THE Local Government Bill, 2019, and the Punjab Village Panchayat and Neighbourhood Council Bill, 2019, were rushed through the Punjab Assembly on Monday, signalling an end to the existing LG system and providing for a new one in its place. This latest invention in governance introduces independent local councils for every village of Punjab to be called ‘panchayat’. The urban centres will have neighbourhood councils at the mohalla level. The new local bodies are promised direct funds of Rs40bn annually.
Two veterans — Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and Law Minister Raja Basharat — showed remarkable manoeuvrability on the day to get the bills past a protesting opposition in a chaotic house. Not only was the opposition thwarted in its efforts to delay the passage, the treasury accused it of lethargy and not reacting to the bill within the ‘stipulated’ time. But whereas these assertions did appear to leave the opposition, mainly the PML-N, agitated, it is clear that the government was not prepared to tolerate the slightest resistance. This could well have been because the PTI-led Punjab government is on notice from Prime Minister Imran Khan to perform. The local governments are one of the most important items on the agenda, and not just because of the PTI’s vow to empower the people at the grass roots. No less significant is the fact that the wrapping up of the local government system installed by the Shahbaz Sharif government would deprive the PML-N of the considerable clout it exercised as it dominated a big majority of the grass-roots bodies.
It is not unusual to see the ruling party in a province attempt to stamp its authority at the LG level. The PML-N rulers in Punjab got passed an LG bill in 2010 with similar ruling-party support, despite opposition protests. The then opposition had suggested more than 20 amendments to the bill, none of which were deemed worthy of incorporation in the ‘perfect’ bill presented by the Sharif camp. The bill didn’t quite entail the immediate establishment of the local governments in Punjab as Mr Sharif went about tightening his grasp on the levers of power. In fact, it was not until many years later that the lower-tier governments were set up. By passing the new bills, the Punjab Assembly on Monday signed the death warrant of the Sharif local governments, paying no attention to the objections of the elected representatives sitting on these councils. There are no guarantees that the PTI will hold LG polls soon. The party is learning from history. The formula is to not go in for an LG election until it is absolutely necessary, ie it is certain that the exercise will empower the party. According to the formula, it is the PML-N’s turn to fight the LG idea that seeks to weaken it right at the base.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2019