EMPOWERING citizens through their locally elected representatives with responsibility, authority, resources and capacity to advance democracy and promote social and economic growth are ideally the objectives of any devolution of power from central to local governments.
The purpose, especially in a country with more than 180 million people, must be to improve governance and ease the pressure on the central hubs of power which are far away from the people, and therefore unable to deliver on the simplest of basic needs such as healthcare, education, security, etc.
But this is certainly not the case in Pakistan, where the provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory, under directions of the Supreme Court, begrudgingly enacted their respective local government acts, which neither empower the local representatives nor devolve administrative and financial responsibility and authority to them, as required under Article 140-A of the Constitution. The court orders might have been implemented, but the constitutional obligation has yet to be fulfilled. Except for Balochistan, where elections were held in December 2013, the other provinces, ICT and 118 cantonment boards held local elections under their respective laws during 2015. These elections created an elaborate infrastructure in the shape of local councils comprising around 137,886 members elected directly or indirectly - 58,084 in Punjab, more than 670 in ICT, 42,907 in KP and 23,025 in Sindh. As a result, more than 10,000 local councils have come into being. Unlike the system introduced by Musharraf in 2000 that had clearly delineated powers to locally elected representatives and placed more than 10 line departments under their direct supervision, including the high-powered district commissioner and district police officer, the newly elected local councillors are devoid of any such powers. The provinces have shied away from devolving power to the local level, keeping the district-level bureaucracy completely insulated from the new local representation.
Take the Punjab Local Government Act 2013. In addition to restoring the urban-rural divide apparently to facilitate the perpetuation of power by traditional elites and their protégés, the law has not devolved any line department to the local government. Even functions as basic as primary, secondary and higher education, non-formal education and adult literacy have been entrusted to district education authorities, which are to be created by the provincial government and will function outside the control of the local governments.
Similar structures are to be created to manage healthcare services in the districts. This will enhance public distrust in the ability of democratically elected representatives as they will be unable to respond to public needs in the absence of any authority.
Interestingly, there is a long list of functions assigned to various types of local councils, but the relevant line departments have been kept out of their control. For example, the Lahore Metropolitan Corporation has been entrusted with the responsibility of providing, managing, supervising, operating, maintaining and improving municipal infrastructure and services. However, most of these functions fall within the purview of the Water and Sanitation Authority and the Lahore Development Authority, which do not come under the control of the metropolitan corporation. Parallel structures will create rifts and confusion.
Although the Punjab law specifies the creation of a local government cadre, it will not be managed by the local councils but the Local Government and Community Development Department of the provincial government.
The government has also retained the power to reject, review or redo the annual budget approved by the local government. Similarly, it can review the decisions of the Punjab Finance Commission, which is to be created for resource distribution to districts from the Provincial Allocable Fund, which is a narrower pool than the Provincial Consolidated Fund. This commission will not include any elected representatives of local governments, compromising the spirit of transparent and representative decision-making.
The laws in KP and Sindh are better than Punjab, ie there is greater space available to local governments for development and their inclusion in the provincial finance commission. However, the law in Sindh is as retrogressive as in Punjab, and reinforces the urban-rural divide besides giving arbitrary powers to the provincial government to suspend the control of local governments over any of the legally entrusted functions. A chief executive assigned to every council will work under its general supervision, but will technically not report to it. The case in Islamabad is no different. Under the ICT Local Government Act, 2015, the centre will appoint a chief officer who will be responsible for all executive functions. The mayor may just be ceremonial if the chief officer is more assertive. Similarly, the federal government has retained the power to review the annual budget approved by the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation. But Section 93 of the act says it all: "The government may issue directions to a local government and the local government shall be bound by such directions." The recent protests by councillors in parts of Punjab, Sindh and KP must be seen against this backdrop. Perhaps under the illusion of the decentralisation model introduced by the Musharraf-led government, the new councillors were hoping for similar roles and responsibilities after being elected. Little did they know, they did not even have a place to sit to conduct their official business.