THE question of devolution of power to the grass roots is often missing in the discourse on democratic transformation. It, however, goes to the credit of the PTI that it has focused on this extremely critical issue. Notwithstanding some concerns about its viability, the passage of the Punjab Local Government Act, 2019, marks the most serious attempt to bring governance closer to the people. An elected and empowered local government system is vital to the democratic process.
Despite being a constitutional obligation, the local government system has never been a priority for democratically elected governments in the past. In fact, every effort has been made to render local bodies ineffective. Even those political parties that have been championing the cause of provincial autonomy are not willing to devolve power further down.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that we did not have functional local governments for several years after democracy returned to the country in 2008. That included the full tenure of the PPP government (2008 to 2013) and the first three years of the PML-N government. It was only after the intervention of the Supreme Court that elections were held in 2015. This was the first time in Pakistan’s history that local elections were conducted on a party basis.
The local government system has never been a priority for democratically elected governments in the past.
However, the provinces did little to facilitate the process of making the local governments truly functional. The truncated powers under the new legislation enacted by the PML-N government in Punjab and the PPP in Sindh had rendered the elected local bodies ineffective. The local governments had nominal powers and few funds at their disposal to carry out development work. Matters improved somewhat when the Supreme Court intervened again, ordering the provincial bodies to speed up the transfer of authority to the new elected local bodies.
Ironically, the local government system was much more powerful under successive military governments, though for reasons other than strengthening democracy. Notwithstanding some flaws, the local governments enjoyed much greater administrative and fiscal powers under Gen Musharraf’s military-led dispensation. Instead of improving upon it to make the system more democratic, the PML-N and PPP governments disempowered them. There were heavily centralised power structures in both provinces.
Although the PTI’s experiment in KP may not have been a great success, there has certainly been a sincere effort to strengthen the local government system. It is apparent that the decentralisation in KP is much broader than in the other provinces. The province has devolved power beyond the district, tehsil and union council levels of local government to even the lower tiers of village and neighbourhood councils.
There is, however, still a lot of room for improvement in the system to make it much more effective. Political and bureaucratic hurdles need to be removed in order to make the system work more smoothly. It remains to be seen what kind of changes are made by the provincial government.
Undoubtedly, the latest local government law for Punjab envisions far wider and more radical reforms. Elected neighbourhood and village councils with powers to decide and supervise development work in their areas are likely to give the people greater control over their lives. It may also lead to the weakening of the existing power structure.
The new system promises to devolve 30 per cent of the annual provincial development budget to the local governments. It is a move in the right direction that could help reduce regional disparity. Surely, it will take some time for the new order to take root, but it is a first, and significant, step towards involving people in development work. The centralisation of power is one of the major reasons for the backwardness of some regions.
One of the most radical provisions in the act is the direct election of town and city mayors. This system exists in most democracies but was never implemented in Pakistan. It certainly makes sense. Direct elections will strengthen participatory democracy. Taxation powers and control over development work will indeed make the office of mayor effective.
Surely we have a mayoral system in a few big cities in Pakistan, but without much authority as the real administrative power is with the provincial governments. Cities with millions of people are more or less run by the provincial minister for local government.
The extensive devolutionary process proposed in Punjab’s new law may bring a radical shift in existing power dynamics. Instead of MNAs and MPAs, the elected mayors will be controlling development in their areas. Thus the reservations of some lawmakers within the ruling PTI and outside over the reforms are understandable.
A major question is whether or not the Sindh government will also be willing to change its existing local government system to devolve power to the grass roots. Accumulation of power including municipal jobs leaves the local bodies non-functional.
Karachi is a glaring example of how the concentration of power by the provincial government has left little authority for the elected authorities of the country’s largest city with a population of 20 million. Even the responsibility of solid waste collection has been taken over by the Sindh government.
No wonder Karachi has become the most mismanaged city, resulting in the complete collapse of essential municipal services. The situation in other metropolitan centres, like Hyderabad, Sukkur and Larkana, is not very different. This state of affairs has widened the political fault lines in the province. The PPP’s resistance to devolving power is likely to make the situation worse.
While being the main architect of the 18th Amendment that turned Pakistan into a truly federal state by giving greater autonomy to the provinces, the PPP is not willing to comply with one of its most important clauses relating to devolution of power to the local governments. It prompts questions about the party’s democratic and progressive credentials. Its policy on devolution of power to the local level is dictated by vested interests.
Meanwhile, although the new law in Punjab is indeed a radical move, much more is needed to strengthen and revitalise the devolution process critical to achieving as many layers of democratic governance as possible.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2019