The motivation of writing a series of articles on local governance in Pakistan came from an insightful discussion on the subject organized recently by the Dialogue Forum Hunza (DFH).
The subject of the local government system in Pakistan is too broad to be covered in a single article. The 75-year journey towards building an effective local government system is partly about consolidating administrative and political control with sporadic endeavours of power devolution punctuated by fits and starts.
The first three parts in the series of four articles will discuss the historical evolution of the local government system in Pakistan, including key features, challenges and way forward. The fourth article will exclusively discuss the case of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and will include a critical review of the existing laws/policies/bills of local government vis-a-vis the unique ecological, political, geostrategic and constitutional context of the region.
These articles are an attempt to envisage an effective framework while drawing upon the overall local government experiences in Pakistan. Credit goes to the DFH for holding this important debate as an inclusive platform of intellectuals, policy experts, development professionals, political leaders, civil-society activists, journalists, academicians and researchers.
The DFH invited famous experts along with local practitioners from GB to deliberate upon the existing legislations and policies on local government vis-a-vis the emerging challenges of fast changing political and economic realities in Pakistan and constitutional and ecological challenges in GB. The experts also provided recommendations towards developing viable models of local government systems to address these challenges.
Pakistan is a federal republic with a three-tiered governance system at the national, provincial and local levels. This governance system is protected under the constitution in Articles 32 and 140-A, making the local government system a mandatory provision of representative democracy. Article 140-A of the constitution says: “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.”
The constitution assigns the authority to the ECP to ensure free and fair elections at all three tiers of government. Each province has also promulgated its own legislation of local government as an extension of the constitutional provisions with implementation responsibilities assigned to a dedicated ministry.
A strong democracy must have an effective local government system to make people the shareholders of political power and economic prosperity. It calls for political, legal, economic and fiscal devolution and local planning protected by the law. While the constitution provides for a local government system to strengthen democracy, in reality these provisions were never materialized.
With the 18th Amendment in 2010, the power elite at the centre agreed to devolve political authority to provinces, but the provincial political elite resisted the further devolution of power towards an effective local government system.
Both the provincial political elite and bureaucracy have always thwarted citizens’ demand for an empowered and inclusive local government system for fear of losing their political power and control of fiscal resources. The mainstream political parties lack intra-party democracy and are run by either family dynasts or strong personalities with absolute control over intraparty political decisions. The fear is that a strong local government system can give birth to a vocal and alternate political leadership which in turn will challenge the monopolistic political control of the traditional power elite.
Pakistani politics is dominated by feudals, family dynasties and business tycoons who work with religious clerics, pirs, shrine runners and bureaucracy to consolidate their control over political power.
The power elite of the mainstream political parties draw their public legitimacy through concocted identities to associate themselves with saints, pirs and syeds. It is unthinkable to create an empowered local government system without breaking this undemocratic power alliance and allowing the educated middle and working classes to become stakeholders in governing the country.
While the mainstream political parties defied devolution of powers to the lower tier, local government systems were established under military regimes in Pakistan. General Ayub Khan introduced Basic Democracies in 1959 which was a four-tiered local governance mechanism. The four tiers included union councils, tehsil councils, district councils and divisional councils, headed by the officials of the local administration of each tier, including tehsildars and deputy commissioners.
The system was too bureaucratic as it gave additional powers to tehsildars and deputy commissioners. They acted not only as the administrative heads but also as political heads at the local level, and elected representatives became rubber stamps.
This was a flawed model of local governance which not only disempowered local elected representatives but also ensured the direct administrative control of the lowest tiers of government.
The objective was to control the centre and cultivate pro-military leadership at the local level. For this reason, one may argue that the Basic Democracies model did not introduce democracy as it did not empower people to have control over the government’s power.
Later, General Ayub introduced the Municipal Administration Ordinance 1960, which comprised a hierarchical system of four-linked tiers. The lowest tier was union councils consisting of elected members. Union council members elected the chairperson from among themselves. The higher tiers of local government had some members elected indirectly by these directly elected members and some official members nominated by the government.
Overall, following colonial legacy, local governments were controlled by the bureaucracy. Deputy commissioners and commissioners chief bureaucrats at the district and the division level respectively had the power to annul any proceedings or decisions taken by the local councils.
The prime motivation for introducing local governments by Ayub Khan was to legitimize his presidential constitution (1962) that gave control of the state to the military through the office of the president.
To be continued
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. He tweets @AmirHussain76 and can be reached at: email@example.com
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