Litmus tests for devolution

06 May 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

LAST week, the Punjab Assembly passed two pieces of legislation designed to overhaul the system of local government (LG) and administration in the province.

The Local Government Act, 2019, and the Village Panchayat and Neighbourhood Councils (VPNC) Act, 2019, received some deliberation in the standing committee before being bludgeoned through the floor of the house. The expedited passage was reportedly upon the insistence of the prime minister, who after a tough past few months, appears eager to resuscitate his pro-reform credentials.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll limit the discussion to the LG Act 2019 and the broader environment that is likely to shape its implementation (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The VPNC Act requires separate analysis, given that it has been designed as a different LG system, is expected to be non-partisan in nature, and will only have contingent service-delivery-related links with the higher-tier of local government envisioned under the LG Act.

On paper, the new LG system introduces a range of sound technical propositions. It abolishes the district tier as a representative arena of local government, and instead, reaffirms the within-district rural-urban divide through tehsil councils and urban municipalities (metropolitan corporations, municipal corporations, municipal committees, and town committees).

On paper, the new local government system introduces a range of sound technical propositions.

The list of functions given to these two types of local governments is extensive, with the biggest change from the 2013 act being in the urban arena. Here we see the conditional devolution of education, land use and building control, and solid waste management and sanitation from the provincial government to the local tier. There is also an explicit assertion of reassigning provincial government agencies and authorities (like LDA, WASA, TEPA) carrying out devolved functions to the local governments.

To enable these new local governments to implement their wide-ranging mandate, the act creates a provision for the downward transfer of up to 26 per cent of the province’s gross revenue receipts, which would amount to roughly Rs 400 billion based on last year’s figures. This, if implemented, is a resource devolution quantum unlike any previous one in Pakistan’s history.

The more experimental aspects of the law are found in its attempt to reconfigure the political relationship between citizens, political elites, and their administrative entity.

The first of these is introducing direct elections for LG heads in tehsil councils or urban municipalities. This means that for the first time in Pakistan’s history, (the claim is for all of South Asia), the mayor/chairman will be elected by the full electorate of a particular local government jurisdiction.

Under the 2013 system, the mayor of Lahore, having walked in on a technocratic seat, needed 138 UC chairperson votes in the council to become mayor. Under Musharraf’s 2001 system, the nazim of Lahore needed just over 2,000 votes (all UC chairs and councillors) to become head of the local government.

Under this new 2019 system, the mayor would need to beat out other candidates while competing for upwards of four million voters in the city. A successful candidate would therefore come in with the mandate of at least a million voters; a significant upgrade of their democratic credentials.

The other major political feature is introducing a closed list proportional representation electoral system to elect ‘at large’ councillors for the entire LG jurisdiction. Rather than tying individuals to particular demarcated areas (like union councils), and using a conventional ‘who gets the most votes wins’ arrangement, the new system would allocate council seats to parties on the proportion of the votes they get. If it gets going, this would be the first time PR is used at scale in the country, and will result in a strengthening of parties as institutions of public representation, given how voters will be voting for party rosters rather than individual candidates.

Ultimately, however, there are two important litmus tests that this new legislation would have to clear for it to be deemed transformative. The first is its political sustainability, both in terms of clearing the expected slew of opposition petitions against it in the courts and reservations of coalition partners and the party’s own legislators who might stand to lose their clout and influence at the constituency level because of empowered local government representatives.

Hence, whether the party leadership championing this particular reform is able to withstand internal and external pressure against the act will be a key thing to watch out for in the months ahead.

The second litmus test is its operational intent — the act proposes a considerable overhaul of the way urban governance is envisioned. In my view, the biggest litmus test of success is how far the government goes in actually empowering urban local governments, especially in the metropolitan corporations.

For this purpose, it remains to be seen whether the range of provincially centralised service delivery mechanisms (various companies, regulators, development authorities) are actually handed over to the new local governments as and when they are put in place.

The most important of these for the purposes of gauging intent is the Lahore Development Authority — that lucrative, resource-rich behemoth which manages the second-largest city of the country via a bureaucratic remote control. Will the future mayor of Lahore and an elected council of 60-odd actually be able to shape LDA’s functioning?

From an observational perspective, the new LG act introduces enough innovative elements for policy practitioners, academics, and engaged citizens to be interested in its future. It marks a more substantive effort at devolution compared to the constrained nature of the 2013 legislation, and that in itself can be (cautiously) understood as a step in the right direction. But, ultimately, like all such legislation, it is an attempt to reconfigure power dynamics and will thus have to experience (and be reconfigured by) an attendant set of political wrangling before it takes root.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2019