffering subjects who are left at the mercy of these vicious mafia’s who exercise complete control of the record essentially required for decision making. In order to challenge the rule of the record keeper, I suggest a complete audit and review of all essential public records followed by their upgradation to restore their authenticity, storage and eventual digitisation. The crusade should start with a state-of-the-art records room at the PM and CM secretariats to set the tone.

Now that some can no longer burn records to suit their vested interests, its restoration is essentially required to restore the writ of the state. Without basic controls in place, effective governance is not possible. As Chairman of the Pakistan Science Foundation, when I was unable to access the files I wanted, I came to the conclusion that without ‘Bola’ nothing will move. So all files were taken away from individuals and put into the record room from where they could be retrieved after proper documentation and record of movement. Then the Chairman’s Secretariat had its separate record room with controlled accessibility and finally I kept my own record for off-time use if required. With three levels of record keeping, manipulation was almost impossible together with expeditious decision making. To develop SOPs, it was decided to seek ISO 9000 Quality Management Certification which was carried out. Individuals could no longer come in the way of flow of work, it was the system that prevailed and delivered. Credible records and effective SOPs can move us forward; what are we waiting for? Four decades (1977 to 2018) of mafia rule is enough, now they have to be contained through SOPs and credible records that they are unable to manipulate.