IMPROVEMENTS to local government systems in the provinces are essential to their future success, but reforms that are rushed through can often have unpredictable or negative consequences. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s interest in reforming the LG system in Punjab can ultimately be beneficial: while LGs are constitutionally a provincial subject, the PTI has experience of introducing a widely praised LG system in KP, is governing Punjab today and is part of the ruling coalition in Balochistan. As the current LG systems in Punjab and Sindh have demonstrated, vested political interests at the provincial tier can thwart the very purpose — ie a decentralisation of power to the tier where public services can best be delivered — of introducing LGs. Therefore, if the PTI national leadership plays a coordinating role between its governments in the provinces and engages the PPP setup in Sindh in good faith, there is a possibility that the public across the country could have access to effective LGs going forward.
Yet, if positive change is to be effected, the prime minister may need to demonstrate more patience and purposefulness. Demanding that the committee on local government deliver its proposals within 48 hours, as Mr Khan did in a meeting with the committee in Islamabad on Tuesday, is unlikely to lead to comprehensive solutions. Earlier, when the committee was formed at the start of September, it had been given one week to present its proposals. While the KP template for local government exists, Mr Khan has expressed a preference for even greater change. Proposals under consideration, according to media reports, include scrapping union councils in favour of village-level councils and holding direct elections at the tehsil and city government tiers. The prime minister’s democratising approach in the case of LGs may be right, but radical change needs to be carefully considered and implemented in a way that ensures longevity.
For example, just as Mr Khan today seeks to sweep away the evidently flawed LG system in Punjab, a future non-PTI government in Punjab may seek to undo the changes to be introduced by today’s rulers. If LG reforms are to be durable, the constitutional scheme ought to be respected and the provincial leaderships, both in government and opposition, given the space and time to present their ideas. The ruling PPP in Sindh, the opposition PML-N in Punjab and mainstream political parties in Balochistan should be approached for their input and proposals. While it was the Supreme Court that expedited the creation of LGs in the provinces, it was the national political leadership that mandated their creation in the first place in the 18th Amendment. Working with the provinces and the opposition may be slower than ruling by fiat, but the prime minister should not allow haste to come in the way of durable LG reforms.
Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2018