Local governments’ role in a democracy

With the rapid urbanisation in Pakistan, the need for effective local governments has grown more acute

Local governments’ role in a democracy

A two-judge bench of the honourable Lahore High Court (LHC) has issued an order stopping the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) from holding local government elections in the Punjab. The ECP had earlier issued a schedule for the first phase of local government elections in the Punjab. June 9 was set as the polling day.

Local governments in the Punjab were dissolved by the PTI-led Punjab government in May 2019. For the last three years, a whole tier of our democratic system was missing. Unfortunately, this was not the first time that people were deprived of their democratic right.

The history of local government system in the subcontinent is old. The Aryans, for the first time, introduced a local government system in the region. The panchayat system proved its efficiency and was used to govern local affairs, such as the allocation of land to peasants for cultivation, tax collection, dispute resolution and the provision of basic necessities of the population/ settlements.

State functionaries were interested primarily in maintaining law and order and collecting revenue for the central government. The local bodies flourished as an active organ of the village community and performed development, administrative and judicial functions, not in the modern sense, but in their own way.

In Pakistan, the first extensive local government system was introduced through Basic Democracies Ordinance 1959, after the military assumed power through a coup by Gen Ayub Khan. He dissolved the higher tiers of elected governments in 1959 and revived local governments as the only representative tier of the government.

Later, he introduced the Municipal Administration Ordinance 1960, which had a hierarchical system of four linked tiers. The lowest tier was union councils consisting of elected members. The union council members elected the chairman from amongst themselves.

Overall, following colonial legacy, local governments were controlled by the bureaucracy. Deputy commissioners and commissioners, chief bureaucrats at the district and the division level, respectively, had the power to annul any proceedings or decisions taken by the local councils.

The military again got control of state power through Gen Ziaul Haq’s coup in 1977 when it ousted the government of Pakistan Peoples Party. Zia introduced the most coercive and centralised state apparatus through the imposition of Martial Law and put the constitution in abeyance.

A local government system was introduced in the absence of national and provincial governments under the direct control of the military. Under this law, local government elections were held on partyless basis in all provinces in Pakistan. The local governments introduced under this system worked till 2000.

Gen Musharraf introduced a new local government system through Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2001. The major distinction of the Punjab Local Government Ordinance (PLGO) 2001 compared with previous ordinances was the elimination of urban-rural divide. Local governments were created at three levels: union council, tehsil council and district council.

After Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, the Pakistan Peoples Party came to power and introduced the 18th Constitutional Amendment that enhanced provincial autonomy. The constitutional restriction on amending the Local Government Ordinance of 2001 already expired in 2009. It thus became possible for the provinces to legislate a local government system of their choosing. Consequently, different provinces opted for different structures for their local governments. The provincial assembly of Balochistan passed the Local Government Act in 2010 whereas the provincial assemblies of the Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed their local government acts in 2013.

Empowered local governance ensures equitable distribution of resources, gives a sense of ownership to the people, mobilises more resources for development, ensures greater responsiveness and accountability and helps in strengthening federalism.

In 2015, local government elections were held but in August 2018 Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf came to power; in May 2019, Khan dismantled the local government structures in the provinces controlled by his party and promised to introduce a modern and more effective system.

Our democratic governance system has been either inefficient or completely suspended. This is arguably a major cause for week democratic institutions and democratic values in our society. Municipalities are responsible for the provision of quality municipal services to the citizens. The access to municipal services and the quality of their provision strongly influences the social, economic and environmental performance of a city as well as its urban development.

But the state of municipal services and infrastructure has deteriorated in Pakistan over the years. With rapid urbanisation, the need for effective and efficient local governments has become more acute.

Several of the tasks related to municipal services are in the process of being transferred or already under the local governments. However, this transfer of responsibilities often does not go hand in hand with the simultaneous transfer of structures, financial resources and authority to consider and decide matters at the local level. How can we best organise and manage these services?

The credibility of local governments among their citizens often depends on their experience with core services the municipalities are supposed to offer. Here, municipal companies, which are tasked with the provision of such municipal services, play a key role as the quality of such service provision strongly influences the performance and livability of a city. But the public sector is often unable to respond due to deficits in planning and management capacity, so urban and rural settlements alike are lacking basic municipal services and quality infrastructure provision required for efficient service delivery.

Safe drinking water is a basic need. Unfortunately, access to water is still a far cry in many cities. The water supply is often contaminated with sewage, thus creating various water-borne diseases and environmental challenge for the people.

Unsafe water poses serious health hazards that have tangible impacts on education and economic activities due to illness, impairment, especially amongst the most vulnerable population groups, such as the urban poor. Prioritising water and sanitation issues is, therefore, crucial in the overall urban development effort.

Poorly managed solid waste and depleted sewerage systems also pose a threat to underground water resources. A poor infrastructure of streets, roads and drains causes environmental challenges. Streets and roads are often inundated with sewage water, making the movement of the people difficult.

Poorly managed waste has a tremendous impact on health, local and global environment and the economy. Successful waste management, on the other hand, can not only reduce negative impacts but may also unlock potential in terms of enhanced resource-efficiency and increased employment.

This warrants the municipal authorities and the provincial government to chalk out a plan to dispose of the waste so that the environmental challenges may be curbed. Solid waste can be converted into energy by producing electricity from the waste.

Cities are key actors in national development strategies. Therefore, greater attention must be paid to the development of national urban policies with the purpose of bringing about sustainable and inclusive urban development. This is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), specifically referring to urban areas. It is important to mention that Article 140-A of the constitution enjoins all provincial governments to establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility to the elected representatives of the local governments.

Local government systems need more funds to perform better and to cater to the needs of the ever-growing population requirements. Organisations like the Punjab Municipal Development Fund Company and initiatives like the Punjab Cities Programme are doing exactly that. Under the World Bank-funded PCP with a budget of $236 million, the focus is on municipal services like water supply, sewerage, urban roads, parks, streetlights and solid waste management along with the institutional strengthening of local governments.

Local governance ensures equitable distribution of resources, gives a sense of ownership to the local people, mobilises more resources for development, ensures greater responsiveness and accountability and helps in strengthening federalism and national integration through a satisfied citizenry.

The writer is a media and communications professional and has experience of working in the development and the public sector

Local governments’ role in a democracy