The local government system, with elected representatives now in its fold, is finally on the ground in all four provinces after an interregnum of eight years. The system has had an interesting history in the country. Local government institutions were encouraged by military rulers while loathed and relegated to the background during the reign of so-called democratic civilian rule for reasons that are fairly understandable by now. In the 1960s, General Ayub Khan went to the extent of disenfranchising the whole nation while giving exclusive rights to the Basic Democrats to form an electoral college for elections to the National Assembly as well as the provincial legislatures and of the president himself. General Ziaul Haq preferred the local bodies polls before agreeing to non-party elections for the assemblies. President Musharraf had no qualms in demolishing the existing administrative framework through his devolution plan without taking into account whether there would be any sense of ownership of his flagship project among important stakeholders after he would leave office. The civilian governments, on the other hand, have always considered these institutions as expendable and have continued to nibble at their roles and functions, tightening their own grip on power.
The success of the local government system all over the world is premised on two contingent factors. First, it should work as a diagnostic laboratory for problem identification and solutions. Second, it should have electoral legitimacy so that people can be rallied into taking critical decisions which impact heavily on their lives as citizens. In Pakistan, electoral legitimacy, over the years, has proved to be a missing link, giving the bureaucracy an undue hold over these institutions.
The growing urban sprawls that have developed in the wake of massive demographic shifts are posing new and daunting challenges for Pakistan. The problem in the case of Karachi and Lahore, the two key metropolitan areas, is especially complex. There is growing pressure on civic amenities and frequent breakdowns of the lifelines of the two cities. The range and complexities of the problems they face suggest that no single agency can solve them. The federal and provincial governments are increasingly involved in a fairly large number of problem areas, from setting up of integrated water supply and sewerage maintenance systems to working on mass transit systems and allied infrastructure. This increasing role of the federal and provincial governments at the local level does not foreclose the scope of elected office holders at the municipal level to retain a degree of control and authority over functions that are essentially of local nature but which require collaborative handling.
The 18th Amendment has constitutionalised the presence of the local government system in the body-politic of the country. The provinces are now obligated to devolve more financial and administrative powers to local government institutions. The spirit of the 18th Amendment has been faithfully carried into the preamble of the provincial local government acts. In view of the vastness of the subject, I would like to confine my deliberations to the metropolitan areas of Karachi and Lahore alone.
The Sindh and Punjab Local Government Acts stipulate a vast array of functions to the metropolitan corporations in the provinces. These two civic bodies of Karachi and Lahore are entrusted with the planning, development and maintenance of roads, special development programmes, land use planning, matters relating to traffic engineering, the construction of flyovers, underpasses and parking lots, development of integrated water supply scheme as well as mass transit systems. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation is also required to look after medical colleges and specialised hospitals. The respective enactments in Sindh and Punjab see the mayors of these august bodies as those who give vision and a sense of direction to the institution, a philosopher king who is required to do a lot of administrative reckoning for the metropolitan population based on their electoral legitimacy. This may well be in line with the Constitution and the preambles of the relevant laws but in reality there seems to be a regression on the ground instead of there being true empowerment. The Sindh Local Government Act, while empowering the local councils, has a caveat that no corporation shall undertake such functions as are assigned to or performed by an agency established under any other law for the time being in force. Under the cover of this clause, we find many federal and provincial parastatals performing functions in the urban sprawl of Karachi, which are essentially municipal in nature. In Punjab, elementary education and primary health care have historically been concurrent functions and responsibilities of both the provincial government and local councils. But under the present law, the local councils have been divested of these functions and supra entities called the District Education Authority and the District Health Authority — which are under the control of the provincial government — look after these areas. The relationship of these authorities with the elected local councils has still not been spelt out. Some other key municipal functions, like setting up of cattle markets, parking lots and waste management systems have been corporatised by bringing them on the radar of the provincial government.
It is perhaps unfair to put the entire blame for this state of affairs on the new legislation alone. What we are faced with is a systemic problem rooted in our history. Development authorities that were set up in Karachi and Lahore as land use planning agencies and for promoting area development schemes have not only increased their area of operation but have also taken over key municipal functions, such as land use planning, infrastructure development, water supply, sewerage management and road engineering. These authorities are packed with nominees of provincial governments and exercise vast jurisdictional control over the metropolitan areas of the two cities. The Cantonment boards are yet another ground reality, originally meant to control and manage military estates. The civilian population both in numbers and as title holders, however, forms the majority in the cantonment areas. Nevertheless the boards are governed and controlled by the station headquarters. Under the law, they are required to consult the civilians in development and planning decisions.
The present Local Government Acts were drafted when the key stakeholders, the local councillors, were not on the scene. In all fairness, the provincial governments need to revisit the laws in consultation with the new stakeholders to make these institutions more effective. There is a need to increase the local representatives’ oversight over development authorities and all other provincial outfits. Above all, a well-structured, inter-jurisdictional framework for integrated development in the mega cities, with the mayor occupying the centre stage, is the need of the hour. The provincial governments need to change their mindset. Instead of municipalising their role, they should focus more on taking on a regulatory role while giving a fair deal to the nascent local government institutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2016.
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