The world has shut down. Everything from the once buzzing Times Square of New York, to the vibrant Oxford and Piccadilly circus of London are now deserted. Leaders, including in Pakistan, have started urging people to practice social distancing in an attempt to flatten the pandemic’s stern curve.

Alarmed, states around the globe scramble to use their institutions optimally to devise strategies to equitably balance the conflict between stopping the spread of this disease and defending the already battered economy. In this context, there could hardly be a starker image of under-utilising public institutions than the initiative of the federal government in forming a team of volunteers under the name of the Corona Relief Tigers. The objective, to lead the fight against the novel virus by “delivering food/ration supplies to the vulnerable and also to identify hoarders”. While the voluntary support of the civil society in times of an emergency is an honourable act, an official policy imploring the civil society to shoulder the burdens of the executive by handling its administrative obligations unavoidably hints to its unsystematic response to the pandemic.

Food rations will not be in unlimited in supply thus, choices as to who is eligible for state-sponsored supplies will be imperative. Local knowledge and understanding of the community would be indispensable to distribute in different localities. Unless a volunteer of the same locality distributes the supplies, no other volunteer will be privy to the data concerning the destitute in that locality. As a result of this, the entire exercise of delivering supplies to the deserving in the locality will be laden with doubts as to its efficiency. This initiative must be composed of individuals not only from all Union Councils as they were under the old Punjab Local Government Act, 2013 but also from all the villages within that Union Council. Ensuring this number of volunteers are registered is not a small feat. Consider this example:

In District Rawalpindi, there are six Tehsils, namely, Rawalpindi, Kahuta, Gujar Khan, Kotli Sattian, Kallar Syedan, Murree and Taxila with a total population of over 5 million. If the government was planning to distribute supplies to the vulnerable only in the Murree Tehsil, it would have to cater to a population of over 230,000 people living in 14 Union Councils consisting of many villages within them. In this context, Darya Gali is just one such Union Council which embodies 4 different villages located miles apart. Even within the same Union Council, people of different villages will not have in-depth knowledge about the social status of the people living within that Union Council. Thus to aptly understand the social dynamics of the people so as to ascertain the truly vulnerable, the government’s youth force would have to have at least 4 trained volunteers from those villages within that Union Council. Numerically, that would be over 50 people to properly carry out this exercise in Murree alone. This number would on average widen to over 250 volunteers to represent the entire Rawalpindi District. Clearly, expecting such a number from a single district appears to be a difficult task.

Notwithstanding the administrative challenges, the name of the volunteer force also has a political connotation to it. It may appear to potential participants that they will be seen as ardent supporters of the incumbent Tehreek-i-Insaaf. While this might be a strong incentive for many of the government’s supporters, it risks alienating a wide segment of the youth who but for this impression, might have volunteered.

As highlighted by the honourable High Courts and the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan in various cases, a robust local government system is indispensable for retaining trust and confidence of the local community in our democracy. Truly, as the representatives are directly elected by the locals, they are more accountable and enjoy a greater moral legitimacy amongst the local population. Such legitimacy may seldom be enjoyed by the youth team in a particular community, in particular rural communities.

Were it not for the stroke of the judicial pen, there would not be any local government elections in the past. As I recall, Lord Sumption remarked that “wars are the great tests of our institutions”. Therefore, rather than handing over administrative delegation to the inefficient, untrained and unaccountable Relief Tigers, the government ought to restore the local governments to allow them to deliver on the mandate of the communities that had voted them in office.