Karachi’s biggest issue is the absence of an effective and empowered local government tier. This continued absence has left a mess in its civic infrastructure along with a biased developmental mosaic. This fallacy was made to realize, in a more appropriate manner, by the month-long sit-in by the Jamaat-e-Islami in Karachi, which led to an accord with the Sindh government to amend its previous legislation and devolve powers at the grassroots level. In other words, it means rolling back the biased piece of law that had nullified the local government mechanism in Pakistan’s biggest metropolitan. The religio-political party, which was a pioneer in addressing the civic woes of the city in the 1980s, deserves kudos for taking a mature political line of action. It has simply pushed the envelope as to how important it is to decentralise the mega-city and let revenue and amenities be on their own.
The amended version of the Sindh Local Government Bill 2021 had clipped the powers of the elected bodies, and had intruded in with a parallel mechanism under the supervision of the Sindh Cabinet. This was contested tooth and nail by all, except the ruling PPP. The MQM too was up in arms and bloodied its nose as its rally last week was baton-charged, leading to the death of an activist. But the Jamaat proved to be more resilient as its strategy was well-entrenched. It was more than an episode in political exigency as it successfully negotiated a deal under which education and health will revert back to the LB domain and, waste disposal too will fall under the municipality.
The nod to set up a provincial financial commission is quite promising. Likewise, by re-introducing powers in the office of the elected Mayor and restoring district municipal corporations (DMCs) in urban areas, the agreement between the Jamaat and Sindh government is a good beginning. What is needed is to walk the talk, and let Karachi have a constitutionally-mandated local government without any hindrance.
It’s high time the debate on LB parameters graduated into policy decisions. Karachiites have suffered a lot owing to a condemnable bias when it comes to disbursement of resources and powers. The Local Government Ministry under the Sindh Cabinet is a Viceroy-mode approach, wherein bureaucracy rules the roost, and nullifies the very essence of LB functioning. This has to go, in order to enable elected representatives call the shots.
The Jamaat should be joined by other stakeholders too as it choreographs a viable route to empowering the locals. The PTI, the MQM and even the PPP should feel themselves truly a dispensation of Karachi to voice for an empowered LB structure. Contrary to what the amended 2021 bill had projected, let the powers to regulate civic utilities — including sewage, garbage, potable water, electricity, etc — be municipality subjects. Like any other developed state’s City government, taxation and police too should be local bodies’ affair. Karachi is in need of an empowered apolitical local government to be exercised politically by its elected representatives. This will induce ownership — an aspect lacking in case of Karachi to this day.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2022.
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