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Local methods

April 12, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

DURING his latest visit to Lahore on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan approved a new local government system for the province. The new system that will be brought in by an act of the Punjab Assembly by the end of May, “aims at...meaningful devolution of political, administrative and financial authority...” Needless to say, the invention will bring to an end the local government system that was created after a prolonged delay by the last PML-N government and which now exists in the province just on paper, and with no power or assignment.

A report in this paper by Mansoor Malik highlights the government effort to create smaller, lower grass-roots units with easier access to people as compared to the previous system, which was also justified for its closeness to where ordinary Pakistanis live in both urban and rural areas.

The scheme will quickly take over the reins from the local governments gifted by the PML-N rulers. Administrators will take over after the promulgation of the act planned for next month. These administrators will be there, if and where they are needed, until the elections for the new panchayat and neighbourhood councils that are scheduled for November this year and the local government elections in May 2020.

The naming of the fundamental rural councils as panchayats is an obvious attempt to create greater proximity between the system and their beneficiaries. The earthy title rooted in tradition is consistent with the ideas Mr Khan has propounded as the prime minister and in the period before that. It is to restore the people’s confidence in the arms that govern them immediately, relying on conventional wisdom built upon close networking on the local level.

The naming of the fundamental rural councils as panchayats is an obvious attempt to create greater proximity between the system and their beneficiaries.

The term neighbourhood council is going to be used for the basic urban local government entities. It apparently plays on the urban fears that the cities have become jungles inhabited by humans with little or no connection with each other. The word neighbourhood does indicate a certain kind of popular closeness and linkages which those living in the sprawling urban centres have had little time to establish and which the PTI government is avowedly looking to help create. The smaller units will increase the number of councils drastically. The same Dawn report quotes figures from Law and Local Government Minister of Punjab, Basharat Raja. The councils in the 35 Punjab districts would be abolished in the rural local governments and replaced by 138 tehsil councils.

Some 22,000 panchayats will be set up at the mauza — sub-village — level. They will replace the 3,281 existing union councils. Four cities — Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Rawalpindi — will have metropolitan corporations on the basis of their population. Municipal corporations will be in place at DG Khan, Multan, Sargodha, Sahiwal, Sialkot, Murree, Bahawalpur and Gujrat.

The panchayats and neighbourhood councils will be filled by members elected on ‘non-party’ basis. There will be party-based elections for urban and tehsil councils, and the mayor and chairpersons will be picked by direct election.

Most importantly, funds would be directly transferred to these councils and Punjab will be following the ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’ precedent of allocating one-third of the annual development funds for the local governments.

The introduction to the new system is as usual going to create expectations among all those who have been demanding an efficient local government system for direct and fast relief for the people. One view unavoidably would be that the new system is old wine in new bottles and that the basic objective of the PTI government would be to control the sources of power at the grass-roots level.

Indeed the jury will be out looking for evidence of the government’s upper tiers actually volunteering on sharing authority — and responsibility — with the elected representatives occupying crucial space closer to people. Again the likelihood of new leadership and centres of power emerging and challenging the long-sitting incumbents will be part of the heated discussion the new system is most certain to generate.

The people who had made sure that the local governments did not succeed on the previous occasions they were sought to be established are still around, some of them presently quite close to or within the PTI. They are no doubt fully entitled to defending the privileges a long association with power has provided them with, but maybe this is where Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and the unique setup he sits over can come in handy.

By all appearances, CM Buzdar is a ruler ready to share power. Living under the constant shadow of the prime minister and often eclipsed by his cabinet members and other high-profile aides, the chief minister could well turn out to be the ideal implementer of this Imran Khan scheme to introduce change.

Mr Buzdar will need some additional help from those there to look after both the administrative side and the ideological affairs the PTI is going to be faced with from time to time. Much of the explaining will likely involve the prime minister himself since the stakes are so high and the change, in its true essence, could lead to such overwhelming, fortune-changing repercussions for those long wielding political power in Punjab. Any concessions the prime minister is forced into giving those demanding it could lead to disastrous consequences and actually jeopardise the new system in its infancy.

Perhaps the argument which can clinch it for the PTI would be that the party desperately needs it to dispel the deep-running influence of the PML-N in the province. The Sharifs are a huge presence in Punjab, still, despite their recent troubles. A new local government system offers the PTI, more specifically Mr Khan, an opportunity to beat them in this crucial battle for controlling hearts, minds and fountains of power in Punjab.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2019