Mahalla System in Uzbekistan: Lessons for Pakistan

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By Muhammad Asif Noor

Uzbekistan is a blend of modernity with traditions and the country for the past several years has continued to make remarkable progress in all the spheres while keeping its roots with glorious past, traditional value system and remarkable vision for the brightest future. One of the important pillars of Uzbekistan’s peace, stability and prosperity is its local indigenous self-governing bodies where Mahalla system provided the strength that Uzbek’s social and political structure has acquired over the years. Quite recently, the incumbent President of Uzbekistan H.E Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has put forward the significance of the Mahallas ( equivalent to Mohallah)  in enhancing not only the legal culture, fabric of the society but also improve the sense of law amongst the citizens to respect and follow. The Mahalla has also act as a window of justice and place where people can express their problems and resolve the conflicts. Hence the state of Uzbekistan put values to the Mahalla or informal self-governing bodies. In February 2017, there was a presidential decree issued wherein the further improvement of the Mahalla system. In order to achieve the objectives several steps have been taken up by the state to strengthen the system of the self-governing bodies of Mahallas and other related traditional models. The modern Mahalla are anticipated like that of the genuine school of democracy and is meant to be work as one family. It is meant to spread the message of peace, harmony and cohesion amongst the citizens. The system also promotes the importance of the independence and development of the nation and well-being of its people.

While we are discussing the values and effectiveness of the self-governing bodies, we also need to carefully evaluate that if our system of the governance is having the following essential and necessary requisites and elements which are meant to provide high-ranked and admirable governance for the countries. These are as follows: balanced decision-making in terms of political policies,  strengthening in economic resources, clear transparency , adequate and disciplined practices of the rules and laws , active and sovereign judiciary , legitimate and authorized ascendency, developed and organized institutional organizations , societal certainty and security, equality in distribution of capital and funds , well-organized and systematized executive ranking , freedom of expression, speech and liberty of media , well constructed and well balanced democracy , protection of humanitarian rights ,  public engagement and association in decision-making process, stability in international political-economy in a sense that the country must have inclusive for rapid political and economic growth. In my opinion if these are fulfilled then, we can safely put forward that the country is on the path of the good governance and thriving democracy.

Uzbekistan after the twenty seven years of independence is looking for a reformed and innovative social order for finding the perfect ways to integrate old traditions, Islam and modernity. Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s geopolitical centre of gravity wherein the country borders all the four Central Asian States and Afghanistan. Since the country’s independence in 1990, several new foundations were developed to dismantle the old administrative systems in order to pave the way for the Uzbek state based on the democratic principles of inclusiveness. After the adaptation of the new constitution, the system of the local governance has also been established in 1993 where the role of Mahallas has finally been recognized. The community self government structures were existed throughout the country and there was a need for the principle of the decentralization and sharing of the power of the authority amongst the territorial units including villages, kishlaks, and Mahallas. Mahallas represents the socio, cultural and spiritual entity as well as administrative support that help the governance easy. The word mahalla, a collective noun of Arabic origin, means “city neighborhood” in Uzbek, but when used in its adjectival form it simply means “local.” The self governing structure has always received powerful support at the State level of Uzbekistan and especially during the early stages of independence of the country.  During the Soviet times, these self governing bodies were co existing with the other formal government bodies as well. But today this has assumed the functions of the local government and has been mainstreamed in the constitutions.

Mahalla is an ancient unique civil society institution and powerful structure of the Uzbekistan to keep the national fabric intact. The modern mahalla can trace its origins to the large urban centres that existed in Central Asia well before Ghengis Khan in the 13th Century. Many of them specialized in specific trades such as metalworking, music, or food production.  The role of Mahallas has remained invaluable in promoting and preserving the culture and providing ample choices for stability and improving the participation of the citizens in nation building process. This has been preserved and passed down for generations. Mahalla is a legitimized structure according to the law in 1993 while the the whole country is divided into an estimated 10,000 Mahalla varying population sizes however there are 2,000 an average persons in one mahalla structure. The Mahalla is meant to improve the solidarity at the societal levels and keep the norms and values intact. Members of the community provide social services, support to elderly, intervention in the cases of domestic violence and discourage divorce, resolution of the disputes of various types, and help in the improvement of the employment. This self governing structure has remained as a social welfare assistance mechanism that has been adopted by the people since ancient times.

It is important to note that as traditional models of self governing have remained as an important part of the Uzbekistan’s way towards progression and inclusive democracy, these structures provided a solid base for the governance and democratic tradition building in the country. Uzbekistan has taken several steps towards the establishment of the democratic structures and including the Oliy Majlis and organizing elections across the country with free and fair representations. The emergence of political parties and their presence represents the inclusiveness of the society rather than a divided political spectrum. The role of the self governing structures including Mahallas remained important in promoting the stability and conflict resolutions structures at the grass roots level. These structures has also help established the democratic practices and presence of the voices of the people from the grass roots level.

A local proverb goes like this that in all the other parts of the world light descend upon earth.  From holy Samarkand and Bukhara, it ascends and  reflect the  great knowledge and cultural history of the region and the people whose geniuses and intelligence shines out of the other geographical regions of the world. One cannot agree more with the James Elroy Flecker, Hassan, 1913, who was once quoted as saying  “For lust of knowing what should not be known,  we take the golden road to Samarkand.”  The multicultural architecture of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva demonstrate the ancient and varied nature of the country’s historical heritage. This beautiful blend of history and modernity has led Uzbekistan to become a powerful regional country with its strong and focused eyes on the future. The visionary leadership of Uzbekistan has put tremendous amount of attention towards the building up of the local value systems and providing the empowerment to the citizens and civil society. One of the finest parts of the government is that they have not established and ventured out new institutions but put value to their traditional structures and visualize empowering and providing strength to these with modernity and technology.

The traditional models that are existing in Pakistan too like that of Panchayat and Jirga however, the systems have yet been able to be part of the main stream political structures and transitions in Pakistan. People value these structures more than any other structures. The incumbent government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is working on the swift basis to establish the local government systems and work on their revivalism. We have so much to learn from the brotherly Uzbekistan and its systems in this regard. We must acknowledge that the good governance facilitates in bringing essential framework within which poverty alleviation and broad based economic growth that can be effectively observed. It describes the competent management of resources and affairs in a manner that is open, also responsive to people’s needs and problems. To empower local self-governments is the first step for attaining the status of good governance and efficient institutions which can put in place policies by delivering to common masses. It is also equally important to build on the earlier structures and strengthen them rather then start a fresh as the government of Uzbekistan is working on.  From this grass-root level, stronger political centre would come in its place and economic development would lead with better sharing of the benefits of increased prosperity among society.

– The writer is Director Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies and Secretary General Pakistan Shanghai Cooperation Organization Friendship Forum