Amidst an opposition boycott, the Punjab Assembly concluded on Thursday its four-day general discussion on the Punjab Local Government Bill of 2013, which will continue to be fine-tuned in a special committee.
Law and Local Government Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, concluding the debate, said the committee’s deliberations would continue till the Eid holidays and the government would aim to pass the draft legislation on August 12.
The session resumed on Thursday morning at 11.07am, over an hour late. Acting Speaker Sher Ali Gorchani presided over the session and prorogued it indefinitely at the conclusion.
Only around a dozen opposition members showed up for the sitting, and they too left shortly in protest at the rise in petroleum prices. Three of them returned for a brief period before leaving again. Treasury members were left free to discuss the bill in their absence. There were no opposition members present when Sanaullah got up to deliver the winding-up speech.
Sanaullah said that opposition and treasury members were together deliberating on the bill in the special committee and suggestions from both sides were being considered. The devolution of authority and the functions of local government had been discussed in detail, he said.
The government’s objective was to empower local governments, he said. They would seek to include a mechanism in the bill for devolution from the district level to the union council level.
The minister said that the draft bill allowed the district government to devolve any of its functions to the union councils. Some members had suggested renaming union councils as village councils and urban municipal committees as city councils.
He said that in the previous local government system, there had been a lot of corruption as town administrators and district nazims lacked the capacity to deliver public services or govern effectively.
Sanaullah said that district-level health and education authorities would include elected councillors as members. The government would initially appoint education and health experts to the authorities to support the elected members and build their capacity. These technocrats would later be replaced with more elected members, he added.
The minister said that the draft bill was a result of two years of work with professionals, technocrats, civil society and bureaucrats. Still, the government was willing to incorporate proposals made by opposition and treasury members.
He said that that special committee would continue meeting next week up to the Eid holidays and the assembly would be reconvened on August 12 for the passage of the bill. The Supreme Court had set a deadline of August 15 for the completion of legislative work for the local elections, he said. The government was confident it would be able to comply with the court’s order to conduct the polls in September.
Earlier during the general discussion, women MPAs said that the number of reserved seats for women in union councils should be raised from one to four.
MPA Waheed Gul of the PML-N apparently sought to make light of the proposal. He said women lawmakers should show the same spirit they showed in demanding more seats to protecting women’s rights. Islamic law allowed men to have four wives, he said, but when an already-married man took a second wife, the first wife was often jealous of the second. He asked the women legislators to be graceful and respectful towards their husbands’ other wives, if they had any, for the other wives too had rights.
Malik Ahmad of the PML-N objected to Gul’s statement, asking him to inform the house which Islamic laws described or elaborated on such rights. The speaker intervened and asked members to leave the topic. Talking about the bill, Ahmad said that the composition of local governments was the most important topic. He said questions about the composition of district councils, how the council chairman would be elected, and the ward system should be solved amicably. He said more powers should be devolved to the lowest tier of local government.
He raised the question of whether the district education and health authorities would be bodies corporate in the new system. He said that job centres should be established at the union council level to maintain records of industry, infrastructure, numbers of educated youth, and employment numbers.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2013.