One of the effects of the devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th Amendment to the constitution has, ironically, been a weakening of the local government system. The provinces have the right to decide which powers to hand over to local officials and unsurprisingly they have decided to keep most of them for themselves. Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to bring about a change in the local government system by setting up a committee to recommend reforms that would then be presented to the provincial assemblies within a month. Based on the ideas presented by the prime minister at a meeting with the chief ministers of Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this past Sunday, the reforms Imran Khan is considering will do little to transfer power to the grassroots.
The main proposal mentioned by Imran is to abolish district governments and replace them with smaller tehsil governments and to introduce the direct election of mayors who would head the entire system of tehsil governments in the city. The prime minister has said that the local government system he is introducing is modelled on that of cities like London but he seems to misunderstand the fundamental role of mayors in such cities. The powers of the London mayor are strictly limited and do not exceed those of local councillors. The system Imran wants to introduce would put the mayor in charge of the entire city. It could lead to gridlock as many of the tehsil governments will be of different political parties. Instead of giving more power to local officials, such a system would put too much power in the hands of one official.
Ultimately the decision on whether to go forward with these local government reforms will rest with the provincial assemblies. Since Sindh is controlled by the PPP, the idea is likely a non-starter there. At the meeting on Sunday, both Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal and Punjab governor nominee Chaudhry Sarwar expressed their opposition to the idea. Imran may find that even members of his own party are reluctant to introduce these reforms since he wants the directly elected mayor to receive the discretionary funds that were previously given to members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies. There is no constitutional role for the federal government to play in setting up the local government system but if the prime minister wants to use his bully pulpit it would be better utilised to encourage the provinces to hand over powers to local government officials rather than concocting a new, convoluted system that will not solve any governance issues.