Local bodies in Punjab

April 10, 2021

The Supreme Court’s decision to restore the local government system in Punjab is an important victory for all those who want to see a strong and efficient local government system in...

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The Supreme Court’s decision to restore the local government system in Punjab is an important victory for all those who want to see a strong and efficient local government system in Pakistan.

Local governments in Punjab were dissolved by the PTI-led Punjab government in May 2019. In the last 21 months, the PTI government used delaying tactics to hold fresh local government elections. The party has no real justification for dissolving the LGs and delaying the LG elections for nearly two years.

The Punjab government seems reluctant to implement the SC decision. No notification has been issued so far to restore the local governments and to hand them over to local representatives.

The restored mayors, district council chairs and other elected representatives at different levels of local governments in Punjab want to take control of their offices to resume their official functions. But the Punjab government has yet to hand over offices to them.

It seems that the legal and political battle around LGs in Punjab is not over yet. The Punjab government finds it hard to swallow the bitter pill of handing over LGs back to PML-N loyalists, who are said to dominate local government. The decision to dissolve the local governments is seen to have been politically motivated, the main aim being an end to the PML-N’s domination over local government.

The Punjab government is arguing that it will implement the SC order after receiving the detailed order, which has not been released yet. The concerned officials hold the legal view that the previous LGs cannot be restored as the Punjab Local Government Act 2019 is still intact and PLGA 2013 was repealed. One hopes that the detailed judgment might help clarify the confusion.

The Supreme Court in its landmark decision declared the dissolution of the LG system as unconstitutional and Section 3 of the Punjab Local Government Act (PLGA)-2019 ultra vires to the constitution. Section 3 of the PLGA was introduced for political reasons by the previous PML-N government. So while the PML-N is celebrating the restoration of LGs, the same party included the undemocratic provision in the law.

The interesting fact is that the PML-N used to staunchly oppose Article 58(2) (b) of the constitution by which the president was empowered to dissolve the assemblies and send home elected governments. But the PML-N government in Punjab included a legal provision in the PLGA 2013 that was equivalent to Article 58 (2) (b). The PTI government just used the already existing law to achieve its political interests.

One can hope that the SC decision will help stop the practice of dissolving the local governments prematurely before completion of their term. If federal and provincial governments insist that people have elected them for five years and it is undemocratic and unconstitutional to send them home before completing the term, then the same applies to local governments. The people elected them for five years. Instead of respecting the mandate of people at the local level, they were sent packing just after two years.

It was a clear violation of the people’s mandate and democratic norms and culture. Such an attitude will not strengthen democracy at the grassroots level. It will not help strengthen the democratic institutions and traditions. It will also not help strengthen the local government system.

It is unfortunate that political governments never seriously tried to strengthen the local governments. This decision has provided an opportunity for the Punjab government to sit down with opposition parties and experts of the local government system to overcome the shortcomings and to improve local government in Punjab. The government can initiate a wide-scale discussion and consultation on the new law and local government system.

Pakistan needs an independent, powerful and well functional local government system to reform the administrative system at the grassroots level. No political, financial and administrative reform will succeed without evolving an efficient and democratic local government system. There is no other way to strengthen grassroots democracy in the country. The political leadership needs to understand that.

The experience of the last 21 months has clearly shown that not only Punjab but the rest of the country too needs an effective, democratic, transparent, efficient and strong local government.

There were many shortcomings and weaknesses in the previous LG system. The system introduced by PTI was not ideal. There were many flaws in it. The government rushed through the legislation without giving enough time to MPAs and the civil society to debate the new bill. No proper consultations were held with civil society organisations and existing elected representatives of the local governments. The government in fact killed any meaningful discussion and debate both inside and outside the assembly. This haste to avoid a proper public debate surprised many who believed that the PTI would hold wider consultations as promised by its leadership.

Article 32 of the constitution ensures the participation of marginalised groups, such as women, minorities, peasants and labour in local government elections. The definition of labour and peasant is ambiguous and creates confusion. This reduces the true representation of labour and peasants in the local governments.

The representation of women in the previous system was significantly reduced. Women got 33 percent representation in the local government system introduced by Gen Musharraf in 2001. Thousands of councilors and community activists emerged as a result of increased representation for women. That move encouraged a new layer of women activists to participate in local government and politics.

The PML-N government reduced this representation in the last local government system in 2013. PTI legislation further reduced this representation. And there will also be no representation for the youth in the new system, since the government has abolished the youth seats introduced by the previous PML-N government.

Article 140-A of the constitution, brought in by the 18th Amendment, states that 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.

This means devolution of power from the federal to the provincial and from the provincial to the local governments. All the provincial governments need to implement Article 140-A of the constitution in letter and spirit.

In the name of transparency, accountability, monitoring and sustainable development, the provincial government wants much control over the local governments. Technocrats and the bureaucracy were given wider powers in the running of local government. This approach is against the spirit of Article 140-A of the constitution.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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