LOCAL government (LG) bodies were reintroduced in Sindh in 2016 after a gap of nearly six years. Well-designed LG systems help in improving the quality of local services, empowering poor communities and reducing ethnic conflicts. The current Sindh LG system is the first one to be introduced by an elected regime, which may help ensure greater political ownership towards LGs.
The elections were laudably held on party basis and the act provides clear division of labour and line of authority to LGs in rural areas. But devolution to Sindh LG bodies must be increased further to help achieve better both the technocratic (improving local services) and political economy aims (empowering communities and reducing ethnic conflicts) of LGs.
Several gaps undermine the ability of Sindh LG bodies to properly meet the technocratic aim of improving local services’ quality. Many key LG functions have been reassigned to the province in the 2013 system — eg, police, major local development activities and buildings control — compared with the 2002 system. City development authorities have not been placed under elected LGs either.
The description of the functions of mayors/chairpersons and their authority over bureaucrats are vague. The ability of LGs to fill even junior positions has been curtailed by the province. The act authorises the province to take over any functions assigned to LGs and start an inquiry into the affairs of any LG council. These powers must be circumscribed to make them exceptional under defined situations.
Communities are not aware of LGs’ role.
A provincial finance commission is provided to allocate LG funds among districts. But the presence of opposition and LG officials in it is inadequate and it is still not fully functional. There is still a lot of ambiguity and overlap of financial powers between different tiers of LGs. The Sindh Local Government Act, 2013 doesn’t mandate immediate re-election for LGs within a stipulated period in case of completion of term or early dissolution. Given past delays in holding LG elections, the act must mandate elections within 90 days. The term of LG bodies must also be increased from four to five years. Taluka councils are missing in the new system. It may be difficult for the district council to deal directly with so many rural union councils spread all over. Local councillors lack offices, training and job descriptions.
The Sindh system also misses a chance to meet the political economy aim of reducing rural-urban ethnic gripes. The powers of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) seem extremely limited for Sindh’s biggest LG body. Many key LG functions do not fall under its purview, eg, health, education, environment, overall development, security etc. The main functions included under its domain — eg, control of stray animals and cattle colonies — seem trivial for it.
The powers assigned to KMC seem grossly inadequate compared with not just similar cities nationally (Lahore) and globally but even smaller cities in Sindh. Karachi has been divided into six districts each having a district municipal council (DMC) and union councils (UC). This makes sense given Karachi’s size and ethnic diversity. But the six DMCs are made almost autonomous with little linkage with the KMC. Army cantonment areas in Karachi have their own separate LG structures which create multiple and confusing jurisdictions and further reduce KMC powers.
The list of taxes assigned to the KMC is much shorter than those assigned to other LG bodies despite it being the biggest LG body in Sindh. A properly designed LG system for Karachi could help in tamping down the demands for a separate province there.
Finally, the Sindh LG system also suffers from gaps which undermine its ability to fully meet the political economy of empowering communities. Political parties have often not nominated persons from marginalised groups in the 2016 polls and affluent candidates have often captured even seats reserved for low-income persons. The act does not mandate organisations below UCs which could represent natural communities.
Community-level groups can help mobilise poor communities and apply strong upward accountability pressures on the UC and higher LG structures. Katchi abadis and villages house the majority of the population of major cities but get much lower levels of municipal services. It is important such areas are allocated adequate funds. Low-income communities are not very well aware of the functions and domains of the new LGs, and awareness-raising must be undertaken in these communities.
Thus, the Sindh system needs major changes to better achieve not just the broader political economy goals of restructuring of empowering weaker classes and reducing conflicts but even the less ambitious technocratic goals of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of local public services.
The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2017