April 4, 2021

Restoration of local governments entails letting go of power and resources for the provincial

That the local governments are often called the third-tier of governance, speaks of a top-down approach. If we take up a bottom-up approach instead, being most accessible to the lay citizen, they turn out to be the first tier of governance. The Constitution of Pakistan lays down that provincial governments should see to it that local governments are formed and enjoy political, financial and administrative independence. Unfortunately, the establishment of local governments has not been a priority for provincial governments, particularly under elected governments headed by political parties that do not wish to let go any of their powers and resources. Local governments have, therefore, either been absent or dissolved before completing their tenures. The fact that the parliamentarians want to control the distribution and utilisation of development funds, has also undermined their working. Military governments, on the other hand, have sought to use local governments to claim legitimacy for their rule and to keep the political parties out of the power matrix.

The issue has got prominence in public discourse once again with the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to restore the local governments in the Punjab that were dissolved by the PTI government in 2018. The detailed judgment is yet to be released. The decision has thus only symbolic significance so far in that it calls the dissolution illegal. This might deter the provincial governments contemplating a similar action in the future.

The SCP has also asked all provincial governments for proposed election dates. The elections have been delayed for reasons ranging from Covid 19, disputes over delimitations and disputes on Census results. Assuming that elections are held in the near future, certain things have to be guaranteed for the exercise to be meaningful. These include tenure security for the local governments, legislative autonomy and financial independence according to the concerned constitutional provision. Genuine representation of the marginalised groups on reserved seats has to be assured. The local governments must have the power power to generate revenues in addition to the funds transferred under the Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) allocations. There is also a crying need for capacity building through training of local government representatives so that they can manage the things well.

The Constitution does not mention a ceiling for time allowed before holding fresh local government elections once a local government is dissolved which it does in the case of elections to the national and provincial assemblies. Such a provision might go a long way towards ensuring that local governments are in place and not packed up at will.