Participatory local governments are inevitable for delivering Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in poor and marginalised areas. These governments not only ensure improving access to basic services but also provide an effective platform for the poor class as well as peasants, workers and women to participate in the decision making and development process undertaken for them. Pakistan has a chequered history when it comes to putting local governments in place and providing them powers. There have been times when local governments have enjoyed powers and resources devolved to them by federal and provincial governments. Conversely, we have had powerless and resourceless local governments too, thanks to a reluctant political class which does not want to establish a robust local government system for the fear of losing powers. When the political class itself undermines the basics of democracy imperative for its strengthening then it is useless to expect other pillars of the state to support democracy in the country. Article 140 of the 1973 Constitution clearly underlines the obligations of provincial governments to establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments. The article also empowers the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to hold local government elections.
However, since the dissolution of local bodies in Balochistan in December 2018, the ECP is clueless about holding local government elections in the province. It has been more than seven months that the provincial government had appointed administrators for looking after delivery of services in metropolitan and municipal areas. But what about the rural areas where most of the population live in chronic poverty and have poor or no access to education, healthcare, clean water, food and employment opportunities?
The delay in holding local government elections in the province is not only violating the constitutional obligations but is also severely undermining — and reversing in some cases — the gains of previous local governments. When local governments are undermined by not holding elections on time or not devolving powers and resources then it is the poor who suffers the most. The province of Balochistan which has the highest percentage of poor population needs a robust local government system which can provide services and relief to them.
Strengthening local government system in Balochistan is perhaps the only viable solution by which government policies can be translated into inclusive development and prosperity. When we think of inclusive development, 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.”
Even though Article 32 of the 1973 Constitution gives special consideration to the representation of peasants, workers and women, it has been more than seventy years since the independence and we still haven’t made any sincere effort towards inclusion of voices, like those of poor and womenfolk, in the policing making at the grass-roots level.
Engagement and participation of peasants, workers and women in local government is very important for achieving SDGs in rural areas of Balohcistan. For this purpose, the political class must ready itself to compromise on its powers and resources by giving more space and representation to the marginalised segments.
We have seen, in the last couple of years, a political class shying away from conducting local government elections in the wake of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010 just because they are not ready to devolve powers and resources from provincial to local governments. Such delaying tactics led the Supreme Court of Pakistan to order Punjab and Sindh to conduct local government elections. The court order also declared the absence of local governments as against the law and the Constitution. Because of the court intervention, provinces had to hold local government elections in 2014-15.
The delay in local government elections is hampering efforts of the international donor agencies working on local governance reforms in Balochistan. Due to the absence of local governments in the province, the EU-funded programme on Local Development Policy Framework and Localisation of SDGs could not have been completed on time. It was a great opportunity for the provincial government to go through robust and comprehensive sectoral reforms for improving people’s participation in areas like development process, social accountability, state-citizen engagement, and services delivery oversight in the province.
The provincial government in Balochistan should conduct local government elections as soon as possible so as to avoid adding to the miseries of the people who are faced with drought, poor economy, lack of employment opportunities, ethno-religious conflict, and poor governance. Establishing local governments in Balochistan has become imperative for putting the province on road to inclusive development and prosperity.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2019.
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