Following the recent enactment, opposition parties are accusing the government of snatching major powers from the local government
After the Provincial Assembly passed the much-criticised Sindh Local Government (Amendment) Bill, 2021, opposition parties have been staging protest demonstrations claiming that through the new law the Sindh government has snatched all powers from the local governments. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, meanwhile, is holding its ground while saying it is open to a dialogue.
Opposition parties in Sindh have been protesting over the issue for over a month now. The Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) and former MQM head Dr Farooq Sattar have submitted separate petitions to the High Court against the Sindh Local Government Amendment Bill 2013. The Pakistan Peoples Party, on the other hand, is preparing to contest the next local government election under the law.
Article 140-A was added to the constitution after the 18th Amendment. The amendment is largely about decentralisation and devolution of powers from the federal government to provincial and local governments. Article 140-A clearly talks about financial and administrative independence of the local governments.
However, the Pakistan Peoples party appears confident about the new legislation as well as its success in the upcoming local government elections. Murtaza Wahab, the current administrator of the city as well as a spokesperson for the Sindh government, says, they are open to a dialogue. So, he says, is always the case in political processes. But Wahab also says he is afraid that the opposition parties merely want to create a “mess” and not hold serious talks. “They are staging protests, sit-ins, have gone to court, but they have shown no intention to hold a serious dialogue. Otherwise, we are more than happy to engage them.”
He adds that 80 percent of the recommendations by the Sindh governor have been incorporated in the bill. “Still, they point fingers at us for not seeking dialogue or consensus.”
Responding to a question about implementation of Article 140-A, Wahab says that the new law and the proposed system are in greater accord with the article than what other provinces have. In the Punjab, he says, parks and horticulture development was no longer under the local governments, instead it was under a separate provincial authority. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he says, waste management has been placed under a separate authority and water supply and sewerage services are provided by a private company.
In Sindh, he says, the office of mayor will have far more powers in comparison to other provinces. The mayor will be co-chairperson of the Water and Sewerage Board and chairperson of the Waste Management Authority. Wahab says that even local police will be answerable to union council chairmen about the law-and-order situation.
Wahab says the PPP is all set to contest the local government elections. He says their preparations are in full swing. He says the decision to hold talks with the opposition parties depends on their seriousness in that regard.
On the other hand, protests against the law have intensified. The JI braved cold weather and rain last week to stage a sit-in in front of the Chief Minister’s House. Delivering a fiery speech at the sit-in, the JI’s Karachi chief, Hafiz Naeem ur Rehman, accused the PPP of using unfair tactics ahead of the local government elections.
Rehman says the PPP has been trying to give the impression that they are confident of their victory in the next local government polls but is aware that it is going to be very difficult for them to secure a victory in Karachi. Rehman also points to the talk of an apparent deal between the PPP and “the powers that be.” He says a genuine opposition can defeat such a deal.
The JI, he says, wants an empowered local government system, where all civic departments are devolved and powers exercised to the lowest level. “It’s not only that we are protesting on the streets,” he says, “we had also submitted our recommendations to the Sindh government. They were not interested in them.”
Rehman says that after JI workers started their protest demonstrations, the attitude of the Sindh government has changed. “They are now accusing us of playing the ethnic card,” he says. In fact, he says, it is the PPP that is using its “only card, that is the Sindh card”.
Dr Farooq Sattar, a former Karachi mayor as well as a former head of the MQM-P, says the PPP is engaging in ‘bad politics’.
Dr Sattar says that even the previous local government law was a black law in that some of the major departments were held by the provincial government rather than the local government. He adds that the PPP has made it even more contentious by leaving “nothing” for the local governments.
Regarding his petition relating to the local government law and Article 140-A, he says, it is unfortunate that the top court has yet to take action on it. Proper devolution of powers, he says, could be the only long-term solution for the complex issues the city has been facing for over a decade.
Dr Sattar filed his petition in 2016. He says that at that time he had realised that the PTI was not interested in giving adequate powers to the Karachi mayor since he belonged to the MQM-P and not the PTI. Sattar accuses political parties of failing to realise that such petty politics only made the misery of Karachi, the economic hub of Pakistan, worse.
Another former mayor, Mustafa Kamal, once celebrated for his contribution to improving the infrastructure, has also given a call for a protest demonstration on January 30. Kamal, who launched the Pak Sarzameen Party in 2016 after disassociating himself from the MQM accuses the PPP of being undemocratic and “worse than a dictator”.
“Where in the modern world, do countries progress with a non-functional local government?” he asks.
“They talk about constitutional rights and cite examples from Europe, the UK and the US. But can they show their own legislations to those countries? It will be considered ridiculous. It will be thrown back in their faces,” Kamal adds.
Kamal says that while the National Finance Commission award has resulted in transfer of resources from the federal government to the provincial governments, they don’t get transferred to the district level.
For a country and its people, true progress will come when rights and the powers reach the common man, says Kamal. He warns that the recent actions of the provincial government are frustrating the common man in Karachi. He says such extreme deprivation drives people into criminal behaviours.
He says the Sindh government will face a staunch opposition. As for himself, he says, he believes in no compromise on this issue.
Senior MQM-P’s leader Faisal Sabzwari says that there has been no dialogue with the Sindh government on the issue. He says that the PPP has been talking to parties that are not relevant in the provincial assembly. Sadly, he says, the chief minister and his party are trying to turn it into an ethnic issue by calling opposition the “Urdu speaking” minority of the province.
“We never said that the bill was against the people of urban Sindh or a particular ethnic group. It is as unfair to the rest of Sindh and its people since there are no powers left with the local governments in any part of the province,” says Sabzwari.
He says he is afraid that the PPP will press on with the bill, and hold elections without any consideration for the other political powers in the province.
Some independent political analysts too believe that the PPP has isolated itself on this issue. They say the next local government elections can lose their significance if the opposition refuses to support the law and the upcoming election.
Journalist and political commentator Mazhar Abbas says that though the PPP has passed this bill with a majority vote in the Sindh Assembly, not a single party is ready to support it on this issue, not even the Awami National Party, which is close to the PPP in the National Assembly and the Senate.
He questions the PPP’s policy of “conquering” urban Sindh.
“Let the appropriate powers remain with the mayor. If he does not do well, he will be criticised for his performance,” he says. “With the new arrangement, the provincial government alone will be responsible for poor performance of local governments.”
The Sindh government started off by turning the Karachi Building Control Authority into Sindh Building Control Authority and making it a provincial government entity rather than a Karachi Municipal Corporation one, says Abbas. Later, the Water and Sewerage Board and the Solid Waste Management Department were also taken over by the provincial government.
Abbas says it seems that the PPP is desperate to increase its seats in urban Sindh. He warns that its political direction does not support that hope. It is not like the PPP does not have a strong vote bank in Karachi or urban Sindh, says Abbas, but the party has to satisfy the people with its performance to win their votes. “They committed another blunder in passing this new amendment bill.”
The PPP, he says, should focus on central parts of Karachi instead of the outskirts since there is a political vacuum after the MQM lost its grip following the August 2016 events. “With a positive intent, the PPP can garner more votes.”
But he says the PPP’s Sindh government has to calm the ongoing protests through dialogue otherwise it risks turning these into an ethnic conflict.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist who covers politics, human rights and environment. He tweets at @sheharyaralii