Few days back, the apex court of Pakistan ordered restoration of the local government institutions in Punjab, declaring their dissolution as unconstitutional. The court declared section 3 of the Punjab Local Government Act (PLGA)-2019 ultra vires to the constitution.
This is, for sure, an unprecedented and quite heartening decision for the proponents of democracy who truly want democratic dispensation in our country to bloom and breed fruits.
To ensure good governance, decentralization of the centralized dispensation in a federal structure is, indubitably, of paramount importance. Devolution of power from center to province and then from province to local level is an indispensable sine qua non for heterogeneous countries like Pakistan, where large segments of citizenry remain marginalized by the centralist and patronage-based governance mechanism.
Abraham Lincoln once defined democracy as” the government of the people by the people and for the people”. This very benchmark of democratic polity is consummated with the erection of third tier of government popularly called local body or the local government where the local people belonging to the downtrodden and underprivileged section of society have a sufficient participation and a greater say.
Importance of local governments
Political luminaries also contend that the local government serves as a political nursery for churning out leaders at grass roots level. The perpetuity of the local governance therefore results in the emergence of dynamic and empathetic leadership.
People who rise from grass roots have deep insight of the issues that the people living at the margins are faced with and are hence aptly capable of dealing with such issues effectively.
Furthermore, in a broader spectrum, local government system is considered as prerequisite for nurturing democratic norms in society. It is due to inconsistent installation of the local bodies that we could not evolve genuine democratic ethos in our country.
Chronologically, after the independence, Pakistan’s first serious attempt to focus on local government occurred during martial law regime of General Ayub khan. Since then, different versions of local government have been introduced and experimented by elected and non-elected governments.
Pervez Musharraf’s devolutionary exercise
Ironically, during the democratic period of 1988-99, four democratically elected government gained power, but none of them worked on the local government system. The next time Pakistan’s experiment with devolution was under General Pervez Musharraf.
His devolutionary exercise was also a legitimizing strategy for his centralized rule, since it did not devolve power from the federal level to the provinces and instead focused on creating local governments on non-party basis.
The local government ordinance (LGO) 2001 passed early in Musharraf’s tenure was quite ambitious in its scope. The LGO 2001 reserved a significant portion of local government seats (33%) for women, and to a lesser degree, for religious minorities and other marginalized communities i.e. Peasants and laborers.
However, the passage of 18th amendment was a pronounced step forward for the continuation and protection of the local body system. Clause 140 A (1) of this amendment stipulated that “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 governments” and 140 A (2) states that elections to the local government shall be held by election commission of Pakistan”.
In addition, article 132 of the constitution ensures the participation of marginalized groups such as women, minorities, peasants and laborers in the local government elections.
Why did the system fail?
Despite enactment of enough legislation pertaining to devolution of power, the local government system could not thrive in our country. Power intoxicated politicians in cahoots with bureaucratic juggernauts created umpteen hurdles in the way of this system.
The forces of status quo are not poised to surrender their power to the local representatives. One glaring example of it is that LG election in 2015 was conducted on the order of Supreme Court. It speaks volumes of the attitude of state institutions towards local bodies.
Moreover, the local government law says that federal government and provincial government will legislate while the development works would be done by the local governments. The situation on the ground is that the MNAs, MPAs and even the senators want to have their say in the development work.
This tug of war therefore results in institutional clash. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed that he would not dole out development fund to MPAs and MNAs. This is undoubtedly a right step towards right direction.
If it happens, there is strong possibility that local government will start bearing the fruits. Otherwise things will remain the same in the presence of parallel authorities and deeply entrenched bureaucratic echelons.
Besides, there is still only about 15 percent of participation of women in lower tire of the government whereas the law requires 33 percent. Women’s inclusion as per requirement therefore should be enhanced. There should be a mechanism of fair representation of laborers as well.
Another snag that hampers the performance of the local government system and hangs like a sword of Damocles over it is the power of chief minister of the province to dissolve the local government at his whims.
In exercise of this power, the local governments introduced by Pervez Musharraf were dissolved by the provincial governments. Such dictatorial power of the chief minister severely impinges on the efficiency of the governance of the local bodies and therefore should be revoked forthwith.
What’s the antidote?
Notwithstanding of the aforementioned impediments, the following antidotes may be prescribed for the efficient delivery of the third tier of government: first, neither the constitution of Pakistan nor the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 have any stipulated time for re-election of local bodies after completion of term or in case of early dissolution.
That is why the Supreme Court has to intervene for the election of next term. This situation warrants a timely legislation with respect to timeframe at relevant legislative houses for the continuation of the system without any hiatus.
Second, the government should initiate capacity building programs for the local representatives so that they might understand the rules of business and deliver up to the required touchstone. Though different NGOs organize capacity building workshops yet keeping in view of quantity of the representatives that run into thousands, the government must also partner in private enterprise.
Third, the roles of the parliamentarians and elected councilors should be clearly demarcated for overlapping of these roles is a structural obstruction in smooth functioning of the local bodies. Federal as well as provincial legislators have nothing to do with the development funds. They are supposed to legislate on matters of grave importance and thereby protect the basic human rights.
In this regard, the initiative undertaken by the PTI government to plan and execute all development schemes through local representatives according to the needs of local population is indubitably a laudable move.
An effective devolution process
Fourth, the government should create a feral level institution to oversee the devolution process. The National Reconstruction Bureau established by the Musharraf government as an independent federal institution to formulate LGO 2001 and oversee its implementation was dissolved in 2011. A similar entity without undermining the principals of provincial autonomy provided by eighteenth amendment, needs to be created.
Fifth, the process of devolving fiscal responsibility to local governments needs to be managed with caution. Financial devolution must be accompanied by financial oversight. It is thus important to supplement existing accountability mechanisms, using third party and citizen audits of the local governments.
Sixth and the last, the current government of PTI intends to introduce new local bodies where PTI has its governments through direct elections for tehsil and district heads that run contrary to the prevalent system in Punjab.
Under this dispensation, PTI plans to elect city mayor directly by the people as it is practiced in London and Scandinavian countries. But the Sindh government has shown its reluctance to welcome any innovation.
The sanity therefore demands that before introduction of any new system, the consensus of the provinces must be sought otherwise the situation will lead to center-province disharmony.
Advocate Abdul Rasool Syed is a legal practitioner-cum-columnist based in Quetta Balochistan. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org.The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.