THE PTI government in Punjab is sending confused and conflicting signals to people when it comes to the critical issue of devolving power to the grassroots as promised by the ruling party in its election campaign. On the one hand, the prime minister is said to have finally approved a plan for developing south Punjab as a separate ‘administrative zone’ in the province with an all-powerful secretariat to tackle issues ranging from lack of resources to under-representation of the region in public-sector jobs. On the other hand, it is stalling the restoration of elected local governments in the province despite the Supreme Court order declaring their dissolution two years ago to be unconstitutional. The decision to establish an independent secretariat in south Punjab has come after the Buzdar government drew strong criticism from within and outside the PTI against its alleged attempt in March to roll back the few functions and powers it had reluctantly transferred to the newly created regional administrative set-up. However, the government does not appear to be under much pressure to reinstate the dissolved local governments, the apex court decision and repeated pledges to take the financial and administrative powers to the local level notwithstanding.

Local governments or the lowest tier of government are considered crucial for a functional democratic set-up. No country can tackle the complex governance and public-service delivery issues in the absence of a strong, functional local democracy. Pakistan is no exception. If we desire to improve the quality of financial and administrative governance in the country, we will first have to strengthen grassroots democracy by empowering people through their locally elected representatives. Indeed, the establishment of an independent administrative set-up in south Punjab will go a long way in the resolution of issues facing residents of the region and ultimately in the creation of a new province. But neither a secretariat nor a new province can ever replace the LG system if the intent is to address structural problems in public service delivery. The sad part of the story is that our politicians and bureaucracy do not want to share authority with local representatives. Hence, we have seen governments frequently rolling back even powerless local governments. If the present PTI administration is genuinely interested in improving governance through transfer of powers to the people, it should strengthen the constitutional cover given to local governments.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2021

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