THE Punjab administration is in a pretty pickle for delaying the implementation of the Supreme Court’s orders of restoring the local governments in the province for more than seven months. And when last month it did restore the local government institutions it had sacked more than two and a half years back, it did so half-heartedly after the apex court took up contempt petitions filed by affected elected representatives against it. The recent proceedings of the contempt case clearly demonstrate that the provincial political leadership and bureaucracy will now be striving to pass the buck to each other in order to save themselves. The judges, however, don’t appear to be in a mood to spare anyone who disobeys them where local democracy is concerned. The March judgement of the apex court was a landmark decision for democracy on many counts. The court had not only ordered the immediate reinstatement of the sacked local government institutions but also closed the door on the rollback of local democracy through administrative putsch, even if provided for in the law, as unconstitutional. The order noted in unambiguous terms that the dissolution of LGs, the third tier of government, disenfranchises people who elect local representatives. The court order was as clear as day, and should have been executed without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Yet the Buzdar government kept dragging its feet and now it must face the music.
When the landmark 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 2010, devolving substantial administrative and fiscal powers from the centre to the provinces, it had spawned widespread expectations that politicians would take the process of devolution further down to the grassroots level for better governance and service delivery. It did not happen. Instead, the provincial governments have been slow to establish local governments, dragging their feet on holding local elections let alone transferring powers and funds for them to function effectively. The court has done what its mandate allows. Now is the time for the politicians to walk the talk. The political parties need to come together to amend the Constitution to define a uniform tenure of local governments in all provinces, as well as ensure regular elections after the expiry of their term — as in the case of the national and provincial assemblies — for strengthening local democracy in the country. Moreover, the Constitution must provide for devolution of the minimum level of administrative and fiscal powers from the provinces to the local governments.
Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2021