The opposition in the Punjab Assembly has demanded that the government adopt a local government system similar to that introduced by Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf in 2001 rather than the “1861 throwback” proposed under the Punjab Local Government Bill of 2013.
The demand was made during Monday’s Punjab Assembly sitting, after Speaker Sher Ali Gorchani set aside the routine agenda of the day so members could discuss the bill tabled in the assembly last Friday.
Members of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf criticised the proposed new system as too weak and open to interference from the provincial government and bureaucrats.
Muhammad Siddique Khan of the PTI said the bill went against the spirit of Article 140A, which required provincial governments to “devolve political, administrative and financial authority and responsibility to the elected representatives of local governments”. The bill outlined less a local government system and more a local bodies system, he added.
He said that the description of the proposed new system as corporate was flawed. A corporate body was supposed to be autonomous, where elected representatives like mayors regulated laws while public functionaries like DCOs performed their duties under those laws. While the 2001 local government system made the DCO accountable to the district nazim, the new bill made the DCO the principal accounting officer.
He said Local Government Minister Rana Sanaullah’s claim that the new bill was aimed at stopping the corruption under the old system was “rubbish”. The old system provided for the audit of local governments by the auditor general and the PA Public Accounts Committee, while the new bill provided for a Provincial Local Government Commission led by the minister to conduct the audits. The former system contained more appropriate checks, he said.
The new system would provide fewer reserved seats for women and labourers than the previous system, he said, and was thus a violation of Article 32, which states that the government must give “special representation to peasants, workers and women”. The bill also went against Clauses 9, 10, 29 and 3 of the Charter of Democracy calling for local elections on a party basis within three months of general elections, he added.
Khan said that the Punjab government was trying to revive the system introduced by the British in 1861 which empowered the bureaucracy. The system introduced by Gen Musharraf was better. “Even if it was a dictator who came up with something good, it should be adopted,” he added.
Mian Aslam Iqbal of the PTI said that the mayors under the new system would be toothless and reduced to protocol officers for the government. In the provincial capital, the chief minister would retain the authority to appoint the heads of the LDA, Tepa, PHA, LWMC, LTC, LPC, Punjab Food Authority, Rescue 1122, the Walled City of Lahore Authority and the district education and health authorities. The chief minister would also be able to suspend the mayor, deputy mayor and chairmen as he pleased.
The bill used the word “prescribed” excessively, he said, which meant that after it was passed, the bureaucracy would formulate a set of laws giving themselves greater control. The bill was also silent about how deputy mayors would be elected in case of no-confidence moves against chairmen or mayors.
Iqbal noted that the ward system had been introduced in 1979, replaced with union councils in 2001, and was now to be reintroduced. This was unnecessarily confusing, he said. There were 150 seats for non-Muslims in the previous system, but now there would be only 10 per district, he added.
Murad Ras of the PTI said that the bill provided for different systems for rural and urban areas. Since there were more tax opportunities in urban areas, this would inevitably lead to urban areas getting more facilities and rural areas being deprived.
He said that the question of delimitation of union councils was too sensitive a matter to be left to the government. This should be done on the basis of population, he said.
The indirect election of mayors, deputy mayors, chairmen and vice chairmen would promote horse trading. The heads of district health and education authorities would be appointed by the provincial government, meaning they would act on their agenda rather than on local interests, he said.
Ras noted that the Punjab Local Government Commission would have just one elected member, with the rest being government appointees. The bill provides for local bodies, not local governments, he said.
Sanaullah, the local government minister, said that the government aimed to pass the bill with consensus and was open to suggestions from all sides. He asked the opposition members to send in their opinions on whether the local elections should be held on a party or non-party basis, or whether their could be party-based elections for the upper tier of local government and non-party polls for the lower tier, on the division of urban and rural areas, and other issues. The opposition’s input would be taken up in the house or by the 12-member special committee on local governments.
Normal assembly proceedings will resume on Wednesday morning, after Tuesday’s presidential elections.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2013.
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