The mayors with no cities

Local government needs to be empowered not reined in

The mayors with no cities
It barely made the news. The mayor of Bahawalpur visited Karachi on January 27, and met his counterpart, Waseem Akhtar. The two local government chiefs had much in common. For one, they talked about how to give a shot in the arm to the waning powers and resources of gutted-out municipal institutions. We live in a time when local governments across the country are buckling under a sharp reduction in their roles, authority and resources. Why not long ago, a maddened Quetta Mayor Dr Kaleemullah Kakar said thanks but no thanks to his provincial government and returned the city budget after they snipped Rs80 million from the Rs2.5 billion budget by surprise. And similarly, with Lahore’s garbage collection and drinking water supplies outsourced to a hoard of ‘companies’, Mayor Mubashir Javed is scratching his head over what is left for him to do as mayor.

Indeed, it is a measure of reluctance to support local governments that the Supreme Court had to force the Punjab and Sindh governments to hold local elections. And even after the city was elected, its office bearers discovered that they were still far from wielding any powers, authority, resources and responsibilities as enshrined for them in Article 140A of the Constitution of Pakistan. It goes without saying that major political parties intend to keep local bodies on the leash of provincial administrations. Even the Establishment considers local governments a tier of the system that deserves to be ‘tightly controlled’. It is only parties with strong followings in certain districts and cities that want maximum autonomy for their local institutions. In this unfortunate tug-of-war, the real benefits of a local government system are hollowed out.
It is disappointing to note that the parties that demand the promotion and protection of democracy are probably the outfits closest to dictatorship

There is no denying that local government systems in Pakistan have been enacted and reinforced by dictators for their own vested interests. But this reality does not undermine the merits and opportunities that are built into such systems. One of the foremost ones is that local governments create a legitimate avenue for leadership development. In an arena where dynastic and aristocratic claims to leadership trump merit at every point, the only forum which can foster future political leadership is local government. There are hundreds of examples from the not-so-popular Musharraf regime of ordinary councilors, women and labour councilors, union council nazims, town, tehsil and 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. In the most dangerous locations of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, these dedicated public representatives worked hard to tackle local problems in schools, hospitals and social welfare. Some of them were independents who did not have the backing of political parties and had to face the wrath of both religious and so-called liberal parties. Local elections during the same regime proved that enthusiasm was more than visible among ordinary folk despite many outbreaks of violence. Conversations with these democrats revealed that they considered local elections an opportunity to groom themselves as political workers. Since these elections were held on a partyless basis, participants thought that soon more democratic practices would penetrate into the otherwise clan-centered mainstream parties as well.


It is common sense that real political culture cannot be nurtured without frequent practice of the voting process for party cadres, local, provincial and national assemblies. It is disappointing to note that the parties that demand the promotion and protection of democracy are probably the outfits closest to dictatorship. Party heads nominate committees of handpicked faithful who are then called working or executives committees. Thus the common people have little or no capacity to make inroads into this well-guarded oligopolistic enterprise.

Poor governance and a breakdown in the service delivery system is not desirable under any system for the people. It should not come as a surprise that sharp criticism has begun to gain more voices about the sinking performance of the current regimes in all provinces, all of which are busy contracting out dubious development projects at a hefty cost to build up political gains. In total contrast, the people need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redressal system for their routine affairs. General services such as attestation, verification and certification of various kinds are examples. Local institutions and their elected members are normally 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 and concurrent actions are centralized in the provincial headquarters and in the person of the chief minister, very little progress can be expected. Similarly the expectation from bureaucrats alone to be sympathetic to the issues faced by the population is far from reality. A well-functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be strengthened after removing the various handicaps that it has faced. Continuing problems identified during the past several years include poor quality of human resource, paucity of operational budgets, weak mechanisms of monitoring, absence of effective audit and accounts procedures, financial dependence on the provincial and federal governments, a lack of control over the police force, tutelage exercised by the federal and provincial institutions and an 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 sanitation, water supply, squatter upgradation and firefighting. Many other contexts are even worse in service delivery outreaches. At many instances, local political interests also out-weigh decision-making and implementation mechanisms.

Our country has been long experiencing a painful transition from a tribal society to civil society with democratic values. Whereas the former promotes centrality of power and decision-making prerogatives, the latter cannot be developed without the subscription and practice of democratic values in the true sense of the term. It may be beneficial for the political masters of the country to try local government as a tool for emboldening democracy. This can only be achieved after removing the anomalies and handicaps that exist in the system. 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 specialized cadres, appropriate taxes to generate local revenue and the acceleration of mass contact to stretch the outreach of this tier are some basic steps that need to be taken. Violence and muscle tactics must be controlled by administrative means during the electoral process. It claimed many lives during the past instance. The matter must be taken upfront as a core policy issue. To generate a debate, it may not be out of context to suggest a multi-stakeholder moot to deliberate the matter in an open-ended manner. The experience sharing and option forming approach may be applied. Local government representatives and leaders may consider forming a national confederation of local bodies in order to deliberate commonly faced challenges and possible solutions. Perhaps the contents of Article 140A can become the opening point in such a debate. Constitutionalists, leading lights in civil society, professionals and social scientists may also be invited to launch this much-needed debate. And this issue has all the potential to become a rallying point for the forthcoming 2018 general elections for many political platforms.

The writer is the chairman of the department of architecture and urban planning at NED university, Karachi and an expert in local government