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Analysis: Limits of devolution

Updated June 30, 2015

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The number of objections raised will also serve as an indirect indicator of the level of interest the stakeholders show in these elections. ─ AFP/File
The number of objections raised will also serve as an indirect indicator of the level of interest the stakeholders show in these elections. ─ AFP/File

THE Election Commission in Punjab has completed the initial task of delimiting constituencies for the local government elections, planned to be held in September. The ECP will receive objections and adjudicate upon them, finalising the exercise by the end of next month. The next task will be to collate voters’ lists in each of these rather tiny geographical areas. It will then be in a position to announce the schedule of ‘the festival’.

The earlier effort of delimitation had become highly controversial as the Punjab Local Government Act, 2013 authorised the government to undertake the exercise. But all opposition parties refused to accept the proposals prepared by district administrators working directly under the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government. This was challenged and overturned in court. A subsequent amendment in the act vested the authority back to the ECP.

The ECP has put the preliminary delimitation proposals on display inviting objections till July 5. There are indications that these may not kick up a storm like the one witnessed a year ago as the new boundaries are more or less in line with those set for the local elections in retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s period and are generally accepted by the stakeholders. This, however, will be clearer only after the expiry of the date for filing objections.

The number of objections raised will also serve as an indirect indicator of the level of interest the stakeholders show in these elections.

These elections and the system that they propose to institute disappointingly offer nothing in terms of devolution of power. The Punjab Local Government Act makes a sorry read. The only conclusion an advocate of devolution can draw is that the ruling party in Punjab is not ready to give even an inch of the turf it presently occupies.

The act gives no concrete powers to even mayors of the metropolitan corporations. The description of their jobs avoids using terms like ‘powers of’ the mayor and has assigned them the role ‘to provide vision for long-term development’, ‘identify the needs’, ‘recommend strategies’, ‘review the performance’. This toothless advisory role too is topped by inserting a non-elected chief officer who is responsible for every practical aspect of the functioning of the local government.

The local government cadre — chief officers being its part — will be governed by a Local Government Board which will be an independent corporate body with secretary of local government department working as its chairman. The board will have a free hand to deal with all matters related to local government employees including appointments, transfers and postings, and disciplinary matters.

So as the mayors sit pretty on their easy chairs, all the municipal employees — and matters — will be remote-controlled by the board from Lahore.

The act has also taken away the all-important subjects of health and education from the jurisdiction of local governments. It prescribes setting up of a health and an education authority in each district, again headed by a government-appointed official, who will be responsible for all matters concerning these sectors starting from ‘constituting school management councils’ to ‘developing linkages between private and public health sectors’. There is no involvement of an elected local representative at any level.

Then there is a Local Government Commission comprising provincial bureaucracy and members of the Punjab Assembly that will police the local governments. Its powers include conducting ‘special inspections’, investigating any matter of local governments and recommending suspension of or any other action against an elected mayor etc. The same commission will also be responsible for organising ‘consultative meetings’ between national and provincial legislators and mayors on annual development plans among other things.

The Transitional Provisions (Chapter XX) also provide the provincial government space to delay handing over a subject to an elected local government for unspecified time and continue with the present arrangement of rule by bureaucrats.

And last but not least though the local bodies have been awarded tenure of five years, Article 126 empowers the provincial government to dissolve them prematurely before the elections to the National and Punjab Assemblies.

All of this translates into a massive electoral festival giving birth to completely powerless local bodies with a lifespan most probably ending before the PML-N faces the 2018 electoral challenge. So what’s in it for any political actor?

The original act wanted these elections to be party-less but the hue and cry raised by the opposition and the subsequent court interventions made the government reverse it. The only significance of these elections now will be their potential impact on the existing power equation in the province. Will the new popular verdict strengthen it or weaken it?

Probably, the more relevant question is whether the opposition parties will find it worth the effort? Their response to the now on-display delimitation proposals will not only provide a hint to that, it will also set the pitch for the upcoming contest.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2015

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