Making it truly local

Published December 21, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN between the fights over corruption, incompetence and gas shortages, this week some time was spent discussing local government (LG) systems. Fighting over the law in Sindh (which the opposition was up in arms about) obviously got more space than the election campaign in KP for the latter doesn’t make for good talk shows. But at least two provinces were in the news for LGs, although few till Sunday evening were familiar even with the names of those contesting the election for mayor of Peshawar.

Perhaps we need to see politicians as charismatic as Sadiq Khan and Cuomu before inviting them to the studios for an interview. But I wonder if such charismatic figures will ever compete for these positions given the LGs’ weak powers.

Indeed, none of our political parties want strong LG systems for they are obsessed with taking credit for the kaam that is essentially municipal. Consider the PML-N and PTI; Imran Khan is inaugurating roads and buses and the PML-N is miffed because they insist they began the projects. Not for our political parties are the arguments about climate change reform or fixing the bureaucracy. It is easier to obsess over roads and hospitals and hold elections for weak LGs when pushed to do so by the Supreme Court.

This is also why we have such self-serving definitions of democracy — for military dictatorships, LG systems, in the absence of provincial governments, are a huge leap towards democracy, while for our political parties, a strong provincial government is all that is needed. Indeed, one can say that democracy lies in the eye of the beholder. And hence, people in Lahore miss Shehbaz Sharif, for Lahore was cleaner under him than Usman Buzdar with few asking why the chief minister of the country’s largest province is key to its capital’s rubbish collection.

Our political parties are obsessed with taking credit for work that is essentially municipal.

Before the 18th Amendment, the federal government was the Scrooge who didn’t want to share his wealth and now it is the provincial governments. No wonder the 18th Amendment put everything down in black and white (for the sake of democracy) but LGs were limited to a mere promise. “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”

If our political parties were really serious about fending off martial laws or intervention from unelected institutions (be it the military or the judiciary) they would ensure that power is transferred not just from Islamabad to Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta but to Multan, Hyderabad, Mansehra and Gwadar.

This will bring political stability by allowing different ethnic or linguistic groups to coexist more easily and giving them some control over resources in their own neck of the woods. It is now established that too much centralisation can give rise to separatist sentiments, as in the case of Sri Lanka or East Pakistan.

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And one doesn’t need to read painful political or economic theory to understand the logic behind this. It is common sense that the decision about the construction of which roads in Bahawalpur will be better if it is made by those using them rather than the babus and their political masters in Lahore. Similarly, which school to refurbish in Dadu is best decided in Dadu and not in Karachi. And if ordinary people had a say in these decisions, they would not feel pushed to ask for more.

This also encourages political competition between parties and individuals which is essential to politics. For example, an American political economist argued that various cities and states competed with each other on the basis of services such as schools, roads and sanitation as well as the taxes imposed. For if people didn’t like the school standards in a city or felt the taxes were too high, they could move elsewhere. These decisions were just as much of a judgement on a city head (be it a governor or mayor) as the votes in the election.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, our choice is limited to a party or two fighting to control an entire province and their performance is judged from the state of, say, Lahore or Karachi — and to some extent by those who hired the polling staff.

But if we were to change it, this would mean letting go of decision-making powers as well as financial powers, something which even the LGs under Musharraf didn’t really enjoy. Research has pointed out that if the LGs introduced under him had more funds to spend, the bulk of it was spent on salaries, which were a rather inelastic expense. Service delivery, however, was devolved.

This problem of financial dependence continues to be a major flaw even now. Consider the secretariat established for south Punjab by the PTI. Reg­ardless of the number of bureaucrats sitting down south, the financial powers remain with Lahore.

Perhaps this is why LGs can be introduced and rolled back at will and there is little pushback from the people. For the impact on their lives is so little that they remain apathetic. If all they get is a little development work, what difference does it make to them if the road or nullah or gas connection is coming via an MNA or a dictator or a mayor?

But if there were truly empowered LGs, which made a difference to the rubbish collection from a small market — in Lahore as well Larkana — or the standard of the schools in Swabi, or the health unit down the road, people would not take it lying down. (This may help explain why citizens were willing to stand in front of tanks in the coup attempt in Turkey some years ago.)

Indeed, if the political parties were sincere about democratic values and serving the people, they would stop trying to emulate the military — and stave off its overreach — by centralising power within themselves and devolving it as much as possible. The more that power is shared, the greater will be the resistance to any undemocratic attempts. Instead of just parliamentarians, we need empowered and elected local body representatives to feel the pain of unconstitutional overreach. But it seems our political parties have learnt as little as our establishment.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2021

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