Strengthening local governments

Dr Noman Ahmed feels an all parties’ conference should be held to chart out a consensus course on local governments

Strengthening local governments
In a piece in the 14 June issue of this paper, a distinguished politician lamented the recent overhauling of the local governments in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). He alleged that the political engineering done by the Punjab and KP governments was not in line with constitutional provisions, especially Article 140-A.

While the changes and attempts in the Punjab and KP definitely have political and strategic motives, the situation in Sindh has markedly deteriorated for local institutions after a range of laws were promulgated by the Sindh legislature since 2009.

The Sindh government has converged most of the powers and authority in provincial institutions in blatant disregard of the spirit of Article 140-A of the Constitution. The people of urban Sindh, who constitute more than half of the population of the province, have suffered dearly for more than a decade now. Some observations in this respect are listed below.

The political forces that claim to represent urban Sindh have continued to raise voices for acquiring an autonomous local government system according to Article 140-A of the Constitution. Some time ago, the leadership and workers of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) protested in front of Karachi Press Club and the Chief Minister’s House demanding immediate reform in the city water supply.

The leadership of the provincial government assured to take speedy measures that caused the MQM to disperse. However, the matter remains unresolved to this day.

International financial institutions also tried to convince the provincial government, but no visible success could be achieved. A more cordial and accommodating response is required than just a show of majoritarian control of Sindh Assembly.

Major political forces in Sindh and relevant quarters of the establishment need to evolve a permanent political equation to manage cities and towns in the province on a long term and sustainable basis.

It is sad to note that while federal and provincial governments often tend to collaborate at least in some development matters, the local tiers are left out in the cold. This dissension is especially spread by the henchmen who control provincial tiers of respective parties.

It is correct that the local government systems have been bolstered by military dictators for their own vested interests but this does not undermine the merits and opportunities they provide. Foremost in this respect is the creation of a legitimate avenue for leadership development.

In a country where dynastic and aristocratic claims to leadership overtake merit at every end, the only option which can enable new political leadership to emerge is local government.

There are hundreds of case studies pertinent to ordinary councillors, women, labour councillors, union council nazims, tehsil level leaders and district representatives who were able to win offices purely on merit and later proved their popularity through re-election.

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 did not have any political affiliation and faced the wrath of both right and left-wing parties. The three elections during 2001, 2005 and 2015 were reasonable tests for their performance evaluation, mal-functioning of the electoral process notwithstanding.

Real political culture cannot be nurtured without frequent practice of voting process along the party cadres, local, provincial and national assemblies. Needless to say those roots of democracy can only germinate if allowed to do so at the lowest level of governance.

If one examines the level of association of common folks with local councillors and other representatives, it constitutes the baseline of political interactions. Besides, people need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redressal system for routine work such as attestation, verification and certification of various kinds. 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 is centralised in Karachi and in the person of the chief minister, very little progress can be expected.  Expectations from bureaucrats alone to be sympathetic to local issues may not be very realistic. A well-functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be strengthened after removing the various handicaps that it faces.

Problems identified during the last eight 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 and federal governments, lack of control over the police force, tutelage exercised by federal and provincial institutions and inability to generate development finance for local works. One finds more developed cities like Karachi struggling with shortage of funds to strengthen vital services such as water supply. Many other contexts are even worse in service delivery.

It is interesting to observe that most developed and progressive countries across the world have strong local governments. In 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. 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. 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments gave sufficient working autonomy to local units of 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 this large country, the administrative structure has been in place for quite some time. The Article 140-A in our Constitution lays down the foundation of a proper local government, which awaits effective implementation by the provincial executive.

Political pundits may consider holding an all parties conference to chart out a consensus course on local government. Party cadres may be asked to examine and analyse challenges faced by local institutions. Capacity building in local service delivery; notification and creation 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. There are many institutional arms, think tanks and nongovernmental organisations that have garnered enough experience to transform political objectives into a proper workable blueprint for the future form of local government. In the spirit of democracy and fair play, any such blueprint should be debated with each stake holder, party and group that matter in Sindh.