Cloning the PTI’s local bodies model

Updated 27 Aug 2018


THE initiative taken by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in Punjab to introduce “a new model” of local bodies where “people make decisions according to their needs” indicates the party’s keenness to replicate Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s model of governance.

A PTI delegation led by Jahangir Tareen had called on the Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi some weeks back to discuss problems the province is facing. The two coalition partners agreed on developing a new local government model.

The support of the speaker, a seasoned Punjab politician, will be required to help manage smooth passage of the amendments to the existing local body law in the provincial assembly. The PTI claims its party-run KP was the only province to devolve power to the village level. And 30 per cent of the provincial annual development plan fund was allocated for the local governments.

Currently, under the provincial finance commissions’ awards, according to an authentic estimate, the local governments’ share is close to 40pc of the allocable pool that accounts for 13pc of the public spending.

The government’s accountability to local communities and marginal social groups increases by assigning service delivery functions to politicians who are closer to the people

However, the PTI’s move to strengthen the local government appears to fall short of the provisions of the 1973 Constitution. Fiscal experts Dr Ikramul Haq and Huzaima Bukhari point out that Article 140A of the Constitution stipulates that “decision-making power should be with the elected local governments”.

They argue that without “devolution of political, administrative and financial powers” to the local governments, the mandate of the 1973 Constitutional will not be fulfilled. They also stress that decentralisation is the key to democratisation of institutions.

The World Bank Development Report 2004 says the government’s accountability to local communities and marginal social groups increases by assigning service delivery functions to politicians who are closer to the people, and making them electorally accountable.

The Musharraf regime had replaced commissioners, deputy commissioners and assistant commissioners by district coordination officers who were responsible to the elected district nazims. Both at the federal as well as the provincial level there has been a tendency to centralise power and authority.

The Musharraf reforms brought the local bodies under the control of the central government and, to quote a retired civil servant, “the district/local councils were not financially empowered which weakened their ability to manage their restricted spending mandate.” The octroi and zila taxes collected by local bodies in Sindh were abolished and the province was compensated by an amount equivalent to 0.66pc of its share in the national finance commission’s divisible pool.

Over 90pc of the local bodies’ expenditure is financed by the provincial government through fiscal transfers. The PTI however claims that its previous provincial government in KP during its five-year tenure had increased the revenue of municipal bodies by 85pc.

Except in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where 12 departments such as education, health, drinking water, sanitation, etc were devolved, Dr Ishrat Husain says “the local bodies system has been replaced by a highly centralised system in which the provincial governments (other than that of KP) enjoy enormous power, resources and discretion.”

Known for his strong views on institutional reforms for democratic governance, Dr Husain has been appointed as advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan on Institutional Reforms and Austerity.

To remove this “structural deformity,” he recommends that “other province ought to devolve power, authority and finance to the district governments.” Surveys and studies reveal that “more interaction between ordinary citizens and government functionaries takes place at the local level.”

The PTI has pledged to devolve small infrastructure initiatives to village councils by transferring resources for decision-making power to the people by “scaling out the successful KP model across Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan.”

Theoretically, many policymakers tend to agree on the role of local bodies and local communities in the socio-economic uplift of the masses, but somehow their governance practices tend to differ from the stated principles and commitments.

In his budget 2017-18 speech, the Chief Minister of Sindh Murad Ali Shah told the provincial assembly that the PPP leadership is aware that “societies can only progress if they are provided with a robust local government system.” To move in that direction, he had revealed that a proposal was being considered to devolve urban immovable property tax collected by the province to the local governments.

He had then argued that “devolution of tax collection at the appropriate level increases efficiency and transparency.” He also expressed dissatisfaction with a paltry collection of Rs2 billion from property tax that he considered was much below its potential.

There is a school of thought that authority and responsibility among the three tiers of government — the federation, provinces and district setups — should be redefined. The responsibilities which can be managed at the district level — projects, tax collection, etc — should be kept out of the jurisdiction of the provincial governments.

And the federation should not duplicate responsibilities that can be more efficiently handled by sub-federations. To improve efficiency and accountability, the three tiers of government may also be subjected to a system of mutual institutional accountability.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 27th, 2018