The idea of modern local self-government is a mere 129 years old in South Asia. The seeds of decentralisation were sown by Viceroy Lord Ripon who, in 1882, envisioned that the citizens of India should be able to redress their grievances at the local level, creating an efficient, effective and corruption-less service. Unfortunately, his vision still remains unfulfilled. Local bodies in India began with a majority of official members, but slowly, with the reforms of 1909, 1919 and 1935, the representation and powers of the elected members increased so that on the eve of independence, the percentage of official members in the urban councils was very small. Rooted in the policy of ‘gradualism,’ the concept was that with time and education, people would be able to make enhanced use of local resources for better governance and development.
This system of increasing power to the elected representatives continued until it was reversed by the Basic Democracies model of Ayub Khan in 1959. Under Basic Democracies, the percentage of official members steadily increased at the higher levels, so that by the Divisional Councils the officials were about 50 per cent of the membership. Obviously, this mechanism ensured that there was no political opposition forthcoming for the now ‘elected’ president, but it also circumscribed the real role of local self-government, where it steadily came under the control of the bureaucrats.
Former president Pervez Musharraf’s local government system was a clear move to change the political focus to the localities and away from the centre, and its party-less initiation was supposed to temper organised opposition against him. However, the local government system devised by Musharraf significantly allowed for maximum local autonomy — almost all the main functions of local government came under the elected leadership and the bureaucrats were relegated to a supporting capacity. While this system confused the work of members of parliament in their constituency, and did not clearly delineate the roles of the elected representatives and the bureaucrats, it was a move in the right direction and only needed certain amendments.
The recent decisions of the Sindh government, in agreement with the president, to repeal the Sindh Local Government Ordinance of 2001 and the Police Ordinance of 2002, and resurrect the 1979 Sindh Local Government Ordinance and the Police Act 1861, are certainly retrograde steps. In one broad sweep, an elected government has set aside a century of progress (barring, of course, the dictatorship periods) and again disempowered governance at the local level. Such measures would be unthinkable under the British Raj, let alone in an independent democratic setup. Both the federal and the provincial governments have yet to make any clear arguments in favour of such a change. Official statements only claim that the legislation was repealed because it was passed under a dictator. Without focusing on the hypocrisy of such an arbitrary choice (as certainly there are other reasons why these ordinances, and not others, are being repealed), it is clear that the 1979 local government ordinance was also promulgated by a dictator and with the aim of re-centring the government on the bureaucracy. Similarly, rather than improving upon the modernising aspects of the Police Order of 2002, the government has decided on the wholesale reimposition of a 150-year-old act, which was devised to control the populace, rather than to help it, in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt.
In a country like Pakistan, it should be self-evident that such a weakening of local democratic institutions would only harm self-governance in the future; local government is the basic building block for democracy and without its proper functioning, no parliamentary democracy can succeed. Also, by reimposing the ‘fear’ model for the police, the government is preventing the modernisation and sophistication of the police force and inhibiting it from becoming a service for the people.
It is a real shame that a ‘democratic’ government is spearheading such initiatives.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2011.