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New local government in new Pakistan


News Analysis |

The Prime Minister has taken steps to reform the local government system, in line with the promise he made in his inaugural address. A committee was constituted on Sunday to present proposals for reforming the local government system by week’s end. A meeting also took place at the Prime Minister Secretariat on Monday, the 3rd of September and was chaired by Imran Khan. The PM said that new laws have to be prepared within a week and emphasized that provinces have to be taken on board to implement local government reforms.

Empowering people at the grassroots is one of the key agenda for the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Insaf, as per the party’s manifesto. The meeting was attended by three chief ministers and federal and provincial secretaries. The Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and the chief secretary of KP separately briefed the meeting on the local government system. It is likely that once new laws are drafted, they will be implemented in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa first since the PTI has been able to form the government in these provinces virtually on its own.

The Punjab local government act was passed in 2013. Similarly, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Act was also passed in 2013.

Imran Khan’s party is in power in Balochistan in coalition with the Balochistan Awami Party or BAP, among other smaller parties. Under Article 140 A of the constitution of Pakistan, ‘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 local governments.’ Local government is a provincial matter in other words.

The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf will try to get its committee’s proposals implemented in Balochistan and Sindh as well with the help and consent of the parties in power there. If say the Pakistan Peoples Party refuse to cooperate in this regard with the PTI and the proposed system proves to be beneficial to the public at large in Punjab and KP, that can mean a lot of lost votes for those in power in Sindh.

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As per the constitution, all four provinces have, at different times, enacted legislation for the local government system. The Punjab local government act was passed in 2013. Similarly, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Act was also passed in 2013. The Sindh local government act was passed on the 19th of August 2013 and came into force on the 26th of August. These acts outline the structure of district government, tehsil councils, local government taxation, local government finance, general powers of local government, transitional arrangements, a power to make rules etc.

Under Article 140 A, political administrative and financial matters are devolved to the elected representatives at the local government. Who these representatives shall be was under active consideration in the meeting. In his inaugural address as Prime Minister, Imran Khan discussed a system of direct elections for mayors. He said that the current system where MPAs and MNAs have the power to spend development funds in their respective constituencies was found nowhere else in the world.

The elections for Nazim were held on non-party basis but as a matter of practice, few if any Nazims functioned without political connections with one party or another.

In the proposed system, the major will have the power to finance development projects from where is elected. The Information Minister Fawad Choudhry also spoke in favor of having directly elected mayors. ‘I proposed  LG systems like the one functioning in London, Birmingham and Scandinavian countries in which city mayor is elected directly by the people…’ unlike the current system in place where the Nazim of the district is elected indirectly by the heads of union councils.

The replacement of union councils by village councils was also discussed but scrapped because it would be difficult to create an entirely new structure of village councils after abolishing all union councils. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, there are over 50,000 villages in the country. The Prime Minister himself is not in favor of abolishing the union councils, reportedly. Uprooting an existing system altogether also creates a lot of confusion until the public as well government officials familiarize themselves with the new system.

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There have been various approaches tried as far as the local government system in the country is concerned. General Ayub Khan implemented a system of BD’s or Basic Democracies. 80,000 BD members elected the President. Later on, this number was increased to 120,000. General Musharaff also introduced a system whereby the intention was to empower the people. The Nazim was put in charge of the district. However, both these systems came under heavy criticism.

There was always the possibility that the District Nazim or the members of the Basic Democracies are co-opted by vested interests i.e. either by the person in power under military rule or by political parties in general. The elections for Nazim were held on non-party basis but as a matter of practice, few if any Nazims functioned without political connections with one party or another. This naturally leads to public offices being turned into a source of patronage, the root of all corruption and nepotism in the society. The people’s mandate was bypassed, in effect.

Adequate representation in a system where civil servants can play their role effectively will ensure good local government. Let’s hope the proposed reforms, once implemented, don’t fail where previous efforts did.

Closely associated with local government reform is civil service reform. In Pakistan, assistant commissioners and deputy commissioners at the Tehsil and District levels respectively and DPO or District Police Officer are civil servants recruited via competitive examinations. In 2002, General Musharaff abolished the office of the deputy commissioner and replaced it with the District Coordinating Officer.

The powers of executive magistracy were removed as well from the DCO. In Mushraff’s own words, ‘the DC and SP (superintendent of police) were the bosses of the district. I wanted to empower the people locally’. This system had some advantages but did not sit well with civil servants who their sphere of influence reduced. Imran Khan has vowed to reform and depoliticize the civil service. In his augural address, he promised that tenure protection for CSP’s would be ensured.

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The PM will address civil servants in a few days, reportedly. Public servants along with locally elected representatives need to be empowered to solve issues facing the public. Having an effective system of local government is the key to good governance overall. Adequate representation in a system where civil servants can play their role effectively will ensure good local government. Let’s hope the proposed reforms, once implemented, don’t fail where previous efforts did.

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