Without local bodies

Published February 22, 2021
The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

LOCAL bodies are the building blocks of the Western democracies we want to emulate. Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared committed to having a revolutionary local bodies system when his party formed the government in KP in 2013. Not satisfied with the lowest tier of union council, he went to the grassroots with a new law which envisaged the village as the basic unit. With this law, 1001 union councils were converted to 3,501 village councils/ neighbourhood councils (for the urban areas) to take self-governance to the village level.

The first polls under the new law were held in 2015. Thirty per cent of development funds were promised to the village/ neighbourhood councils and 24 government functions/ departments were delegated. This utopian model came tumbling down immediately after its inauguration.

Even before the operation of the new system started, delayed by the absence of new rules, six of the 24 functions delegated to the local government were withdrawn. In a further amendment, the funds promised were withheld from the local body “to be routed through officers designated by government”. Ten more functions were withdrawn leaving only eight out of 24 promised in the LG Act of 2013.

More amendments in 2019 in the LG Act abolished the district elected organisation, replacing it with an elected tehsil council. But the move towards grassroots was neutralised by placing the elected tehsil council under the deputy commissioner as the provincial government’s principal representative.

A detailed structure of the LG system must be laid out.

The experimental system has been non-functional since August 2019. Recently, under pressure from the courts and the election commission, KP announced elections for September.

This erratic system indicating a lack of comfort with the local bodies is not only on display in KP but also in Punjab where 58,000 elected councillors were sent packing by a new law in May 2019. Even after 22 months there is no indication when the next elections will be held.

There is no local government in Balochistan and Sindh either, with halfhearted attempts for the next elections.

To be fair to the present government, the frequent, premature dissolution of local bodies is routine, and has happened 10 times since 1972 in Punjab. This is because of the conflict of interest in power-sharing between the local bodies and provincial governments. When a person is elected to the provincial assembly he does not want his constituents and voters to look towards anyone but him. Chief ministers want unfettered command of all they survey in the province, not to be shared with the nazim or chairmen of the local councils.

India despite having a very old panchayat raj system had the same problem. They fixed it in 1992 through two major and detailed constitutional amendments. The 73rd and 74th amendments were passed by its parliament in December that year.

Through these amendments the sanctity of local self-governance in rural and urban India was ensured. The local bodies — panchayats and municipalities — came under Part IX and Part XI of the constitution after 43 years of independence. This gave constitutional cover to panchayat raj institutions (rural) and the local bodies institutions (urban). The preamble of the new amendments notes the “absence of regular elections” and “prolonged supersessions”. It says “to enshrine in the Constitution certain basic and essential features of Panchayat Raj Institutions to impart certainty, continuity and strength….”

The amendments are so detailed they add two different parts IX and IX A, with 16 new articles and 11 new schedules for the 73rd amendment and a similar number of articles and schedules for the 74th amendment. The governor, who is the representative of the union, has a role in ensuring continuity.

By contrast, Pakistan has two brief articles about local bodies in its Constitution. Article 32 says “the State shall enc­ou­rage local government institutions….” Arti­cle 140-A says “Each Provincial Government shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility….”

Obviously, the treatment of the local bodies in our Constitution is cursory. Further, the responsibility of ‘encouraging’ the setting up of local bodies has been given to the ‘state’, a term subject to many interpretations in this country, rather than to a specific office, like in the case of India where the governor of the state as a representative of the union is responsible for ensuring continuity.

If the present government is really interested in ‘Naya Pakistan’, it should be thinking of amending our Constitution (even if it has to give some concessions to the opposition) to give a detailed structure of the local bodies and build in specific provisions to ensure continuity rather than leave it to political expediency. Without a predictable, continuing local bodies system in the country, good governance will remain a dream.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2021

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