The government’s resolve to empower local governments is welcomed with caution
Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced that efforts will be made to transfer power to grass roots through an effective local government system. While chairing a meeting on September 15, he stated the local government systems in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab shall be articulated to make devolution of power a visible reality.
In Balochistan and Sindh, the provincial governments will be advised to follow Article 140A of the Constitution which lays down the creation of an effective local government tier. For all those political workers, leaders, activists and social scientists who subscribe to the virtues of a credible local government system, this is perhaps music to their ears! However, given the past experiences and obstructions that the local government tier has faced during the past decade, any optimism shall need a cautious appraisal.
A very solid and well-argued case must be prepared by the prime minister and his team to campaign for local government. In Pakistan, the mainstream political leadership considers local bodies as a competing rival, not a collaborating arm. This feeling is especially widespread amongst the henchmen who control provincial tiers of respective parties.
It is correct that the local government systems have been bolstered by military dictators for their own vested interests but this fact does not undermine the merits and opportunities inbuilt in it. Foremost in this respect is the creation of a legitimate avenue for leadership development. In an arena where dynastic and aristocratic claims to leadership overtake merit at every end, the only option which can enable future political leadership to emerge is local government.
There are hundreds of case studies pertinent to ordinary councilors, women/labour councilors, union council nazims, town/tehsil/taluka level leaders and district level representatives who were able to win their offices purely on merit and later proved their popularity through re-election. Even in the most dangerous labyrinths of KPK and Balochistan, these dedicated public representatives made tireless efforts to address pressing problems related to education, health, social welfare and area management. Some of them were even devoid of any political affiliation and had to face the wrath of both right and left wing parties.
The local elections during 2001, 2005 and 2013-15 were reasonable tests for their performance evaluation, mal-functioning of electoral process notwithstanding. Real political culture cannot be nurtured without frequent practice of voting process along the party cadres, local, provincial and national assemblies. It is disappointing to note that the parties that demand promotion of democracy are probably the outfits closest to dictatorship.
The tendency to control local governments is not new and has existed in many stable democracies also. The Thatcher regime in the UK saw over concentration of powers in the central government. The grants of the local councils were cut and the Greater London Council (GLC) and six metropolitan councils were abolished in 1986. Better sense prevailed and Greater London Authority (GLA) was founded in 2000.
Similarly, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in India created the legal framework for devolving basic powers to the grass roots level (Panchayats) and gave considerable empowerment to folks at the lowest tier of administration.
People need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redressal system for routines such as attestation, verification and certification of various kinds. Local institutions and their elected members are normally forthcoming in such tasks. Small scale development schemes, maintenance and repair projects are also important works that require immediate attention. If the decision making apparatus is centralised in the provincial headquarters and in the person of chief minister, very little progress can be expected.
Expectations from bureaucrats alone to be sympathetic to the local issues may not be very realistic. A well-functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be strengthened after removing various handicaps that it has faced. Problems identified during the past eleven years include poor quality of human resource, paucity of operational budgets, weak mechanism of monitoring, absence of effective audit and accounts procedures, financial dependence on the provincial/federal government, lack of control over police force, tutelage exercised by federal/provincial institutions and inability to generate development finance for local works. One finds more developed cities like Karachi struggling with shortage of funds to strengthen vital services such as fire-fighting. Many other contexts are even worse in service delivery outreaches.
Local government institutions are also criticised for possessing limited capacity for service delivery. This is a valid observation. Many types of human resources are essentially required to run the routine affairs of local government. For example, development professionals are a foremost need for municipalities and local development authorities. They are needed to guide and steer routine functioning of municipal administration. From preparing budget proposals of routine accounting, record keeping to documentation, preparation of physical plans to detailed designs (of chosen facilities, buildings and spaces), from management and updating of data bases to synthesizing information, from monitoring of large-scale development programmes to evaluation of routine repair works, from writing routine speeches to drafting of minutes of meetings, from developing manuals of creating routine internal memoranda of functioning, each and every step requires a well-orchestrated professional input. This aspect alone is strong enough to cause the failure or success of the any local government structure.
Politicians may evolve a fresh strategy by using elected local government to implement their manifestoes. Capacity building in the local service delivery; notification and enaction of bodies such as public safety commissions, citizen community boards or finance commissions; development of municipal services as specialised cadres; launch of appropriate taxes to generate local revenue and the acceleration of mass contact to stretch the outreach of this tier are some basic steps.
A dedicated standing committee of the parliament may be tasked to manage this discourse. Efforts must be made to make training and capacity building of municipal councilors an ongoing exercise. Public and private universities may be assigned to develop programmes for councilors to realise their potential. Also, an autonomous mechanism of revenue collection for municipalities needs to be evolved. Financial independence leads to administrative freedom for sure. In rationality, future of local government can become a populist moot point to generate discussion and draw conclusions thereafter.