Wednesday July 06, 2022

Good decentralisation

October 22, 2018

Prime Minister Imran Khan signalled urgency when he gave 48-hour and two-week deadlines to a high-powered task force set up to redesign local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

This was among the first actions PM Khan took after assuming office, confirming the primacy his government intends to place on devolved governance. But the task force failed to meet each new deadline, its members unable to agree on revisions. They are still mulling over different policy prescriptions.

Consensus on the shape of local government reforms is elusive: Some want village and neighbourhood councils in Punjab, claiming they are successful in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Others argue that the prohibitive cost of such councils in the larger province make them unfeasible. Some suggest retaining the union council in Punjab as the basic tier but reducing its size. The idea of slashing the district as an administrative unit is hinted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, sending nazims into a tizzy. Fears of substantial changes rapidly implemented put many on edge. Government announcements that the present local dispensation would complete its term calmed nerves. But anxiety persists as uncertainties linger.

Final decisions on local government reforms may have been deferred. But change is certain. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s 2013 model is unlikely to survive after its present term ends in May 2019. More substantial changes are expected in Punjab if it is to mirror Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s template.

So what’s next for local governments? Designing an effective system requires attention to festering issues. Three are key. Tensions have taken root between local and provincial politicians who compete to serve as patronage structures. This polarisation must be reduced. Intentionally or not, local governments championed by military regimes have pit local against provincial representatives and administration. The 80,000 basic democrats under Ayub Khan (1959) were labelled collaborators, mistrusted by political forces that led the movement against the military dictator. General Ziaul Haq’s local bodies (1979) shifted power from the bureaucracy to the elected, driving a wedge between them despite the limited scope of authority given to elected councillors. General Musharraf’s Local Government Ordinance (2000) took tensions to another level as it stripped authority from the powerful deputy commissioner and transferred it to the elected district nazim.

As soon as local government fortunes waned, provincial politicians reclaimed their lost powers, and even encroached upon local functions. MPAs assumed control of the District Development Advisory Committees (DDACs) which decide development priorities and allocate public funds for their implementation. MPAs also gained access to other public resources. In 2015, the PTI launched its much-publicised local government system in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At the same time, it allocated Rs5.79 billion to MPAs under the guise of constituency development funds (CDFs). This represented 4.1 percent of the total Annual Development Programme.

Allocating CDFs to MPAs blatantly contradicted the PTI’s public pledges, now famously called U-turns, of restricting MPAs to legislative responsibilities and devolving authority to make development choices to local governments. If Khyber Pakhtunkhwa now decides to abolish the district as an administrative unit, it will consolidate provincial power in a zero-sum game that will weaken local politicians. Balancing authority between the different tiers of representative and administrative governance is critically important. Abolishing conflicting mechanisms like DDACs and CDFs will help harmonise jurisdiction.

The absence of vertical integration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s 2013 local government model hinders the pursuit of a coherent development roadmap. Its three directly elected tiers work independently with funds provided by the province. They lack mechanisms or incentives for coordination. According to news reports, connections are being deliberated in the proposed new two-tier structure by making nazims of village and neighbourhood councils also members of the tehsil council. But these connections will be ineffectual if the basic tier is shrunk from 10-15 members to 5-6 members, reducing its ability to be suitably representative.

A viable alternate is to re-establish the union council in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The village and neighbourhood councils falling within the borders of a union council could be turned into wards to elect two members from each, one on a general and another on a seat reserved for women. This electoral design will make representation in the union council more even and also increase public space for women. Additional seats may be reserved for peasants/labour, youth and non-Muslim citizens. The unwieldy number of basic units will reduce from about 3,500 village and neighbourhood councils to a more reasonable 1,000 union councils. Vertical integration from union council to higher levels of local government will also become simpler.

Finally, but importantly, local governments cannot thrive without effective fiscal decentralisation. Not less than 30 percent of total development funds were to be allocated to local governments under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Local Government Act 2013. But in FY2017-18, the PTI-led government failed to comply with the threshold it had set, and Rs32.5 billion or only 26 percent of total funds was given to local governments.

Even more surprising was the decision to divert some of these funds. Around Rs0.56 billion was set aside for the chief minister and Rs0.28 billion for the finance minister for the catchall purpose of public interest. Moreover, the Provincial Finance Commission failed in its primary responsibility of devising a Provincial Finance Commission Award. It wasted the opportunity to claim credit for enacting legislation that guarantees fair distribution of development funds to local government tiers. The PTI is now stronger in the province, unencumbered by coalition partners. It must seize the second chance at ensuring fiscal decentralisation.

The past trajectory of local governments in Pakistan is best described as fascinating but frustrating. Blurred motives and brazen manipulations have blocked real decentralisation despite the obvious need for local self-governance. Even the obligation to comply with Article 140-A included under the 18th Constitutional Amendment passed in 2010 has not spurred effective devolution.

So what next for local government? Will the public resolve and urgency displayed by Prime Minister Imran Khan translate into effective policy? Or will the PTI take more U-turns?

The writer is a political activist and executive director of the Omar Asghar Khan Foundation. Email: