Some in Pakistan Wary of 'Service' Committees

Premier set up groups to hear public grievances last month. Critics say his real aim is to widen his power.

After finishing his job as a waiter at one of Karachi's five-star hotels, Lawrence William returns home every night to what he describes as an "empty place."

Mr. William's house is in a blue-collar neighborhood where the crime rate is among the highest in this southern port city of 12 million people. On March 10, it was robbed. Masked gunmen took nearly $10,000 worth of jewelry that belonged to William's two sisters, his mother, his wife, and the wives of four other brothers who share the house. Family members hold little hope that the gunmen will be caught, or that they can rebuild their fortune, given their low-paid jobs.

As he sits in his empty house, William expresses little confidence in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's latest crime-fighting initiative: setting up neighborhood committees across Pakistan.

"I am not convinced that these committees alone can solve problems such as lawlessness. To fight something like crime, we need to see improvements in police efficiency and an end to problems like widespread corruption in policy," he says.

Mr. Sharif announced plans last month to establish 500 Khidmat (service) committees to take complaints from the public and intervene in problems related to most government departments. The bulk of the complaints are expected to be against municipal authorities, police, and public utilities. Pakistan suffers from poor local government, a corrupt police force, and a broken-down electrical grid. Getting a connection for electricity or gas, or getting a home-building plan approved can often only be accomplished by bribing low-level officials.

"I have seldom dealt with a case when a client of mine has had his home-building plan approved without paying a bribe or getting an influential person like a politician or a bureaucrat to use their influence," says an architect based in Islamabad, who asked that his name not be used.

"Many municipal officials take bribes because they are poorly paid and because it's very difficult to meet your family's expenses with salaries starting at 3,000 rupees [US $65] a month," adds an Islamabad municipal clerk, who also spoke anonymously.

The initiative is driven by Sharif's apparent impatience over the failure of his government to deal with popular concerns after being in office more than a year.

But critics have denounced the the government-appointed Khidmat committees as a move to widen the presence of supporters of Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League in individual neighborhoods. Nasim Zehra, a nationally syndicated columnist, says the committees "represent a proclivity to seek more powers rather than deal with real issues."

Retired Maj. Gen. Sikandar Hayat Khan, one of the two officials assigned by Sharif to supervise the committees, says their role is only to tighten the grip on corrupt officials by "closely watching and monitoring their performance."

With the long, hot summer approaching, the city's poorest neighborhoods are bracing for days without water and electricity, the consequence of breakdowns in the supply system.

Faiz Malik, a committee member in Rawalpindi, a suburb of Islamabad, says that the summer months will be "the first test case for the committees, and we are going to try our best to solve the problems."

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