The issues relating to functions of local self-governance and the corresponding autonomy required for local governments (LGs) is under intense national debate while the local body election schedules are being rolled out.

As directed by the Supreme Court, the provinces are required to empower the LGs in line with Article 140-A of the constitution.

Keeping with the true spirit of federalism, the socio-economic problems including urban civic facilities that can be managed better and more effectively with the active participation of ordinary citizens at district and municipal levels should lie outside the provincial jurisdiction.

There is also a court ruling that a directly elected representative LG assembly or council with budgetary and rule-making powers is the main trait of local-self government.

A politically divisive hybrid democracy works for the benefit of few at the cost of many and the social exclusion it creates widens the gulf between the government and the common citizens

At present, the responsibility for the preparation of annual local development schemes as well as provision of budgetary allocation to the third tier of the government rests with the provincial LG department.

To be meaningful, a noted economist observes that the LGs should have a set of core functions and broad powers for self-governance.

And to quote analyst Dr Arif Azad there is consensus across the political and academic spectrum that LGs should be the linchpin of service delivery and the chain of political representation.

Policymakers may also benefit from the experience of developed countries and neighbouring China with much richer experience in running local bodies.

In the United Kingdom, the local government councils are powerful and exercise important influence over the central administration through their members of the Parliament and their large representation as advisory councils and committees to several departments, says a research report.

There is a similar move in Sindh. While the level of LG’s autonomy is being sorted out, the Sindh government has decided to appoint the mayor of Karachi as a member of the governing bodies of the Karachi Development Authority, Malir Development Authority and Lyari Development Authority. The tenure of membership of a town committee official in the governing body of a development agency would be linked to the duration of a specific project launched in its area.

To make the local bodies setup in line with Article 140-A of the Constitution in the light of the Supreme Court direction, a 19-member selected committee of the Sindh provincial assembly was formed on February 23 for this purpose. The committee, comprising nine opposition and ten treasury bench members, will submit its report in 45 days.

The Sindh government has already amended the LG law to make the next Karachi mayor the Chairman of Karachi Water and Sewerage Board.

And the provincial financial commission that provides funds to LGs for the social and economic uplift programme will also be revived in addition to devolving the collection of property tax to the LGs.

However, an analyst points out that except for Punjab, no law requires the provinces to transfer a minimum share of funds to finance the functions devolved to the local governments.

There is also a need to amend the Punjab Local Government Ordinance 2001 (PLGO) which undermines the spirit of Article 140-A of the Constitution.

Eminent economist Ali Cheema says PLGO subverts majority rule and proportionate representation and vests powers in the person of the mayor that should be exercised by the local council. Local bodies do not have the authority to appoint and change senior administrators that are required to exercise functional autonomy.

The so-called reforms designed to weaken these councils or make them the executive’s rubber stamp or deny citizens effective representation in councils violates the main trait and or as such is derogatory to the rights of citizens, argues Mr Cheema.

The key issue in rule-based governance, one may argue, is the absence of a citizen-based democracy. A politically divisive hybrid democracy works for the benefit of few at the cost of many. And the social exclusion that it creates widens the gulf between the government and the common citizens.

That is indicated by the minimal influence of the political parties at the grassroots level. Their combined vote bank was as low as 37 per cent in the first phase of the local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the independents’ share of 63pc.

Owing to faltering democratic governance and failing standards of centralised delivery services, it is imperative to have a citizen-based system of empowered elected local governments.

A top-down approach to resolve Balochistan’s problems has borne little fruit and now it’s time to devise a bottom-up strategy, says founder of the ruling Balochistan Awami Party Senator Syed Saeed Ahmed Hashmi. The party is a coalition partner in the PTI government.

He has called for an empowered local government system by giving maximum financial and administrative power to resolve the problems facing Balochistan’s ordinary citizens.

The masses should be involved in power sharing to give them a sense of ownership, Mr Hashmi said, adding that the poor and lower-middle-classes should be easily able to approach their local representatives to get their problems resolved.

The over-centralisation of authority and resources at the provincial and federal levels is not working. On February 20, hundreds of Jamaat-i-Islami workers and supporters protested in front of Quetta Press Club against the non-implementation of the agreement signed by the provincial government with Maulana Hidayat Ur Rehman and other leaders of the movement demanding the rights of the people of Gwadar.

The Rs237 billion wide-ranging, temporary and piecemeal relief measures announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan on February 28 are laudable but they do not offer any long-term durable solution for the mounting woes of common citizens.

And more importantly, Rs50bn will be raised for relief by cutting the federal development spending in addition to an earlier reduction of Rs200bn agreed by the government with the International Monetary Fund.

The announcement of relief coincided with the PPP long march, particularly against double-digit inflation. The continuing political polarization and tensions created as a result of social exclusion are building up pressures on the policymakers to review their approach towards empowering people at the grassroots so that people are enabled to work for their own socio-economic uplift.

The country badly needs to embrace citizen-based representative-cum-participatory federal democracy and an egalitarian system anchored on a fully autonomous third tier of government.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 7th, 2022

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