NOT too long ago, the defunct local government representatives of Punjab appealed to the chief justice of Pakistan, through the national print media, to restore LGs, which were suspended by the government in May 2019. They took the stance that LGs could serve better during the current public health emergency than the bureaucrats working at the local level who were unable to tackle the social and economic predicaments of the public.

Notwithstanding the political motives behind the request made at this juncture, there is a genuine need for decentralised governance. Through their vast public representation, LGs could effectively sensitise the general public about their rights and responsibilities within community organisations, besides mobilising resources to curb the enormity of the crises.

In the post-industrialised world, the devolution of power and resources to smaller administrative and political units is considered the foundation stone of good governance, leading to development at the grassroots. Even China, despite its unitary constitutional system, has developed a robust set-up of LGs which accommodates 89 per cent of the total number of public-sector employees. The role of provincial governments in China is limited to looking after and guiding LGs on behalf of the central government.

The absence of devolution of political, administrative and financial authority to smaller regional units has been the main hurdle in the way of providing essential services at the local level in Pakistan. It is alienating the people from the state and its institutions. Decentralisation in the first decade of the country’s independence could have been the solution to many geographical, administrative, social and economic problems. But the leadership of that time neglected the importance of inclusive governance, and boosted the centralised civil and military bureaucracy to overcome these problems. This strategy led to untoward historical incidents, alongside poor development.

The absence of devolution is alienating the people from the state.

Article 140-A of the Constitution requires the provincial governments to establish LGs in their jurisdiction. Historically, this has not been implemented by the civilian political government due to the controversial division of power and responsibilities among the three tiers of government, ie federal, provincial and local. However, three military dictators who ruled the country in different eras established the third tier of governments to seek legitimacy internationally as well as nationally at the grassroots. Thus, the major national power players, including its military, civil bureaucracy and political class, have tried to shape Pakistan’s sociopolitical structure according to their interests rather than align it to a broad socioeconomic vision of development. This irrational competition among national institutions has thwarted Pakistan’s way to achieve sustainable development.

The devolution reforms introduced during the reign of Gen Pervez Musharraf could be considered a commendable effort to strengthen local democratisation in Pakistan. These reforms gave some good results vis-à-vis development at the grassroots level. There may have been involvement of international political factors during the devolution period that might have contributed to the betterment of Pakistan’s macroeconomic indicators. But the outcome of this macroeconomic growth was the expanded network of basic facilities including education, health, roads, safe drinking water, etc as a lot of public resources were transferred from the top to the bottom level.

After Musharraf’s departure in 2008, the rolling back of this effective system of inclusive governance by central- and provincial-level politicians and bureaucrats dealt a big blow to development. Like many good things, which evolve gradually, this system could also have been improved. But its abrupt abolition by the elected civilian governments in connivance with the bureaucracies, without assessing its real impact and efficacy, has badly impacted the provision of basic services to citizens. Many experts opine that central- and provincial-level politicians and bureaucrats jointly resist devolution because it disrupts the political economy of corruption.

Pakistan could not meet the targets of the UN Millennium Development Goals due to inefficient public-sector management. The biggest goal now is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

There is a dire need to reinvent governance by reviving the LG system in a real sense, on the pattern of developed countries. There must be constitutional protection for LGs, and elections for the latter should be held after a fixed period of time. Funds received by provincial governments from the federal divisible pool must be distributed on the same lines among district governments in the provinces. Every district’s funds should be ring-fenced to stop their diversion to large districts of powerful politicians. It will overcome a sense of deprivation among people of the backward districts.

Bureaucracy, being the sole implementation agency of the state, must work under the subordination of politically elected leaders without biases. There should be extensive training for local elected representatives in the areas of human resource management, public policy, sustainable development and law. Currently, most employees working in district governments belong to the provincial governments. It is essential that there should be a separate district personnel group.

With the growth of print, electronic and social media in the last two decades, the political consciousness of the Pakistani citizenry has grown enough to enable them to elect better leaders and hold them accountable at the local level. Apart from the public accountability of local elected leaders, there should be close monitoring of their performance through federal and provincial government vigilance agencies. Impartial, honest and competent government officers should monitor development projects at the local level. Despite providing financial and administrative powers, if elected local representatives still fail to improve the social development indicators of their constituencies, there should be a quick mechanism to hold them accountable.

Devolution is the key to equity, social development and national integration. Multicultural and multi-ethnic developing countries like Pakistan will have to opt for this inclusive governance and development strategy, sooner rather than later.

The writer is a governance and development analyst.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2020