An empowered public

Published March 15, 2022
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

ON March 12, 2022, the Supreme Court released its detailed judgement on a constitutional petition filed by a political party asking for multiple interventions to restore the powers and resources of local governments (LGs) in Karachi and elsewhere. The court advised the Sindh government to abide by the provisions of Article 140A of the Constitution and ensure the delegation of powers, financial resources and other necessary administrative provisions to LG institutions in Karachi and elsewhere in the province. Unfortunately, all provincial set-ups in the country want to keep local bodies under their thumb, resulting in poor governance and the breakdown of the service delivery system. Not surprisingly, public criticism of all provincial governments — that are busy contracting out dubious development projects at hefty costs — is on the increase.

People need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redressal system for routine affairs such as the attestation, verification and certification of documents. Elected LG institutions are meant to perform such tasks as well as undertake small-scale development schemes and maintenance and repair projects. If decision-making is centralised by the province, little progress can be expected. Expectations that bureaucrats will be sympathetic to public issues are misplaced.

LG systems in the urban and rural areas must be strengthened by addressing their problems of poor human resources, lack of operational budgets, weak monitoring mechanisms, the absence of effective audit and accounts procedures, financial dependence on the provincial and federal governments that have undue powers over LGs and the inability to generate development funds for local works. Even larger cities like Karachi face fund shortages and are unable to strengthen basic services such as sanitation, water supply and squatter upgradation. The situation is worse in other places where local political interests may call the shots.

It is ironic that the LG systems established by dictators were more effective than those under elected governments. They created a legitimate avenue for leadership development, jettisoning dynastic claims to governance. A meritorious future political leadership can only emerge through functional LGs. There are hundreds of examples from the not so popular Musharraf regime of ordinary councillors, Union Council nazims, town-/ tehsil-/ taluka-level leaders and district-level representatives winning their office purely on merit. They later proved their popularity through re-election.

Creating effective LG systems must be a policy goal.

In the dangerous provinces of KP and Balochistan, these municipal representatives made tireless efforts to address problems related to education, health, social welfare, etc. Some had no political affiliation and had to face the wrath of both the religious and so-called liberal parties.

The recent LG polls in KP showed that despite many incidents of violence, there was an enthusiastic turnout. Municipal representatives said they looked upon LG polls as an opportunity to groom themselves as political workers. They were correct. A representative and democratic political culture cannot evolve without frequent voting exercises at all levels, especially in a country that has long been attempting to transition from a tribal society — which promotes the centrality of power — to one where democratic values are regarded as universal.

It may be beneficial for our political masters to try and use the LG tier as a tool for strengthening democracy, something that can only be achieved after removing the handicaps of the system. Capacity-building in local service delivery; notification of bodies such as public safety commissions, citizen community boards and finance commissions; the development of municipal services; the launch of appropriate taxes to generate local revenue; and the acceleration of mass contact are all important steps. Violence and muscle-flexing must be controlled by administrative means during the conduct of the electoral process. Violence has claimed many lives in the past.

The development of effective and independent LG systems must become a key policy issue. Elected LG representatives and leaders may consider forming a national confederation of local bodies in order to deliberate common challenges and possible solutions. Perhaps the contents of Article 140A and relevant Supreme Court judgements can be a starting point for such discussions. Constitutionalists, leading lights of civil society, professionals and social scientists should contribute to the debate. This issue has the potential to become a rallying point for various political entities in the forthcoming local elections in Sindh.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2022

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