The sorry state of governance

Constitutional protection can make local governments more empowered and effective

The sorry state of governance


here seems to be a sense of tension within legislative bodies as well as conflicts between various important institutions in the country. Two provinces are currently being administered by caretaker governments. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for nearly a decade. In the Punjab, however, they did not hold office for that long.

The fundamental issue remains poor governance. It is affecting the country as a whole. In addition, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is facing unique challenges with regard to security.

Gen Pervez Musharraf had established a National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) in 1999 that introduced a new local government system in the country in 2001 after studying various models around the world. The stated purpose of this system was to overcome the problems related to effective governance. The system brought some improvements at the district level throughout the country. However, the senior bureaucracy as well as elected leaders of the provincial and central political governments remained hostile to it.

The main reason for the hostility was the devolution of power to elected public representatives at the lower level. In South Asia, since the British colonial era, infrastructure has been in place at the federal, provincial, divisional and district levels to run the government. Under the new local government system, with the transfer of powers to the district level, the deputy commissioner, who was the most powerful bureaucrat in the district, was given a new title, District Coordinating Officer (DCO) and placed under the zila (district) nazim. The district police officer, too, became a subordinate to the zila nazim.

“The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government altered the shape of this system, particularly in 2019, when 28 departments under the local government were reduced to 24 through legislation,” says Mardan Mayor Himayatullah Khan Mayar. “Until then, the district governments had successfully handled major crises, including the 2005 earthquake, the 2009 Swat operation and the floods.”

The PTI provincial government abolished the district government system. Local government leaders called this a major setback to democracy at the grassroots level and a significant surrender to the bureaucracy. Consequently, the tehsil nazim or mayor could no longer be referred to heads of respective governments. This effectively brought back the deputy commissioner model. Furthermore, amendments to Sections 23A and 27, transferred powers to the provincial cabinet and took away the district governments’ decision making authority. Now, the provincial government and civil bureaucracy can change the rules of business without amending the Act.

Currently, the state of governance in the province is dire. People are dying even during the distribution of free flour by the government.

It is worth noting that under Section 53, the province is required to allocate 30 percent of its annual development budget to the local governments. Unfortunately, the districts have been denied the Rs 70 billion that were to come to them. The funds were provided by the Asian Development Bank for city development programmes, recalls Himayatullah Khan.

The local governments are seen around the world as guarantors of public service delivery and development. In the West, the system has been particularly successful due to the strong connection between the elected leadership and the community. People feel empowered and assert their right to participate in governance, holding those in power accountable and demanding answers at the grassroots level.

Unfortunately, the current state of governance in the province is dire. In some cases, people have died during the distribution of free flour. Drainage issues plague a majority of city neighbourhoods. District officers operate without fear of accountability to elected officials or the local community.

Although there are elected tehsil governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, they lack essential infrastructure. While the tehsil administration has its own offices, the structure necessary to build an effective tehsil government has yet to be provided.

The root of the problem lies in the constitutional provisions. Although the constitution acknowledges the importance of a local government system, it provides no real protection against encroachment by the provincial governments. Adding a chapter outlining the role of district governments can strengthen the system and ensure its continued success.

In most developed countries, national and provincial assemblies are mostly concerned with making laws. However, in our country, a majority of legislators are focused mostly on development activities in their constituencies. Making service delivery and development the responsibility of the district governments can help members of the provincial and national assemblies focus on legislation.

The district government system is crucial for delivering effective governance and ensuring regional security. This is especially important in times of political turmoil.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer

The sorry state of governance