Published Dec 19, 2017 05:00pm

For a democratic Pakistan, more power needs to be given to local governments

Dr Kalsoom Sumra

In Pakistan, politicians and bureaucrats have visibly – and gradually – deprived the citizenry of their voices and their resources.

Those in power and authority view local representation as a burden, but they use it as a means to pamper and oblige their pocket constituencies.

By compromising the electoral process, decision-makers of the provincial and federal governments are easily able to divert resources to specific voter constituencies as opposed to the general public.

Challenges faced by local governments in implementing the Local Government Ordinances 2013 are due to the limited operational space given to them by the federal and provincial governments.

As part of my Phd thesis, I had a chance to interact with various stakeholders and interest groups as well as witness firsthand the mistrust towards local governments in Pakistan.

Our risk-averse politicians, who presently control resources in league with district bureaucracy, are accustomed to the politics of thana and tehsil.

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They view any change to the status quo as a threat to themselves. These are people who were born and nurtured by the same local councils of the erstwhile Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship.

The bitter taste of Musharraf-era local governments still lingers in their mouths; those were the times when the zila nazim-dominated areas were as big as five to six constituencies of a Member of National Assembly.

The nazims had vast resources at their disposal. The use of these nazims for raising a new political leadership, by-passing political parties, is another powerful factor.

Fast forward to today and the current democratic dispensation – at the centre and provincial levels – is creating hurdles in one form or the other to stop devolution of power to the grassroots.

In all four provinces, local governments are, in one way or another, subordinated to the dictates of provincial governments.

So much so, even basic functions – which can be turned into lucrative contracts, such as garbage collection – have been taken off the list of subjects on which local authority can act.

All financial powers now rest with the deputy commissioners' offices. As representatives of provincial governments, they have the authority to release funds, and audit zila councils.

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If the local representation is to have any real meaning in contributing to the lives of citizens, it needs to have the resources and authority to address the provision of services and the challenges of development.

This requires a change of heart by provincial governments towards their respective local governments in the true spirit of the 18th Amendment, along with the empowerment of the local government structures.

Secondly, synergy between bureaucracy and local representatives is a prerequisite for a meaningful solution to local problems.

Playing favourites can hinder and distort the flow of service delivery to citizens.

As always, the average individual remains deprived of solutions to problems of local nature.

Self governance through local bodies is in the true spirit of the constitution. Provincial governments' leverage over local governments should be done away with to help them dispense services to the people.

A district chairman who can serve as the regulator for the entire district should be directly or indirectly elected.

Elected mayors and councilors should also be empowered as ‘justices of peace’ to assist the police in the control of law and order.

Councilors should have a lead role in initiatives like community policing and neighbourhood watch, in addition to serving the people of the area by providing civic amenities and development at local level.

Councilors and mayors need vision and perseverance to achieve this goal. They need to remember that no one gives up powers voluntarily.

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There are many ways for local government representatives to gain recognition from constituents and the trust of provincial and central governments.

It could be one of many things like dovetailing city/council plans to the execution of provincial government initiatives in polio eradication, elimination of dengue, anti-food adulteration drive, price control, anti-quackery, crack down on child labour, elimination of illiteracy, land revenue collection, and federal causes such as census.

Local communities are naturally more accessible, more sympathetic, and quicker to respond to local needs. The local government is the directly available source for citizens to get in contact with governmental structures in the everyday course of life.

If democracy is strengthened at the local level, then the necessary access to information will make local people more participatory.

They will take interest in affairs affecting their daily lives. They will advocate for the rights and amenities that they deserve, seeking redress from provincial authorities.

Now, the challenge lies with the political parties in power at the provincial level to decentralise power to the local governments.

With them lies the onus of making service delivery efficient and equitable and to ensure that democracy and devolution prevail.

Building sustainable cities – and a sustainable future – will facilitate in opening dialogue among all the branches of the national, regional and local governments.

It requires the engagement of all stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society, and especially the poor and the marginalised.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations is also closely linked to the integrity of local governance. It will be impossible to achieve the Goals without considering the future of devolution of power to the people.

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