A showdown over local governments (LG) is one thing which a multi-ethnic province like Sindh cannot afford. But unfortunately, this very tussle is now overwhelmingly dictating, defining and driving politics of this restive province. Political temperatures are all set to rise when a powerless mayor of Karachi takes charge of the office in the coming weeks. The die has been cast and the early signs of trouble brewing can be seen: the MQM is on the offensive, demanding more executive and financial powers for the LGs. This drive is likely to gain momentum once the newly-elected local representatives formally start their term.
The Sindh government stands on the opposite extreme and appears in no mood to oblige its urban opposition. Although some PPP stalwarts subtly indicate that they are ready to negotiate and even introduce “necessary amendments” to make legislation related to LGs “acceptable to all”, reverting to the Musharraf-era LG system remains out of question. The PPP believes that Musharraf’s system undermined provincial authority — a position held by some other mainstream parties too, including the PML-N.
Compared to other parts of Pakistan, the dispute over LGs is more pronounced and complicated in Sindh, where representatives belonging to rural and urban centres have long been at loggerheads over the issue of distribution of powers and resources. This rift has the potential to spin out of control and stoke ethnic tensions in this highly polarised and poorly governed province. As things stand, the PPP appears to have done away with the concept of devolution of powers at the grassroots level. Instead, it has established a firm control over the bureaucracy and over the LGs as conceived in General Ziaul Haq’s 1979 ordinance. In fact, the Sindh government has further squeezed the space for LG representatives through a series of controversial legislations. It seems that the never-ending process of amendments in laws related to LGs is aimed at making them as toothless and powerless as possible.
As things stand, the mayors of Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur and Larkana, and chairmen of district municipal corporations can’t even manage garbage collection independently, let alone any other important civic issue. After the establishment of the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board in 2014, the chief minister or his nominee remains in the driving seat on the garbage collection front. Karachi’s garbage woes as well as those of the rest of the province have been blamed on this change of guards.
The provincial government has also taken over the Sindh Water & Sewerage Board, while the prized Karachi Building Control Authority — once under the city government — has been transformed into the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA). This means Karachi’s representatives have no say in town planning or approval of new buildings. The provincial government has further empowered itself by setting up the Sindh High Density Development Board to manage the construction of high-rise buildings in expensive and densely populated parts of Karachi. Since the government’s takeover of the SBCA and the setting up of the board, there are growing complaints that construction of new high-rises is being allowed without ensuring sufficient water and natural gas supplies, a proper sewerage system or the allocation of parking spaces. The Malir and Lyari Development Authorities have also been placed under the provincial government rather than that of the mayor.
At one level, the PPP’s decisive majority in the Sindh Assembly provides legitimacy to the propelling of such changes in the LG system. In Punjab, the PML-N moved in a similar manner to curb the system’s powers. Balochistan also followed the spirit of the Zia-era system. Only Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa has devolved powers and created distinct roles for local and provincial representatives.
But Sindh’s divided rural-urban mandate makes the situation more explosive compared to the state of affairs in other provinces. Sindh’s peculiar ethnic composition, however, doesn’t mean that it is destined to live in a constant state of friction. The province’s lawmakers can write the script differently — if they choose to do so — through inclusive decision-making in a true democratic spirit by taking into account the interests and well-being of all ethnic groups living in Sindh. The PPP will be doing a disservice to Sindh and hurting its own mid- to long-term interests if it continues to stick to the policy of stifling LGs for tactical and short-term gains. It is now a tried, tested and accepted principle that devolution of powers is key for good governance and for an accountable government.
A mega city like Karachi or any urban and rural centre cannot and should not be governed by ignoring its representatives. This will be a recipe for confrontation. The PPP must grasp this reality. Sindh has the potential to show the way to the rest of Pakistan by empowering its LG representatives. There is also danger that it can go in the opposite direction and opt for the simplistic enforcement of the principle of the dictates of the majority. The first option will unleash forces of progress, prosperity and peace, especially in Karachi, which can act as a catalyst for economic growth and development, not just for Sindh, but for Pakistan. The second option will only increase polarisation and confrontation.
The experience of other mega cities — New York, London, Istanbul, Jakarta, Mumbai, Tokyo — shows that the empowerment of LGs played a crucial role in their development and prosperity. Then why should the story of Karachi, Hyderabad, or for that matter, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar be any different? The tussle over LGs can be avoided if the main political players are ready to raise themselves above their narrow self-interests. The ball is in the PPP’s court. Will it play the right shot?
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2016.
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