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KARACHI: A strong local government can focus on conflict resolution as it can redress grievances of various communities, but the present system in Sindh allows bureaucrats to have more power than elected local representatives.

These views were expressed by Dr Niaz Murtaza, executive director of Progressive Ideas to Re-Inform Governance Pakistan (Inspiring Pakistan), at the launch of a research report titled ‘Undermining Local Governance: A Review of the Sindh Local Government (LG) System, 2013” on Tuesday. The programme was jointly organised by Inspiring Pakistan and the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) at PMA House.

The report has been prepared by Dr Murtaza and Dr Saeed Ahmed Rid of Quaid-i-Azam University.

Dr Murtaza said that local governments were like nurseries for making good politicians, but the present local government system in Sindh has many flaws.

Bureaucrats seem to be more powerful than the mayor, say experts

“Historically, local governments in Pakistan and Sindh have always been introduced by military governments, which are absent during elected governments. The system introduced by General Musharraf was controlled by the federal government with little involvement of provincial governments, which has led to many grievances, especially in Sindh, where there is a bigger ethnic situation,” he said.

However, he said, the tenure of the current local government system in Sindh needed extension to five years instead of the present four years.

The research study, which was conducted in Karachi and Shikarpur, reveals that many key functions have been reassigned to the province in the 2013 LG system such as police, major local development activities and buildings control. “City development authorities have not been placed under the elected LGs,” he pointed out.

“The powers of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation seem limited, vague and undefined as they are expected to control the population of stray dogs, supervise cattle colonies and brick kilns, which seem trivial for it; we are speaking about the local body here,” he said, adding that the KMC should have a clear line of authority because the way things were, the bureaucrats seem to be more powerful than the mayor and chairpersons.

Time frame for LG polls

He also observed that neither the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 nor Pakistan’s Constitution mandate immediate re-elections for the local bodies within a stipulated period in case of completion of term or early dissolution. Therefore, the act must be modified to mandate holding of LG elections within 90 days, he said.

For small towns, he pointed out, there was a single-tiered system in place, which appeared problematic. “Towns with up to 50,000 persons may need help from a higher LG authority to undertake complex tasks while towns with up to 300,000 persons may need union committees,” he said. “This issue too should be revisited with the active participation of key stakeholders before the next elections based on the performance of the current system,” he added.

“The army-controlled cantonment areas in Karachi and elsewhere have their own separate LG structures, which create multiple and confusing jurisdictions. Such areas should be brought under the supervision of the relevant city municipal authority,” he said.

Marginalised groups

He also observed that political parties have often not nominated persons from marginalised groups. “In the 2016 elections, affluent candidates captured seats reserved for low-income persons. The election application process must be reviewed to end elite capture of reserved seats. Political parties are encouraged to nominate more persons from marginalised groups,” he said.

Senior economist Dr Kaiser Bengali said improvement of service delivery system was not the main objective of making Sindh local government system effective. “The whole fight is over control and power. Award of contracts and jobs [are] the main considerations of control over the local government system,” he said.

‘LGs virtually dead’

“LGs are virtually dead in Sindh and Punjab,” he said pointing to the Punjab government that encourages establishing new companies for local government services instead of providing powers to the local bodies. “And Sindh copies Punjab. But you have to have unified municipal services in the country,” he stressed.

“Since we don’t have a homogeneous population in Sindh we have witnessed discriminatory spending of public funds in the local government system,” he said, adding that during the former LG system of Gen Musharraf Karachi’s city district government did not spend even one per cent on localities where the Sindhis or Pakhtuns were in majority. “The political parties are exploiting their ethnic communities instead of serving them,” he said.

He further said that the elimination of the taluka system from Sindh’s local governance system was needed because in the previous system there was an overlapping of functions.

“Provincial Finance Commission is a violation of the logic for making such a body as the majority of its members are bureaucrats. Major taxes are kept by the provincial government whereas local governments do not have the authority to collect taxes,” he said.

Piler’s executive director Karamat Ali said that in Gen Musharraf’s system there was no free and fair elections of local governments. “All the elections were engineered,” he said. Giving the example of the election of nazims, he said that in Karachi the name for nazim was decided much before the elections.

“We need to make a model local government system,” he said, adding that the present one was derived from the colonial system.

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2017