- Local councils show a vast pattern of dissimilarities around the world
The prime minister constituted a committee a few days ago to present a new framework of local governance within a week that will subsequently be placed before the provincial governments for legislation and promulgation. The committee will definitely take its time and, hopefully, come up with the best options available. But what has previously been experienced during the democratic regimes puts a question mark on the strength of future local bodies. We all know how they have been dealing with this constitutional obligation in the past – obligation to establish a system of devolved political, administrative and financial authority at district level. We also understand the underlying factors that keep the third tier almost dysfunctional over the years but somehow always try to brush aside the realism of political psychology in this country. And that is where this piece attempts to draw outlines of a new municipal agenda.
First, it is very important to understand that unlike most of the national and sub-national governance structures, local councils show a vast pattern of dissimilarities around the world in terms of their leadership, mode of elections or appointment, jurisdictions, financial and administrative powers, capacity of revenue collection and public spending, etc. Even to the most important question of mayoralty, there is no single answer. There are directly elected, indirectly elected, appointed or even no mayors. The local governance of mega cities may also be different from the second and third tier cities within the same country or from state to state. And their relationship with the provincial and national governments are not always steady and smooth.
Even in textbook democracies, there are no ideal metropolitan or neighbourhood governments as these institutions, being outcome of indigenous political realities, are surviving with inter-tier and inter-agency frictions, conflicts and mistrust. Perhaps the successful model of a local government is built on simple yet hard to achieve normative standards i.e. these entities are democratically elected organisations and have meaningfully devolved powers enough to deliver public services made possible through a strong local tax base.
In our national context, can such a system be designed and put to work on the assumption that the members of national and provincial assemblies will be confined to legislative work in the House only and not meddle with the local development affairs? Realistically, how would this be made possible that MNAs and MPAs – the electorate of the Senate, the prime minister and the president, the law makers, the managers of local political heat-steam-and-burst and the caretakers of the true and false of this society – live with their insecurity of being ‘irrelevant’ in a political system that works on ‘incentives’ where their fellow legislators are ministers, advisors, special assistants or heads of various public organisations already in a position to ‘oblige’ voters and supporters from their constituencies in one way or the other. How would they let themselves be made doubly ‘alienated’ – one, even if they want, they cannot independently vote in the legislative business because of the party politics and second if they are schooled on their ideal role i.e. legislation without a role in local level development. Consequently, they lobby against a strong local government system from the very beginning, create barriers to smooth transfer of power or funds, lock horns with the district leadership over day to day local affairs, hatch ‘accountability conspiracies’ and finally create a parallel system of local infrastructure development through MNA/MPA grants by exerting pressure on the governments especially from mid to end of their tenures to which they all succumb. Hadn’t this been the case, the incumbent party would have established an exemplary local council system in the KP.
The unusual or Pakistan specific formations have always been there in the system like the caretaker government, Council of Common Interests, federal civil service cadres
So if we are doing brainstorming on the new system, can we think of assigning MNAs/MPAs a central role in local councils? This can be fine-tuned but think about a district/city council comprising all the MNAs/MPAs of the district retaining the tehsil and union councils as the municipal units in the hierarchy with no rural-urban divide. This council of varying sizes would elect its Mayor and Deputy Mayor from amongst the MNAs/MPAs looking after maximum devolved subjects at their disposal – 13 departments of the erstwhile Devolution Plan 2001 to start with. Every council, besides convening their own meetings, would have legally binding public gatherings (Khuli Kachehris) in every union council to regularly interact with the public for grievance redressal. The Deputy Commissioner would be the secretary of the council assisted by officers from other departments in their respective domains. Modalities can be further shaped up but, perhaps, wouldn’t that by this way we can have a strong local government that can own and strengthen decentralisation and can focus on enhancing capacity of generating local revenues with a solid service delivery mechanism. Isn’t that, perhaps, the only practical method towards solution of the ‘local concern’ and the starting point of addressing the ever increasing urban challenges of this country.
This structure might look like an anomalous development in our political system as either we are way too loyal to the text of local governance or may be more habitual to only see legislators in executive roles as ministers, advisors or special assistants and not mayors, deputy mayors and members of city councils. The unusual or Pakistan specific formations have always been there in the system like the caretaker government, Council of Common Interests, federal civil service cadres managing and policing the districts and some might say the Council of Islamic Ideology, Federal Shariat Court, Hudood laws and the second amendment, etc. After thorough deliberations, if one more unfamiliar arrangement is added to possibly put an end to a perpetual conflict in governance, this would be a great step ahead.