Devolution of Power
and Pakistan’s history of local governments
Historically, Pakistan has experienced several devolution stages. Interestingly, three local governments had been set up and controlled under the direct rule of military regimes. Later, through the 18th Amendment, a democratic setup devolved significant powers with ministerial portfolios to the provinces.
The real essence of devolution of power
Devolution refers to the statutory delegation of powers from the central government to regional and local governments as it makes the governance structures more efficient and government services more responsive to local needs. The real essence of devolution of power is that the regional and local tiers enjoy sufficient administrative and political power that gives a real feel of democracy. Simultaneously, the said definition of devolution calls for ‘statutory delegations’. In other words, the whole devolution system enjoys constitutional protection and is free from any undue interference by, and caprice of, the government. Furthermore, principally, the delegation of powers should follow a proper chain; from central to regional and then to the local level. Thus, any missing link in this chain indicates a lacklustre attitude of the central government.
Now let’s see and find the said characteristics of devolution of power in Pakistan’s history.
Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan
Ayub Khan introduced the first local government system through the Basic Democracies Order that was promulgated on October 27, 1959. This system was the first step to decentralization in the country. It was, however, dominantly bureaucratic in nature. In other words, the bureaucracy had more power and resources to make and alter decisions. Later, Ayub Khan introduced the Municipal Administration Ordinance in 1960. This Ordinance constituted a hierarchical framework in which there were divisional, district and local councils. In all these levels, bureaucrats were privileged while elected representatives were not that much strong, politically and administratively. Principally, such a devolution where local councils were subservient to bureaucracy was not a real devolution at all.
Moreover, there was a ban on political parties and political activities. Hence, no public participation, which is the real essence of devolution, was there. All the decisions and proceedings made by local councils halted at the whims of bureaucrats. To put it simply, the primary purpose behind introducing the Basic Democracies System was clearly political, not administrative. Hence, in overall developments, democratic values were absent. All Ayub Khan wanted was to further his motives and strengthen his presidential position. If we talk about provincial or higher-tier elected governments, these were disbanded in order to wipe out the political forces from the stage.
The second round of devolution was launched by General Zia-ul-Haq when he promulgated the Local Government Ordinance, 1979, that remained operational until 2000. The country’s local government system was restructured, revived and implemented in true spirit. It should be noted here that this system was introduced in the absence of national or provincial governments. Again, the primary purpose of introducing this system was to strengthen the military’s position in the executive setup. Since Zia remained in power for little more than eleven years, a whole decade was under his command and caprice.
Once again, the local councils lacked constitutional protection and were prone to authorities’ whims. Moreover, the elections took place on a non-party basis which was an easy tool to remove political parties from the stage. Hence, Zia continued the Ayub model of governance and kept his seat powerful. Therefore, the promise to devolve real power to the local governments did not materialize.
General Pervez Musharraf
The third round of devolution was introduced by General Pervez Musharraf. Although his system of devolution of powers was more comprehensive and inclusive, yet it followed the same approach of non-party elections. Hence, once again, the devolution served the military regime’s interests and was devoid of any constitutional protection. In a nutshell, real power did not take roots in society to bear meaningful results.
The 18th Amendment
The fourth round was introduced through the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010. Prior to this Amendment, local governments were not an independent part of the governance structure. Unfortunately, nothing has changed much, even under a democratic setup. If the military did not devolve real power to the local tier, the democratic dispensations, too, are reluctant to transfer statutory powers to the local level. Through the said amendment, provinces were stripped of autonomy in many areas and they are bound to share power under article 140 of the constitution, which talks about transferring political, economic and administrative authority to local governments. Currently, the central machinery is still in bureaucrats’ hands except for megacities where somehow mayors and deputy mayors are allowed to play their respective roles, e.g. Islamabad. Therefore, there is still a long way to go before Pakistan enjoys the real devolution of power.
Comparatively, if we analyze, these lacklustre devolution rounds negated the very essence of devolution of power. The real heart of devolution is political as well as administrative. Another thing that is very important to notice in Pakistan’s case is that the devolution directly from center to local level negates the standard concept of decentralization. Pakistan is a federation and its federating units must not be bypassed in this regard as has been done several times by military rulers who disbanded the provincial assemblies under the self-serving framework. In this regard, democracy had not been the core of the Basic Democracies and Local Government Ordinances and other laws enacted during military regimes. All these three regimes did very little to devolve real power to the grassroots level.
Pakistan has failed to devolve the absolute power to lower tiers of governance. The historical account does not show any positive indicators. Although the military introduced and implemented the local government system, it failed to equip that with political and administrative power, and people remain devoid of political participation and local decision-making. Today, the same is happening: the provincial elite do not want to transfer powers and resources to the local level.
The author is currently pursuing his BS in Political Science at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.