Unlike the case with our economic model, our local governance model does not suffer from misdiagnosis. The programmers knew exactly what they were coding and how it would turn out to be.
No secret that the political parties didn’t want local government in the first place. It was the judiciary that got them to do it. The federal and provincial governments view empowerment of local governments as a zero-sum game. So where does that leave us?
The PTI introduced the K-P Local Government Act in 2013. The Act in the province has seen many amendments as of now. The provincial governments are responsible for post-secondary education, tertiary healthcare hospitals, agricultural income tax, urban planning and other such important areas.
The local governments should have been given residuary utility services such as water supply, waste management as well. However, for these, the system designers created the Public-Private Partnership companies; Lahore Waste Management Company, Punjab Saaf Pani Company, and K-P Economic Zones Development and Management Company, to name but a few.
These companies deliver services that have been devolved to the local governments and are managed by officers that belong to the federal service. They are accountable only to their boards, on which the local government representatives have no representation.
So this rules out the role of Mayors/Nazims in managing provision of gas, electricity, and water; improving the law and order, managing post-secondary education facilities, tertiary care hospitals, major highways, provincial revenue authorities, or the special economic zones.
Jurisdictional issues aplenty, each municipality has its own troika of power; the district administration (commissionerate system), a development authority and a municipal corporation. Take the example of Hyderabad: one district with two mayors. And this isn’t because of overpopulation since the neighbouring Karachi has one mayor presiding over six districts.
Or take the example of Mayor of Islamabad, who has to be answerable to his electorate without having administrative control over the Capital Development Authority (CDA). Tiers within the third tier of governance also pose some challenges to each other.
And then there’s bureaucracy. Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad acts as the city’s Revenue Officer as well as its District Magistrate. All the Qanungohs, Patwaris, and Tehsildars report to DC who holds the power to invoke the infamous Maintenance of Public Order, and issuing NOCs for organising public rallies, etc. Yet the Mayor is vested with little (if any) authority over DC, de facto or de jure.
There are two key aspects that one must consider while assessing the likelihood of the PTI introducing meaningful local government reforms.
First, this isn’t a martial law. This goes to say that unlike Presidents Ayub, Zia and Musharraf, the PTI is not hard-pressed for seeking legitimacy. So the incentive to empower the political periphery is minimal, if not non-existent.
Second, the tenure of federal, provincial as well the local governments would expire in 2023. Should local governments be put in the driving seat and the provincial governments be left with the residuary functions, the PTI risks shooting itself in the foot, vis-à-vis the 2023 general elections.
Getting a grip over public administration after devolution of power involves a learning curve. Things get worse before they get better. And with general elections coinciding with local bodies’ elections, no party can be expected to take this chance.
Our local governments haven’t delivered to their electorate. Yet they haven’t failed either. They performed exactly how their programmers had programmed them to. Garbage in, garbage out.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2019.