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Resistance to devolution

August 08, 2013

THE main issue in public debate these days is a remarkable unity among the provincial governments on curtailing the representative character of local government institutions and their powers. This poses a direct threat to the people’s right to democratic and efficient governance.

There is no need in 2013 to argue that the country’s democratic order cannot be considered complete without an adequately broad-based, representative and duly empowered local government system. A national consensus on this point was reached long ago. But as public pressure for effective local government has increased, the provincial authorities’ resolve to resist devolution of power to district and lower levels has also stiffened.

The present phase of discourse on local bodies began in 2010 when all the provincial governments scrapped the Musharraf scheme for a variety of reasons. They have since been struggling to devise new local government formulas. But instead of thinking up a framework in keeping with the wishes of the people and contemporary demands of governance at the local level, they have fallen for a cut-and-paste exercise on the 1979 law made by Ziaul Haq.

The Balochistan government adopted a slightly modified version of the 1979 law and so did Khyber Pakhtunkhwa though the latter is reported to be working on a new bill. Sindh has been toying with two drafts — one for the days when MQM is a coalition partner and the other when it is not. And Punjab is reconditioning the 1979 law. The preference for Zia’s handiwork is determined by the fact that it gives local governments less money and authority than the 2001 law.

Matters came to a head when the Supreme Court told the provincial governments to complete their legislative work by Aug 15 so that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) could hold local government elections in September.

The ECP now says elections cannot be held earlier than 90 days after legislative work has been completed. While the ECP may have some justification for asking for time to hold elections there is none for the provincial governments to drag their feet. They have had three years to make up their minds.

An opportunity for a wide-ranging debate on local government was created when the Punjab government introduced a new bill in the provincial assembly.

A healthy feature of this debate is the enthusiasm shown by civil society organisations in offering detailed critiques of the bill and the authorities’ willingness to listen to them. This is good but is unlikely to go far enough because the provinces’ hostility towards an effective local government system is not easy to overcome.

However, a framework for proper local government institutions has been made available to the people and the criteria for assessing the Punjab bill can be applied to the plans of other provinces too. Civil society organisations have urged the Punjab government to respect in letter and spirit Article 140(a) of the Constitution that obliges it to establish by law “a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility to the elected representatives of local governments.” (Emphasis added). The present bill is in breach of this article as the provincial government retains control over local governments in several areas.

A common civil society demand is that local government elections should be held on a party basis. The Punjab draft does not pledge this.

In view of the PML-N’s strong faith in the Charter of Democracy of 2006 the Punjab government has been reminded of Article 10 of the document which says: “Local bodies’ election will be held on a party basis through provincial election commissions in the respective provinces and constitutional protection will be given to the local bodies to make them autonomous and answerable to their respective assemblies as well as to the people through regular courts of law.”

(A subsequent article of the charter says local government elections will be held within three months of the holding of the general elections.)

Some of the main objections to the Punjab bill raised by civil society are: the membership of the union council is too small to facilitate efficiency; the seats for women, labour and minorities have been reduced as compared to the 2001 level; key offices are to be filled through indirect election; the move for separate district authorities for education and health violates the elected local governments’ rights; the office-bearers should be accountable only to their assemblies; the principle of devolution of power, administrative as well as financial, has been breached.

These are weighty objections and failure to meet them fairly will invite the provincial government’s indictment for bad faith and unwillingness to accept the system of local government in its true spirit.

It seems necessary to stop looking for options within the laws of 1979 and 2001 and view local government as a political imperative and not as something for bureaucrats’ jugglery with instruments of governance.

The objective must be to create a local government system that will contribute to democratic structures at the higher levels. Democratically structured and responsible local governments should broaden the base of state authority, empower local communities, and strengthen the state’s protection against extra-constitutional inroads.

They are also nurseries for training future leaders but they cannot perform this vital function if those elected to these bodies are not offered adequate autonomy.

Local assemblies are mini-parliaments and their members must know how to reconcile loyalty to their institution with allegiance to their parties. They will offer quality material for leadership only if they learn to deal with people’s concerns through local governments that have adequate powers and material resources and are accountable only to their electors.