Home Opinion Op-Ed Devolution of Power: Must for Pakistan?

Devolution of Power: Must for Pakistan?

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Abdul Rasool Syed |

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”. James Madison

To ensure good governance, decentralization of the centralized dispensation in a federal structure is of paramount importance. Devolution of power from the center to province and then from province to the 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.

Chronologically, after the independence, Pakistan’s first serious attempt to focus on local government occurred during the martial law regime of General Ayub Khan.

Abraham Lincoln once defined democracy as” the government of the people by the people and for the people”. This very benchmark of a democratic polity is consummated with the erection of the 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.

Political luminaries also contend that the local government serves as a political nursery for churning out leaders at a grassroots level. The perpetuity of the local governance, therefore, results in the emergence of dynamic and empathetic leadership.

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People who rise from grassroots have a deep insight into 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 the prerequisite for nurturing democratic norms in society.

It is due to the 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 the martial law regime of General Ayub Khan.

Power intoxicated politicians in cahoots with bureaucratic juggernauts created umpteen hurdles in the way of this system.

Since then, different versions of local government have been introduced and experimented with by elected and non-elected governments. 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 Musharaf. 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 a non-party basis.

Read more: PM Imran looks to bring sweeping reforms at local government level

Yet the local government ordinance (LGO) 2001 passed early in Musharaf’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 labourers.

However, the passage of the 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”.

If it happens, there is a strong possibility that the local government will start bearing the fruits.

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. Despite enactment of enough legislation pertaining to a 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 the 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.

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Moreover, the local government law says that the federal government and the 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 an institutional clash.

However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed that he would not dole out development fund to MPAs and MNAs. This is undoubtedly the right step in the right direction. If it happens, there is a strong possibility that the local government will start bearing the fruits. Otherwise, things will remain the same in the presence of parallel authorities and deeply entrenched bureaucratic echelons.

A similar entity without undermining the principals of provincial autonomy provided by the eighteenth amendment needs to be created.

Besides, there is still only about 15 percent of participation of women in the 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 Musharaf 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.

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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 the 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 quantity of the representatives that run into thousands, the government must also partner in private enterprise.

Under this dispensation, PTI plans to elect city mayor directly by the people as it is practiced in London and Scandinavian countries.

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 the local population is indubitably a laudable move. Fourth, the government should create a feral level institution to oversee the devolution process. The National Reconstruction Bureau established by the Musharaf government as an independent federal institution to formulate LGO 2001 and oversee its implementation was dissolved in 2011.

Read more: New local government in new Pakistan

A similar entity without undermining the principals of provincial autonomy provided by the 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 a 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.

Read more: Status quo parties join hands to thwart Khan’s reform agenda

But the Sindh government has shown its reluctance to welcome any innovation. The sanity, therefore, demands that before the 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 lawyer by profession, based in Quetta, Baluchistan. He also holds MBA from IBA Karachi and is deeply interested in issues of public policy. His writings have appeared in several publications including Daily Times and Frontier Post. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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