Turning the Local Global

Turning the Local Global

Turning the Local Global.


The 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan has done little to change the status of local governments in Pakistan. Despite application of several iterative reforms so that they are able to tackle the subjects devolved to them, the performance of local governments seems to lack essence. The passage of the 18thAmendment meant that local governments would be placed at the centre of the country’s development campaign. They had to act as the development pivot. However, in all safety, one can say that local governments under Musharraf were far more organized than they are now under an arguably democratic polity. And no matter how good the 18th Amendment looks on paper, it has definitely fallen short of the object that set it in motion. Not only in local, but also in the provincial and federal governments systemic cracks have been exposed regularly by external shocks that lay bare the huge capacity deficits prevalent within these organizations.

The idea of devolution and empowerment is not merely to transfer a few provincial and federal subjects to the local governments. This may result in modelling of the local governments against the governance models adopted at the federal level or in the provinces. They may not be great examples to follow, especially in the case of the developing world. Local governments following such transfers would continue to stay local. The idea is to look at the successful local governance models followed around the world, and remodel local governments to bring them in line with the international best practices. Local governments, therefore, have to be turned global. This is where Pakistan has seriously failed. Despite making a historic legislative advancement by passing the 18th Amendment, Pakistan has not been able to provide local governments the status that they deserved. Much of this can be understood by looking at the trajectory of empowerment and strengthening of local governments in Pakistan. The context on how their structure and functionality have been conveniently moulded to suit political interests yields an intriguing analysis. It is interesting to observe how political considerations determined the outlook and complexion of governance that was to take place in Pakistan.


In the aftermath of the 18thAmendment, Pakistan had to make the exercise of devolving powers, both financial and administrative, to the provinces. The Concurrent List was abolished which meant that subjects that were dealt with both at the federation level and in the provinces were automatically dropped from the federal purview to become provincial. This was a transitory step in the devolution process — a bigger and more difficult leap forward had to be devolution from the provinces to the districts. It has taken Pakistan10 years (since 2010 when the Amendment was passed), dozens of dossiers, reports and policy papers but local governments continue to operate as feebly as they did back in 2010. An under resourced office of the Deputy Commissioner (DC), few Assistant Commissioners (in larger districts) and disempowered local political executive who is neither elected on a continuous basis nor provided adequate and sufficient funds to keep the wheel of development moving. Between 2009 and 2015, not a single local-bodies election was held meaning that the districts operated only under the administrative control of the District Coordination Officer (DCO), holder of an office whose sanctity and writ had significantly waned after the Local Government Ordinance of 2001. I shall come to discuss that in detail later in the piece.Turning the Local Global 1

It is imperative to imagine the empowerment and strengthening of local governments in context of the larger political system. The different roles that the local governments assume during civilian and military regimes is an interesting way to understand how local governments interact with the larger political system and why today they stand where they do. During the times of the military, greater emphasis was placed on strengthening local governments. The opposite, unfortunately, happened when democratic rule was established. Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracies Order (BDO-1959) sought to create a multi-tiered system of local government and empowered it against higher-order political organizations that were disbanded through the military takeover in 1958. Thereafter, this became a regular practice of the military rulers. Whosoever came to power did so by overthrowing the mainstream political leadership. However, the demands of governance required that there be some level of political representation which necessitated that the military rulers would undertake the laborious exercise of creating a parallel leadership which would then have to be provided some franchise. Most of the political leadership created in the breeding grounds of the military became politically irrelevant as soon as the reins of power were transferred to the civilian leadership. They just simply vanished.

The BDO did promise some franchise to the local political executive but did so by making them subservient to a controlling authority comprising the DC, Commissioner and other members of the local bureaucratic elite. Ayub’s local government was also essentially used to legitimize the controversial Constitution of 1962 that was seen to strengthen the armed forces at the loss of other institutions apart from also trying to forge the establishment of an apparently presidential system. One, therefore, must understand that strengthening local governments by allowing space for newly-elected local representatives and arming them with some financial and administrative powers at the tehsil and zila (district) levels is not a choice of the military rulers, but a necessity. The mainstream leadership that the parallel local political representatives created by the military are expected to replace often operate at the higher level of politics. Their interest in the provincial and national politics leaves space open for infiltration at the local level. Even to date, almost all mainstream political parties seem to be rather disorganized at the local level, having little or no party structure in the zila, tehsil or mouza. Most democracies that have been established in Pakistan have built on this rather undemocratic premise.Turning the Local Global 2

Bhutto was opposed to the bureaucracy, not bitterly per se but his actions did as much to contain the bureaucracy as they did to reform it. His era is considered the one of discomfort for the bureaucrats who found themselves weak, incapacitated and effectively sidelined often performing menial and routine tasks. From the very outset, Bhutto was eager to regulate the functioning of the bureaucracy. He brought a system of bureaucratic reform that divided the executive branch of the government into 12 cadres, all put into a common system that provided for joint training of the different cadres of the civil service and bound them by a set of service rules to be codified into the Estacode. The making of these rules was mandated by Article 99 of the newly-passed 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. He abolished constitutional guarantees for civil servants which further added to the insecurities that civil servants felt during his time at the office. The CSP, which was once the linchpin of Pakistan’s bureaucracy and spearheaded the country’s initial development process, was made subservient to the jiyalas of the PPP who belonged to a political class that was not equipped with the tools and training needed to formulate and execute policies and development plans. This resulted in conflicts and governance failures that doubled the government’s disadvantage during a period when the nationalization of private enterprise demanded better administration. Sidelining both the private sector and the bureaucracy was a recipe for disaster. However, as Pakistan still holds onto the common system of recruitment and the service rules established under Bhutto, one begins to wonder if his reforms were as bad as they are perceived to be.

As Cheema et.al point out, Zia followed in the footsteps of Bhutto by foregoing political centralization to institute electoral representation at the local level. Like Ayub whose primary support base lay in the rural areas the allocations of which he had increased significantly as a strategy to remove the urban bias strongly associated with his predecessors. Interestingly, while the military-empowered local governments made efforts to remove the rural-urban divide and provided them with some degree of representation, the provincial administration retained suspension powers and the powers to quash resolutions of the local governments. The bargain perhaps was to empower local governments but not at the expense of the hierarchy that placed the military administrators in the higher echelons of authority.

The Local Government Ordinance (LGO) of 2001 was promulgated under a military government but to the great surprise of observers, it served to weaken the district bureaucracy. The executive branch of the government under Musharraf did not feel as weak as did the newly-created office of the DCO who was now, in many ways, subordinating the District Mayor. Several good officers, who held the posts of DC and Commissioner prior to the change, requested for transfers to the provincial secretariat to avoid being answerable to the elected mayors who they perhaps saw as offices poorly placed to supervise their functioning. The local bodies elections of 2001 and 2005 saw strong local governments with significant amount of funds at their disposal in the districts. The bureaucracy assumed a subsidiary role in the development process. This however, was not a withdrawal of powers from the local governments rather it was a change that empowered one local player at the expense of another. It was later determined that the elected local bodies supervised by the military could not yield the same development outcomes as did the bureaucracy. News agencies in those time reported massive corruption and embezzlement of funds at the local level, raising serious concerns on the quality of governance in the districts.

The re-emergence of a democratic policy in Pakistan in 2008  meant that while there would be promises to empower local governments, the so-called democratic governments in the centre and the provinces would be reluctant in transferring authority to the districts which may run them the risk of doing away with powers that many of them perceived as their own. Transferring these to the local political executive, who is elected on a non-party basis, would result in an irreversible dilution of administrative and financial powers. This was not acceptable to any of the two parties that governed in the decade between 2008 and 2018. No local bodies elections were held during the 5-year PPP rule which meant that the administrative space vacated in the districts was filled by the bureaucracy. A new local bodies ordinance was promulgated in 2013 that did not return magistracy powers to the Pakistan Administrative Service; however, it did restore the office of the DC and sought to distribute powers rather equally between the DPO, DC and the District and Sessions Judge depending on the mandate and requirements of their specific roles.


The empowerment and strengthening of local governments still remain a concern for Pakistan, especially from the viewpoint of establishing a strong federation the precondition to which is functioning and independent federating units. The true spirit of the 18thAmendment and fiscal federalism will be a distant dream until the decision-making powers are not devolved to the lowest level.

The writer is a civil servant working for the Federal Government of Pakistan, and ex-Director of the Institute of Public Policy, Lahore. He can be reached via email @ asad.ejazb@gmail.com

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