In Pakistan, 60% people live in rural areas where poor infrastructure, lack of economic opportunities coupled with poor public services has resulted in chronic poverty. Four out of 10 Pakistanis are living in acute poverty. Due to poor provision of public services, particularly in rural areas, the poor suffer more and have relatively meagre or no access to clean drinking water, education, health and sanitation facilities. Approximately 40% people have no choice but to get contaminated water from unsafe sources and more than half of the total population doesn’t have access to health and education facilities. The main reason behind this abysmal situation of public services, particularly in rural areas, is the absence of powerful, people-centred and resourceful local self-governments.
Strengthening people-centred local self-government is perhaps the only robust means by which we can translate the envisioned development plans and policies into reality for having inclusive and sustainable communities. When we think of people-centred self-government, we are reminded of Gandhi’s words “I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice.”
Seventy years after independence, we still haven’t succeeded in making the underprivileged feel that it is their country and neither ensured they have a strong and effective voice in policymaking. By relying on the same disconnected and unapproachable bureaucracy that the British Raj had used to govern us, we have undermined our local self-government models imperative for deepening democracy in Pakistan and making its development process inclusive and people-centered. The reason behind this is the reluctance of both polity and bureaucracy who fear losing their powers of patronage and influence if there is an actual and candid overhaul of the political system.
Change in this attitude towards local governments is inevitable for preventing democracy from being destabilised and establishing inclusive and sustainable communities. Robust local governments are vital for bringing affordable and quality public services to the doorsteps of the poorest population. Involving people in decision-making process will break the lethargic mentality and consequently will mobilise them socially and politically for actively participating in decisions and plans undertaken regarding them. Hence, we have to think about revival and strengthening of our centuries-old and people-centred political systems of public services delivery like Panchayat Raj.
Panchayat Raj is an example of local self-government that aims to involve people in the running of their own affairs in their respective communities. It comprises elected representatives, answerable to their own community voters and acts more likely than a detached bureaucracy to respond to the wants and demands of the communities. Local self-government is essential for ensuring that the people, particularly the poor, substantially benefit from the policies and development plans.
Pakistan already has established local governments through elections in 2014-2015. According to the Election Commission, there are now approximately 7,000 local institutions of democratically constituted units of local government to which around 125,000 representatives have been elected.
However, these institutions of local governments are yet to get powers and resources envisioned in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Pakistan’s polity needs to take robust measures towards strengthening them by reducing dependence on detached bureaucracy and increasing powers and resources to local government bodies.
Provincial governments also have to play a practical and strong role in this regard by adopting and implementing rural support programmes social mobilisation approach to community driven development. A system which focuses on the belief that poor men and women have an intrinsic capability to help themselves out of challenges they face and can better manage their local limited resources.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2017.