By Irfan Ahmed
Had the provincial governments of Pakistan heeded their apex court, the country’s four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – would have had local governments in place by now. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had in July this year directed that local government elections be held by Sep. 15.
As things stand now, such elections will be held in 42 of the country’s 43 cantonments, and that too on Nov. 3.
Reluctant both to devolve power or part with development funds, the federal and provincial governments have been holding back. Pushed by the Supreme Court, however, Punjab and Sindh passed legislation last month, but in a much diluted form.
The absence of local administration results in a curious situation for people at the ground level. Take the case of Barkat Ali, a brick kiln worker in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. The 32-year-old has been trying to switch jobs and his employer for some time now.
He cannot because that requires a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). Ali cannot get one because the registration authority has refused to accept the endorsement by a leader in his village Jiya Baggah on the outskirts of Lahore. “Earlier,” Ali tells IPS, “they would honour the attestations of councillors.”
A local councillor or similar official is exactly what people like Ali need to fulfill administrative needs at the grassroots.
Democratically elected governments in Pakistan have always ignored this highly important tier of governance, regarded as the best means of service delivery at the local level. The previous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government suspended in 2009 the local government system instituted by former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf in 2001, and transferred charge to provincial assemblies.
A federal subject so far, the 18th amendment to the Pakistan Constitution in 2010 vested the responsibility of holding local government elections with the provincial governments. According to the Article 140A it introduced, “Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”
However, no such elections were held in the remaining years of the PPP regime. The Nawaz Sharif government too did not show much enthusiasm after coming to power in May this year. It was left to the Supreme Court, therefore, to push the issue and set Sep. 15 as a deadline for local body polls to be held.
However, “instead of preparing themselves for any transfer of power in a true sense, the provincial governments concentrated on devising ways to wield influence on local governments once they are in place,” Salman Abid, the Punjab head of the civil society group Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) tells IPS.
Lahore-based lawyer Intazar Mahdi offers a possible explanation. Members of provincial assemblies want to be seen as doing something for their electorate and claim credit for it rather than just make laws, he tells IPS. “Voters here want jobs, development work and patronage from their elected representatives,” he says. “They are not interested in what laws you can make for them.”
Therefore, even as the provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab worked towards finalising a legal framework for local government elections, they drafted it in a manner where they retained ultimate control. The bills they passed on Aug. 19 and Aug. 21 respectively have understandably come in for much criticism.
Under the Punjab Local Government Act, 2013, for instance, the chief minister has the powers to suspend the head of a local government, the provincial government will have a municipal local government working under its direction, and maintenance of law and order will be the responsibility of the administrative officers who, instead of reporting to the head of the local government, will be answerable to the provincial government.
Clauses such as these render the whole exercise meaningless, says Anwar Hussain, executive director of the Local Councils Association of the Punjab. “The real test of the Pakistan Supreme Court starts now,” he tells IPS. It must ensure that local governments get all the powers granted by the Constitution, he adds.
Lahore-based journalist Tanvir Shahzad, who is also a member of a civil society working group on local bodies, cautions against a common practice in party-based local elections which the Sindh local government act has opted for. “Members of the central and provincial governments fear losing their seats in party-based elections and so try to buy the loyalties of candidates who return successful in these polls,” he tells IPS. This has to be strictly discouraged.”
Shahzad is also opposed to the idea of provincial bureaucracies keeping with themselves the powers to post and transfer local government officers. “Even their salaries will be paid from provincial government funds,” he says.
This will compromise the independence of local governments, he feels. “There should be a separate service cadre for local government officials. They must also get more power to collect revenues,” he says.
SPO’s Abid calls for a constitutional cover for local governments so that no government can suspend them for indefinite periods. He also calls for an amendment to the Constitution which provides for a time-frame within which local government elections should be held once the outgoing government has completed its tenure.
Local governments have a crucial role to play at the grassroots level, especially in times of natural disasters. The absence of local governments has harmed disaster response, says Tasdaq Shah, an advisor on disaster risk management for aid organisation PLAN International. “No one else is better equipped or prepared than them to carry out successful rescue operations in emergencies,” he tells IPS.
Shah says he hopes to see local governments in action soon and work with them on local preparedness plans for their respective areas.
The establishment of a local government system is also necessary to fight terror and discourage human rights violation, says Mujtaba Chishti, a former union council member in Lahore. “People have trust in local government representatives as they are residents of the same areas and therefore answerable to them.”