A one-day consultation to discuss the revival of local governments was organised in Islamabad recently. Interesting political economy discourse took place during the meeting. The principal point of conflict that surfaced was between two groups, both comprising academics, activists and practitioners. One of them was of the view that the local government’s revival needs to be questioned in the context of its history, i.e. the military governments in Pakistan have instituted local governments for their own political purposes. The other group attacked politicians and political parties, blaming them for non-implementation of the constitutional requirements for setting up local governments and for their patronage politics.
The other argument was that, since, the national and provincial assembly politicians are allocated huge developmental budgets for their constituencies; they are opposed to local governments due to a fear of them cutting into their spheres of power. Both arguments have elements of truth in them. The real challenge, however, was to make both camps think about a way forward.
Setting aside the origins of the local government and its relationship with issues of legitimacy, the basic reality is that local governments are a constitutional requirement now. Article 140 A of the constitution states: “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments. Elections to the local governments shall be held by the Election Commission of Pakistan.” Articles 32 and 7 also support the local governments as public institutions.
The 18th Amendment of the constitution is a truly historic document, in the way it has decentralised functions of the federal government to the provincial governments by doing away with the concurrent list. However, the buck does not stop with the provinces. Just as the federal government was working along the principles of administrative and financial concentration, now provincial governments have become the ‘new centres’. Hence, provincial governments do not want to devolve further to the local governments. The main issue, therefore, is how to create incentives for the provincial governments to move towards instituting local governments as per the constitutional requirement. A strongly supported courses of action was to encourage grass roots mobilisation to push for change. Once the provincial governments and politicians will see a groundswell in this direction, they may be inclined to call for elections for the local governments. One of the natural constituencies for such a mobilisation will be ex-nazims and counsellors, particularly in the marginalised community of peasants, workers and women.
Of course, some such process is underway in the provinces. Sindh has re-enacted the local governments, however, it needs to be presented to the provincial assembly. In the Khyber-Pakhtunkha, the local government bill is almost ready and needs to be presented in the provincial assembly. The Balochistan provincial government is sitting on the 1979 Local Bodies Ordinance draft. In Punjab, three different committees were formed to draft the local government’s law for the province and none of them have been successful in drafting a law. There is a need for massive push for the implementation of this constitutional requirement.
The situation is more complex in Sindh. Representatives from interior Sindh are highly apprehensive about ethnic economic marginalisation for Sindhi-speakers in the revived local governments system whereby they may lose their economic prospects to work and prosper in Karachi and Hyderabad. Such concerns are not new in history. Malays had similar concerns about the Chinese economic superiority in Malaysia. Mahatir, however, brilliantly resolved a potential ethnic economic conflict turning into political violence and retarding growth. This was done by explicitly granting economic rights to Malays and resolving the potential conflict. A similar way of alleviating Sindh’s grievances need to be worked out to make local government a just solution for everyone across the board.
One cannot emphasise the need for the local governments enough. Not only is it necessary to fulfil the constitutional requirements, it is also necessary to deal with disasters, deliver efficient services and empower women, peasants and workers.