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October 5, 2018

Government by experiment


October 5, 2018

Before reading Zahid Islam’s book, ‘Experiments of local government in Pakistan: past, present and future’ on local governments, I never knew how local bodies can be used as instruments of change at the grassroots level, and to strengthen democracy and political forces.

Zahid Islam, a Marxist political thinker and activist, belongs to a generation of revolutionaries who sought to bring social change through revolutionary struggle. This generation sacrificed a great deal to defend the democratic, political and economic rights of the downtrodden and exploited sections of society.

He joined the social sector when Left politics in Pakistan became fragmented, and has dedicated his life to promoting the idea of genuinely representative and fully functional local governments. There is no concept of a modern, representative and participatory democracy without a well-entrenched and sovereign local bodies system.

According to Zahid Islam, local governments can be used to empower local communities and strengthen the roots of democracy at the grassroots level. His latest book deals with Pakistan’s experiment with local governments and reflects the years he has devoted to researching and understanding this theme. It is a well-documented and thoroughly researched book that highlights the issues faced by local governments in Pakistan.

Zahid Islam has published this book at a time when the PTI governments at the centre and Punjab are working towards introducing yet another local government system. This book offer insights that can help improve local bodies and avoid past mistakes. Zahid Islam has pointed out many reasons why we don’t have a fully functional and genuinely democratic local government system.

The ruling classes have used Pakistan as a laboratory to sample different local bodies systems over the last 71 years. Every government has tried something different. But no system has evolved and sustained itself in the long run.

As in the past, no public discussion is taking place on the new system. The PTI government perhaps wants to introduce the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa model in Punjab and Balochistan with some minor adjustments. It seems that a system will once again be imposed from the top without any discussion with the relevant stakeholders. Even local government representatives have been kept in the dark about the new system.

The government seems to be in a hurry to dissolve existing local governments in Punjab and replace them with a new system. The main reason of its haste is possibly the PTI leadership’s decision to not provide development funds to legislatures.

Traditional political families that belong to the ruling party are under pressure to initiate development in their constituencies. The problem is that the PML-N controls local governments in Punjab and the PTI isn’t interested in providing them development funds. As a result, the PTI wants to bring in a new local government system through which it can gain a majority to initiate development work. Legislators wanted to bring in their family members as the new mayors and local government heads, and use development funds in their constituencies.

Although different models of local government have been introduced with some modifications, the legal and structural framework has remained the same. But no government has ever tried to decolonise the state structure by introducing a democratic and truly representative local government system. This form of local government structure will be more accountable to the people. Local governments can produce a real and genuine democratic leadership at the grassroots level. Instead, local bodies elections are often used to depoliticise society and strengthen the status quo.

The PTI will make cosmetic changes in the existing local government system without introducing radical reforms, while the bureaucracy will continue to run the system in collaboration with politicians at the provincial and local levels. If an effective local government system is implemented, members of parliament will lose clout.

Similarly, the bureaucracy has historically held vast powers in the districts, and civilian governments have almost always put the local administration in the hands of the district bureaucracy. They form a nexus of power with the political class, which will break if an effective local government is put in place.

To uphold the tradition and culture of democracy in letter and spirit, the government and its functionaries have to concede to the narrative that they have been elected to primarily provide public service, not rule like masters. The focus should be on service delivery. Public positions shouldn’t be used for ‘self-service’ by the ruling elite.

Article 140-A of the constitution categorically lays down the scope of local governments. It 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 local governments”.

Local governments should control service delivery, health, education, and job-generation schemes, revenue generation, tax collection and imposition, transport, housing, and the police department. Departments like the Water and Sanitation Agency, Lahore Development Authority and Parks and Horticulture Authority, and matters such as solid waste disposal and road construction should fall under the control of local governments.

Under the present laws, local governments have meagre financial resources at their disposal. Finance commissions should be formed at the provincial and district levels for the fair distribution of financial resources – even at the union council levels.

The writer is a freelance journalist.