For most liberal and democratic folks in the country, 19 April 2010 had a special meaning. It was on this day that then-President Asif Ali Zardari signed the 18th Constitutional Amendment Bill that had far reaching legal and administrative impacts.
Among many changes, the Amendment empowered the provinces to a significant extent in financial and administrative terms. For many, it was synonymous to restoring the federation to its desired form.
It was also believed that once the provinces acquire greater financial autonomy, the devolution shall continue down to the tier of local government. Article 140A was inserted in the Constitution under the 18th Amendment that allowed political, administrative and financial authority to be devolved to the representatives of the local governments.
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Sadly, the provinces did not show the desired level of maturity in distributing the powers and resources to municipal level. Holding local bodies elections was not considered a priority.
It was under the Supreme Court’s orders that elections to local councils were held during 2014-15. While elected councils are in place, negligible powers and resources now lie at municipal disposal. The case of Karachi deserves a special mention here due to some extraordinary characteristics of the metropolis.
Karachi comprises six administrative districts. If one holds the 2017 census results to be valid, the city possesses 16.5 million inhabitants, which is about a third of Sindh’s population.
This means that Karachi accounts for 8 per cent of total national and 20pc of national urban population. The metropolis contributes 15pc of Pakistan’s gross domestic product, 25pc of federal revenue, 50pc of bank deposits and 68pc of issued capital.
It comprises inhabitants from almost everywhere in the country and many other parts of the region. As Pakistan's largest and most developed city, Karachi merits an extraordinary governance arrangement, especially after the 18th Amendment.
It is, however, interesting to note that Karachi has seldom enjoyed political harmony with the rest of Sindh. For instance, in the 1970 general election, most of Karachi’s seats were won by opposition parties including the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat-i-Ulema Pakistan while Sindh was ruled by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
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Election results in 1977 showed the same trend, with the PPP winning with significant margins everywhere in the province except Karachi. Nine out of 11 seats in the National Assembly were won by the Pakistan National Alliance (coalition of main opposition parties).
Later, after the meteoric rise of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the city voted for them in overwhelming numbers in successive elections. Even when the MQM was pressured to keep away from elections in some instances, the PPP or any other mainstream party never succeeded in winning the majority of the votes in Karachi.
It was only in 2018 that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf rose to prominence with smaller number of seats going to the MQM.
For a very long time, the provincial government has successfully attempted to outfox the parties and leaders who won the elections and represented Karachi in national and provincial legislatures. The Sindh government has always ensured that key affairs related to Karachi’s management remain under its tight control.
Let’s review matters related to the built environment. The Sindh High Density Board Act of 2010 empowered the provincial government to assign fresh zoning to any designated parcel of land or adjust the floor area ratio of existing buildings. As a consequence, there are many tall buildings that can be found replacing the smaller structures purely due to commercial gains.
Those familiar with the covert wheeling-and-dealing that is done to strike deals between the government functionaries, builders, developers and investors for realising such lucrative deals can make near accurate estimates about monetary gains by each in this sure marriage of convenience.
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Dozens of bungalows and low-rise buildings in Serai Quarters, Bath Island and other high-end locations are being replaced by tall structures. Many sleeping building permits have already been issued to various builders and developers, under the tutelage of their political cronies, who wait for the opportune time to convert these permits into reality.
This entire enterprise is under provincial control with no link to local government in any respect.
The functions and responsibilities of development control, building construction management and urban planning for the city are also converged under the Sindh Building Control Authority.
Similarly, for years the management and control of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) has been under the local government department of the Sindh government.
The efforts of various national and international agencies to reform the vital water utility have failed to materialise due to indifference of the provincial authorities.
While the KWSB is a financially weak organisation, Karachi’s water sector is a lucrative enterprise for sure. According to some estimates, water worth Rs57 billion is stolen annually in Karachi.
To completely take away the onus of any municipal performance from the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and other tiers of local government, the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board Act was passed in 2014.
This shifted responsibility for street cleaning, garbage removal and solid waste management from municipal agencies to the newly-created provincial entity.
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The board had been delivering these services through private contractors in four out of six districts in the metropolis. Its performance has been less than desirable.
The Supreme Court-mandated commission on water and sanitation issues in March 2017 came down hard on the board and even recommended its dismantling.
Similarly, transport, health, education, environment and housing are some of the other sectors where the provincial government reigns supreme. It is another story that the overall performance of none of these sectors matches the desired level.
Several reasons can be found for this complete disconnect between the Sindh and local governments.
The chequered relationship between the PPP and the MQM (and now the PTI) is a cause of concern. It appears that the Sindh government is suspicious of the behind-the-scene links or influence of the establishment on these two parties.
It seems to jealously guard all legal and administrative privileges to bolster its bargaining position in any political negotiation. Its adversaries point out that PPP’s hold over these sectors is only for rent-seeking.
The second major issue is the limited capacity among the municipal ranks. For more than a decade, the MQM is alleged to have made thousands of political appointments in the lower and middle ranks of the various institutions under their control, which has weakened these institutions.
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There is a definite need to have a working dialogue and consensus on translating the benefits of 18th Amendment-led devolution to the local level. This can only happen when the federal government takes the lead and engages the Sindh government in an open dialogue.
With the MQM part of the federal coalition, a broad dialogue on matters related to power and responsibility sharing can prove effective. Without compromising on the stand that Karachi is an integral entity of Sindh, the provincial government can be made to share power and resources with the lower tier under the broad contours of Article 140A of the Constitution.
But to move ahead on this, genuine political skills and viable actions are required.
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