- Moving towards empowered Local Bodies edifice
Article 140 A of Constitution of Pakistan unequivocally states, ‘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’. Despite this clear requirement, successive governments followed a foot-dragging policy, with the ulterior but lucrative motive of retaining purse strings in their concerned chief minister’s hands, who could then freely dole out state funds to favourites or ‘invest’ in their own pet projects. The apex court intervened and ordered Election Commission of Pakistan to force the issue with the reluctant provinces. Local Bodies polls, last held in 2009, were finally conducted in 2015. Though successfully, albeit so belatedly, organised, the real intent of the entire exercise, the devolution of powers to the grassroots (especially of financial muscle), was not implemented, and the elected officials, whether mayors, chairmen, union council or village representatives were left utterly powerless, the sole exception, to a reasonable degree, being the local bodies system prevalent in PTI- ruled Khyber-Pakthunkhwa.
Needless to say, a structured and empowered local government system is the backbone of a vibrant and well-functioning democracy, as in evident from the UK example. Now, that man in the ‘hundred days’ hurry, PM Imran Khan, a resolute champion of decentralisation, has given but a week’s time to a special committee constituted on Sunday to speed up recommendations regarding new local government framework, to be wrapped up in provincial assemblies’ legislation within a month, and in PTI-controlled Punjab and KP assemblies hopefully much earlier. Surprisingly, the new system was proposed by the federal information minister, and reportedly differences of opinion surfaced within the PTI itself regarding its final form, over district or tehsil governments, direct election of city mayor or by tehsil-union councils, and over replacing union councils with village councils. Hopefully, all these issues will be swiftly settled, the present garbage-junkyard state of Pakistan’s economic hub, Karachi, being a grim reminder of local government failure. PPP’s Khursheed Shah’s objection of purportedly Rs30 billion expenditure involved represents the hardline ‘old school’ oppositionist view on local government reform and may be disregarded. Real power must cascade down to the lowest level.