Finally under pressure of the courts, the Punjab government has decided to present a local government bill in the provincial assembly. A copy of the bill duly signed by the minister-in-charge is available with this writer, but has yet to be made available for public debate. The reading of the bill negates the spirit of Article 10 of the Charter of Democracy (CoD), which was signed between two former prime ministers of Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in May 2006 in London.
Moreover, both parties promised to hold local government elections in their election manifestos. After parliamentary elections in 2008, the parties formed coalition governments in the centre and the provinces. It is worth mentioning here that other coalition partners, such as the ANP and the MQM, too, were committed to holding local government elections. All the ruling parties continued promising to hold local government elections for the last four years, but conveniently kept on delaying them unless the superior courts directed them to do so. Nawaz Sharif would not tire talking about the CoD, but in the province ruled by his party, local body elections have not been held.
Furthermore, all parties represented in parliament unanimously passed the 18th, 19th and 20th constitutional amendments. They also agreed on the NFC Award. But, they intentionally ignored amending Article 140-A. This article says that local government is the third tier of the governance structure but is silent on the frequency of local council elections. Why has the ruling elite denied ordinary Pakistanis a chance to elect local representatives. Since the scope of this article limits me to focus on the proposed bill of the Punjab government, I would leave this question for scholars to inquire.
The proposed bill clearly violates the spirit of Pakistan’s Constitution, democracy and Article 10 of the Charter of Democracy. Citing Article 140-A of the Constitution and Clause 10 of the CoD will help us understand the stark difference between the proposed bill and what the Constitution envisages on the matter. The article says: “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”. And Clause 10 of the CoD has some similarities with Article 140-A. It says: “Local bodies election will be held on a party basis … and constitutional protection will be given to the local bodies to make them autonomous and answerable to their respective assemblies as well as to the people through regular courts of law”.
Both of the above-cited Articles clearly state that there must be political, administrative and financial devolution; local bodies should be autonomous and accountable to the public. I will avoid discussing financial and administrative devolution and focus only on the political and representational aspects as mentioned in the proposed bill of the ‘revolutionary’ leader of the Punjab government.
First, according to Clause 14(1) of the bill, “all members of the village panchayat including its sarpunch [head] shall be nominated by the government. This clause denies people the right to elect their representatives and, therefore, a blatant violation of Article 140-A. This is neither a political devolution nor a democracy as the nominated members of the panchayats will be accountable only to those who nominated them, i.e., government officials. Hence, the bureaucracy is being further empowered in the proposed law. Moreover, all the sarpunchs of all panchayats falling in the union council shall become ex-officio members of their respective union council.
Though the bill is silent about the total number of seats in the union council, it gives a breakdown of the reservation of quota for various marginalised and non-marginalised groups. Five per cent of the seats are reserved for each of the following categories: peasant/worker, minorities, youth and technocrats, while 33 per cent have been set aside for women. This constitutes 53 per cent of the total house strength and means that only 47 per cent of the total seats will be filled through an election. Moreover, all sarpunchs will also be members of union council. After the completion of selection/election process directly elected members will become a minority but hold control of the house as they had nominated and elected the members against the quota seats. The mischief of the bill is hidden in making sarpunchs members of union councils. The ratio of elected and selected members will be even worse in other tiers of the local councils. For instance, for the ‘markaz council’, a new tier of the local government system under the proposed bill, the government shall have the authority to nominate government officials as its members. The clause which allows the government to do this, however, does not say how many of the council members will be civil servants. This seems to clash with Clause 25 (e) of the same bill, which disqualifies any government official from being a member of any local council.
Regarding the filling of the quota seats, it is likely that nominees of the bureaucracy will capture most of them. We have seen this take place in the case of reserved seats for women in the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies, where the political leadership has usually nominated women related to senior leaders.
The proposed bill also envisages the creation of a local government board. Though all councils shall contribute financially in running the affairs of the said board, they will have no authority over its governance and it is, in fact, the provincial government, which will control it. Furthermore, the provincial government will have the right to dissolve any elected council and it will be empowered to do this without assigning any reason. Also, the bill is silent on whether local council election will be held on a party basis or not.
It appears from a reading of the proposed legislation that it is not only an anti-people bill but also seems to contain anomalies, which could have been avoided. Moreover, I would not hesitate in suspecting the intentions of the provincial government since the bill could be part of an effort to social gerrymander the next local bodies elections so as to achieve positive results for the ruling party in the province.
In short, the new bill looks like a replica of the two-centuries-old British local self-government system that was controlled by nominees and employees of the colonial administration. Therefore, all democrats and civil society organisations should reject this proposed bill of the Punjab government.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2012.
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