A remote possibility?

September 5, 2021

The next local government in Sindh should bring peace and harmony to the province, and not generate further schisms

A remote possibility?

On August 23, a meeting took place in Islamabad between the officials of the government of Sindh and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to discuss the possibility of holding local government elections. The government of Sindh expressed its inability to hold the elections any time soon.

Reservations on the 2017 census results, pending litigation in courts of law and time required for intended amendments in Sindh Local Government Act were some of the reasons. In view of the constitutional provisions, the ECP was of the view that elections to local government offices must be held in the province without delay.

The term of previous local governments ended on August 30, 2020. Under the constitution, elections must be held within 120 days after the conclusion of the term of the previous government. The previous elections were held on Supreme Court’s orders as the provincial administration was reluctant.

In the present situation also, there is limited interest in the government to fulfil this otherwise important obligation. Run by political rivals, the federal government has made significant headway in empowering local government in the capital. The prime minister has given approval for several far reaching local government reforms for Islamabad. One such step is to get the city mayor directly elected by the people.

The political situation of Sindh is peculiar. If one assumes the 2017 results as provisionally accurate, Karachi accounts for a third of the total population of Sindh. Besides, more people live in urban areas in Sindh than any other province.

Historically, the ruling party in the province has never won a majority of seats in Karachi and some other cities. This creates a feeling of insecurity. The Sindh administration has already clipped away powers and authority from municipal bodies. The expected amendments in local government law will likely take away some powers from the municipal bodies.

The Sindh government is hell bent to retain its control on development, urban management, infrastructure and services, land use control and more. Only residual functions shall be left with local government institutions with little budgetary independence.

The local government systems have been historically bolstered by military dictators for their own vested interests but this fact does not undermine their inherent merits. 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 that can enable future political leadership to emerge is local government. There are hundreds of case studies from recent past, pertinent to ordinary councilors, women/ labour councillors, 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.

Local government systems have been bolstered by military dictators for their own vested interests but this fact does not undermine their inherent merit. 

Even in the most dangerous labyrinths of the province, these dedicated public representatives made tireless efforts to address pressing problems related to education, health, social welfare and area management. Some of them lacked any political affiliation and had to face the wrath of both right and left wing parties.

The three local elections in 2001, 2005 and 2015 were reasonable tests for their performance, malfunctioning of electoral process notwithstanding. A real political culture cannot be nurtured without frequent practice of voting process along party cadres, local, provincial and national assemblies. Needless to say, the roots of democracy can only germinate if they are allowed to do so at the lowest level of governance.

If one examines the level of association of common folks with local councilor and other representatives, it constitutes the baseline of political interactions. Besides, people need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redressal system, such as attestation, verification and certification of various kinds.

Local institutions and their elected members are 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 Karachi and in the person of the chief minister, very little progress can be expected.

Expectation from bureaucrats alone to be sympathetic to the local issues may not be realistic. A well-functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be strengthened after removing the various handicaps that it has faced.

Problems identified during the past several 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 provincial institutions and inability to generate development finance for local scale works.

One finds more developed cities like Karachi struggling with a shortage of funds to strengthen vital services, such as water supply. Many other contexts are even worse in service delivery outreach.

It is interesting to observe that most of the developed as well as developing countries across the world have strong local governments. In the United Kingdom, there is a reasonably strong system of local government divided in a synchronised hierarchy of regions, boroughs, unitary authorities and metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties.

The United States, which has a federal structure, possesses capable local governments at the county, town and municipal level. They have sufficient functional and financial autonomy to manage local affairs. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments gave sufficient working autonomy to local units of the Indian local governments to deliver the day-to-day services to the concerned residents.

While the quality of service delivery may vary from place to place in that large country, the administrative structure has been in place for quite some time. In Pakistan, Article 140 A lays down the foundation of a proper local government. It awaits effective implementation by the provincial executive structure.

Many possibilities exist for the innovative improvement in performance. There are many lessons to be learnt from 2001-2009 when local governments had relatively extended powers. 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 acceleration of mass contact to stretch the outreach of this tier are some basic steps.

Many institutional arms, think tanks and non-governmental organisations have garnered enough experience to transform the political objectives into a proper workable blueprint for the future form of local government.

In the spirit of democracy and fair play, any such blue print should be debated threadbare with each stakeholder, party and group that matter in Sindh. The next local governments should bring peace and harmony to the province, not generate further schisms in the already divided ranks in the society.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi

A remote possibility?