Local government reform in Pakistan: some issues

Published: August 16, 2011
The writer is an architect in private practice. He is a recipient of the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and is a founding member of the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights

The writer is an architect in private practice. He is a recipient of the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and is a founding member of the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights

The contents of this article are drawn from my personal experiences of working since 1971 in various areas of Pakistan under three different local government systems, some literature that I value and important surveys that have been conducted to seek people’s views on governance issues in Pakistan.

According to surveys, the people of Pakistan, especially at the union council level, prefer Musharraf’s system as compared to the old bureaucratic one. Also, observation, research and budgets tell us that, under Musharraf’s system, large funds were transferred to the district and union councils. As a result, far more work on physical infrastructure projects at the local level were carried out in the last decade than ever before. Because of the devolution process, entrepreneurs at the union council level became councillors, nazims and naib nazims. They also became contractors and suppliers. An important and emerging commercial class that did not have a voice in local politics before started to determine development issues in their settlements. However, apart from being imposed by a dictator, the system had various other shortcomings.

The support that people have shown in the surveys for the union councils is related to the fact that direct elections were held at this level for councillors, nazims and naib nazims and, as a result, people felt involved and empowered. This is especially true for women who, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, became councillors in large numbers. The indirect elections of the other tiers have been criticised universally because they can be won through coercion, blackmail, and/or bribes. The seriousness of this issue can be judged by the fact that 2,293 votes were cast for the election of the Karachi mayor who represents a city of 16 million.

However, under Musharraf’s system, there was a lot of nepotism in the allocation of development budgets. Villages and settlements that had been opponents of the nazim, or did not belong to his clan or ethnicity, were deprived of their rightful share of development projects. As such, development was unequal and there is considerable resentment concerning it. Under the old bureaucratic system, decisions on investments were, by and large, rule based. Under the 2001 system, the nazim made all decisions. In addition, it is claimed at all locations I have worked in that there was a lack of transparency in awarding contracts as compared to before. Profit margins in these contracts have also been substantially higher, pointing towards a considerable higher level of corruption.

Under the pre-Musharraf colonial system, the deputy commissioner (DC) was all-powerful. All development, law and order, land revenue and related issues were subservient to him. This system was developed in colonial times to guarantee revenue collection and to suppress social and political dissent. The two functions are closely interrelated. The post-colonial Pakistan state has used this system to effectively suppress democratic movements and eliminate political opponents. The Local Government Ordinance (LGO) of 2001, by transferring the magisterial powers of the DC to the courts, seeks to address this serious fault in the colonial system. However, in my experience, poorer people want the DC’s powers to be restored. They claim that going to the courts of law is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. They also feel that the 2001 Act gives greater powers to the police and promotes corruption and coercion and, as such, insecurity in communities. In any case, containing and eliminating political dissent is now the job of the intelligence agencies.

Land is arguably the most important issue in Pakistan. The revenue department, whose district head was the DC, had powers to prevent land encroachment. Since the 2001 LGO was enforced, there have been massive land encroachments in all the areas I have worked in. It is claimed by the locals that the nazims, their relatives and their political supporters are actively involved in this. Land encroachment also took place before, but was curtailed because the DC had to function according to bureaucratic rules and regulations. The nazims had no such constraints.

Many physical infrastructure development projects made during the last 10 years have serious technical faults. The investments made in them have also been questioned as a waste of money. Many technocrats have agreed with these contentions and some of them have said that their advice was not listened to by their nazims. They have further claimed that under the old system they stood a better chance of being listened to. In addition, they claim that their organisations have become ‘non-functional’ due to politically motivated and corruption related changes in important staff members, and the hiring of incompetent personnel in large numbers. There is considerable truth in the allegations.

In the case of Karachi, other factors come into play. It is the capital of Sindh but only 14 per cent of its population speaks the historical languages of the province and 48 per cent speak Urdu. Meanwhile, Punjabi and Pushto speakers put together constitute about 28 per cent of its population. On the other hand, 66 per cent of the population of the province is either Sindhi, Balochi, Seraiki and/or Brahvi-speaking. A strong autonomous city government will naturally be dominated by the Urdu speakers. This alienates the 66 per cent and also the politically organised Pushto speakers who, in such a system, cannot easily access Karachi’s job market and commercial, health and educational institutions, or influence development related decisions regarding issues that affect their lives and communities. The 2001 LGO recipe has an inbuilt conflict between the province and the city. To resolve this issue requires clearly defined ethical parameters within which discussions can take place and also statesmanship, generosity and trust on the part of the protagonists, something none of them have.

Between elected representatives and the people, an effective bureaucracy and justice system is required that functions strictly according to rules, regulations and procedures and, in the process, holds public representative responsible and accountable, guarantees transparency and makes national assets available to all its citizens (men and women) as a matter of right. Only such a system can overcome the issues I have discussed above.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Sajida
    Aug 16, 2011 - 11:34PM

    The author makes interesting points;but, like most Pakistanis seems unaware that the LG system reflects a type of local governance system that is the silent revolution outside Pakistan. It is present on most continents. Pakistan as part of Indian colony was an early beneficiary as GB implemented an early form in 19th century in what is known today as the panchayat raj system. Britain is not the developer of this system, it was just the first country to apply it beyond the border of the source of origin:France. France at the time, was 3d most populous country in the world (after China and India). GB implemented more amplified version for itself, as its own system wasn’t working. But, before it did that a modified form was introduced in India under Ripon. This type of system has now evolved French and South East Asian variants. China grew its economy using the SEA variant, as unlike the Pakistanis the Chinese were mart enough to under stand it is a powerful economic tool.The Musharraf introduced system got a good start in first (reform) government;but, didn’t evolve as it should have in 2d government. What issues you are describing are just issues that can be fixed. I should mention frist 3 tier urban system was developed for Kolkata in 1980s;but, because its structure was weaker it didn’t do as well as Karachi in shorter space of time. Birmingham UK unveiled a 3 tier plan in UK after Pakistan introduced Karachi version.Indirect sections are the norm in France and Canada (BC, Ontario,Quebec). They are selected for a reason. You have to understand dynamics of such systems to under stand why.Recommend

  • ka
    Aug 17, 2011 - 12:27AM

    /A strong autonomous city government will naturally be dominated by the Urdu speakers./

    In that case the Sindh govt is dominated by Sindhis, scrap that as well as this alienates Urdu speakers?


  • Zubair Faisal Abbasi
    Aug 17, 2011 - 12:45AM

    Very interesting and balanced analysis. Owing to the land-factor, many problems in cities including Karachi have become severe squandering any distant flicker of possible social well-being. Instead of promoting businesses through zoning, the notorious encroachment drives by mafias crowded out entrepreneurial talents or business opportunity and brought in law and order situations ensuing deprivations. The mafias entered political parties and now using them for illegal gains and murders.


  • Sajida
    Aug 17, 2011 - 2:43AM

    The land mafia is a big South Asian problem. It is worse perhaps in India even than in Pakistan. The black money in India also fuels the land mafia.
    Google search term “land mafia India” an see what cones up!
    But RE lobby is also behind sprawl in US and was a factor in the housing bubble that burst and affected global economy!


  • Arzoo
    Aug 17, 2011 - 9:24AM

    Outwardly a very balanced article, it is full of inconsistencies and wrong conclusions and ignore the basic fact that the civilized world is moving towards a system of local self government even at the village level.

    The author states that Karachi has 48 percent Urdu speakers whereas Punjabi and Pushto speakers constitue 28 percent of the population. He further states that in Sindh 66 percent of the population comprises of Sindhi, Balochi, Seraiki, and Brahvi speaking people. Then he concludes that the Local Government System in Karachi will alienate the 66 percent of Sindh’s population. That is quite absurd because not implementing LGS will alienate the majority population of Karachi, one of the largest cities of the world, and the economic feeder of the country.


  • Aug 17, 2011 - 10:24AM

    The system we called devolution never devolved to the grassroots level


  • Haider Hussain
    Aug 17, 2011 - 11:01AM

    We should have let the LG system continue and continuously work to fill the loopholes, rather than folding the system altogether and bring a system that makes only bureaucrats happy.


  • Ishrat Salim
    Aug 17, 2011 - 2:02PM

    @ Sajida….very well analysed the article itself….there is nothing wrong with the continuation of 2001 LG system….all that was needed was to amend & plug the weaker points in the LG system instead of totally discarding the same without weighing various pros & cons….because globally LG system has been recognised inorder to instill self-goverance by the people at the lowest level & its subsequent participation in the main political stream….which the present political dynastic parties do not want….obviously.


  • Aug 17, 2011 - 4:51PM

    Very thought provoking article!


  • Bilal
    Aug 17, 2011 - 7:44PM

    Despite all the shortcomings of the LG system, it stands a better chance of downplaying tensions in the long run because it lets the majority control their destiny. Whether or not the majority misuses this power is dependant on how accomodating the majority is of minorities and has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the LG system itself.

    An englightened majority in charge of local government can make all the difference in the world. Concentrating power in the hands of an individual may yield short-term benefits but will never produce long-term sustainable growth.


    Aug 18, 2011 - 8:04PM

    @ Mr Arif
    You forgot to mention karachi second big population hinko speaker peoples from hazara KP
    area who constitute around 30% of total population.


  • Sajida
    Aug 19, 2011 - 10:47AM

    @Ishrat Salim LG system reflects a type of local governance system that is a rising force. It is rising because the world is urbanizing. In an urbanizing world it has been realized that fragmented systems are counterproductive. Most variations are urban.Only in a few countries-including the source of origin (France) is there also a rural system. Because the Indian colony of GB got a rural version, Pakistan also got a rural version in LG system.
    What are the results? The results are integrated economies, reduction of inequity within a region, economic development of a region,ennabling local innovation, improved ability to deal with challenges of urbanization..


  • Sajida
    Aug 19, 2011 - 8:31PM

    @Ishrat Salim The rural version the British introduced is known today as the panchayat system. It was introduced first in the Indian colony before a more amplified system was implemented in UK (the county district parish council system). The British never updated the Indian form;and because of that the Indian system has suffered. It has failed to deliver the substantive results delivered by such systems elsewhere. The LG system is a variation on the British form. Since there are no ag taxes, the rural version may benefit from modification. The panachayat system also needs reform and structure also needs to change as there to ag taxes are missing. In other countries this is not an issue.
    Such systems are more potent in urban form. The urban form varies. The first 3 tier system in South Asia was the Kolkata system implemented in the 1980s. But as it has a weak structure it was unable to deliver results Karachi was able to in much shorter space of time.There are 2 variants: the French variant and the South East Asian variant. The later has much larger geographic territories. IN SEA version there is decentralization in city core and regions beyond are autonomous but part of one urban system. This is the type of system that is in place in variation in Tokyo, Seoul (and other South Korean cities and in Chinese cities)


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