Devolution of Power

By: Abdul Rasool Syed

Pakistan needs a good local government system

To ensure good governance, decentralization of the centralized dispensation in a federal structure is of paramount importance. Devolution of power from centre to states, or provinces in the case of Pakistan, and then to local level is a sine qua non for heterogeneous countries like Pakistan, where large segments of citizenry remain marginalized by a centralist governance mechanism.

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This very benchmark of a democratic polity is consummate with the erection of the third tier of government, also known as local bodies or local government, wherein people belonging to the underprivileged segments of society have sufficient participation and a greater say in the management of affairs at local level.

Political scientists also contend that the local governments serve as a political nursery for producing leaders of the future. The perpetuity of the local governance, therefore, results in the emergence of a dynamic and empathetic leadership. People who rise from grassroots level have deep insight into the issues that the people living at the margins are faced with, and hence they are aptly capable of dealing with such issues effectively. Furthermore, in a broader spectrum, local government system is considered a prerequisite for nurturing democratic norms in a society. It is due to inconsistent installation of the local bodies that we could not foster 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 Ayub Khan. Since then, different versions of local government have been introduced and experimented by elected and non-elected governments alike. Ironically, during the democratic era of 1988-99, four democratically-elected governments gained power, but none worked on the local government system. Pakistan’s next big experiment with devolution was done under General Pervez Musharaf – Devolution of Power Plan, 2001. Musharraf’s devolutionary exercise actually was also a legitimizing strategy for his centralized rule, since it did not devolve power from the federal level to the provinces; it instead focused on creating local governments on non-party basis. Yet the Local Government Ordinance (LGO), 2001, passed during Musharaf’s tenure was quite ambitious in its scope. The LGO 2001 reserved a significant portion of local government seats, i.e. 33 percent, 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 bodies system. Clause 140 A(1), which was inserted in the constitution through the 18th Constitutional Amendment, stipulated that “[e]ach 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.” Whereas 140 A(2) states that “[e]lections to the local governments shall be held by the Election Commission of Pakistan.” In addition, Article 32 of the constitution ensures the participation of marginalized groups such as women, minorities, peasants and labourers in the local government elections.

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Despite enactment of legislation pertaining to devolution of power, the local government system could not thrive in Pakistan. Power intoxicated politicians who, in cahoots with bureaucrats, created umpteen hurdles in the way of this system. The forces of status quo are not ready to surrender their power to the local representatives even today. One glaring example of it is that LG election in 2015 was conducted only after an order by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It speaks volumes about the attitude of state institutions toward the local bodies.

Moreover, the local government law says that the federal government and the provincial governments will legislate while the development works would be done by the local governments. The situation on the ground is that MNAs, MPAs and even the Senators want to have their say in the development works. This tug of war, therefore, results in confrontation between and among the state institutions. However, quite encouragingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed that he would not dole out development funds to MPAs and MNAs. This is a right step in the right direction. If it goes as he said, there is a strong possibility that local governments will start bearing fruit. Otherwise, things will remain the same in the presence of parallel centres of power and deeply entrenched bureaucratic echelons.

Besides, there is still only about 15 percent of participation of women in lower tier of the government whereas the law requires that to be at least 33 percent. Women’s inclusion as per the above-mentioned constitutional requirement, therefore, should be enhanced. There should be a mechanism for fair representation of labourers as well.

Another irritant that hampers the performance of the local government system, and also hangs like a sword of Damocles over it, is the unrestricted power of the chief minister of the respective 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 hampers the efficiency of the governance of the local bodies and, therefore, should be revoked forthwith.

Notwithstanding 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, has any stipulated time for re-election of local bodies after completion of a term, or in case of early dissolution. That is why the Supreme Court has to intervene for the election for next term. This situation warrants a timely legislation with respect to time frame at relevant legislative houses for the continuation of the system without any hiatus.

Second, the government should initiate capacity-building programmes for the local representatives so that they may understand the rules of business and deliver up to the required threshold. Although different NGOs organize capacity-building workshops, keeping in view the number of representatives that runs into thousands, the government must also partner in private enterprise.

Third, the roles of the parliamentarians and elected councilors must be clearly demarcated for overlapping of these roles is a structural obstruction in smooth functioning of the local bodies. Federal and provincial legislators have nothing to do with the development funds; they are supposed to legislate on important matters and protect, thereby, 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.

Fourth, the government should create a federal level institution to oversee the devolution process. The National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) established by the Musharaf government as an independent federal institution to formulate the LGO 2001 and oversee its implementation was dissolved in 2011. A similar entity without undermining the principles of provincial autonomy provided in 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 with 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 PTI government intends to introduce new local bodies system in the provinces where PTI has governments through direct elections for tehsil and district heads that run contrary to the prevalent system in Punjab. Under this dispensation, PTI plans to get elected city mayor directly by the people as it is practiced in UK and some Scandinavian countries. But the Sindh government has been reluctant to adapt to any innovation. Sanity, therefore, demands that before introduction of any new system, the consensus of the provinces must be sought; otherwise, the situation will lead to centre-province disharmony.

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