Why they are so important
Decentralisation of administrative and financial responsibilities to the grassroots levels is crucial to the concept of good governance. The candidates chosen to the seats are responsible to deal with the local problems on a day-to-day basis. This makes governance responsible, transparent and answerable to the public.
However, does it?
Balochistan held the LG polls in 2013, KP held them recently. “Only 30 percent of development funds have been allocated to the district government, whereas Punjab has stated it will allocate 50 percent of its development budget to the local bodies. However, health and education are two subjects that have been taken out of the purview of local bodies already, making it a provincial subject. The barometer for checking the health of any local body law is to measure the degree of administrative and financial independence at grassroots level,” says Fawad Chaudhry, senior analyst and host of a political show at Channel 92. He goes on to say, “Sindh government has in essence re-enacted much of the 1979 law under General Zia.”
According to a UNDP (Pakistan) report, “The Local Government Order 1979 expanded the local governments and empowered the Deputy Commissioners. This ordinance created four levels of municipal government in the urban areas: Town Committees, Municipal Committees, Municipal Corporations and Metropolitan Corporations. Members of each council elect the senior officers of these councils and the controlling authority is the elected house. In the rural areas, the system provided for a three-tier system of local government, where Union Councils, Tehsil or Taluka Councils and District Councils came into existence. The chairmen of these councils were elected by the members.”
Since the decision to award funds at local body levels is vested with the provincial government, it cuts through both the administrative and financial independence of the local representatives. Another interesting aspect of this is that if, for example, the local body representative in Peshawar hails from PTI and in Mardan from ANP, the provincial government reserves the right to release funds to them… and others. What can happen in such cases is that some local areas may have adequate funds for local development whereas some areas may not.
The concept of local governance system was an excellent one introduced by Pervez Musharraf. The crux was to empower the masses by transferring powers, both administrative and financial, to the local bodies. This would have ideally led to developing new leadership for the country as well. It would have ensured better focus on local issues faced by the masses, for example. District Councils and Union Councils under the Punjab Local Government Act 2013 have many overlapping as well as exclusive responsibilities like mobilising the community to provide, improve, and maintain public ways, public streets and public places. The District Councils would provide assistance in provision of relief in the event of any fire, floods, hailstorms, earthquakes, epidemic or other natural calamity and assisting relevant authorities in relief activities, assisting Union Councils in provision and maintenance of rural water supply schemes and public sources of drinking water, including wells, water pumps, tanks, ponds and other works for the supply of water etc.
However, it can only work if a formula is worked out to allocate funds at local level. Favouritism at the provincial level to give out funds on the discretion of the government will be self-defeating in terms of the very purpose of the local body elections. The downward fiscal decentralisation alone in itself will not ensure results though it is the first step to attain the goal. It will depend in a large part upon the execution of projects and functions of local bodies. Under the Devolution Plan, originally envisaged by Musharraf, the Nazim was entrusted with the responsibility of proposing the size of the budget as well as the budget allocation. There were issues in shifting of administrative powers. A strong bureaucracy coupled with the desire of provincial governments to maintain a control on some services were just two stumbling blocks. Even today, lack of formal infrastructures at local level, lack of trained staff and overlapping of responsibilities between the provincial governments and local governments prevail and they are bound to act as roadblocks.
The corresponding weakness to the administrative part is of a fiscal nature. The local governments have no source of revenue barring what is allocated to them by the provincial government. Further added to this is that the Financial Provincial Award under Musharraf had no representation by the local elected members. In light of this weakness, the locally elected bodies simply awaited for fund allocation instead of being allowed to be proactive members in ascertaining local needs, projects and fund requirement based upon realistic grounds. Further, local governments’ right to levy taxes is marginalised as it is the provincial governments that enforce these.
This does not mean that the Ordinance was ineffective. It most certainly was not. The Ordinance paved the way to bridge the gap between the state and the masses. “The allocation formula was based on an X area being calculated according to population residing within to ensure better evenness in allocating budget,” says Fawad Chaudhry. A fixed share in funds on agreed grounds make a lot of sense instead of leaving it open ended. This is one of the basic steps needed to make good governance possible on an even level in the country.
Here, it will be prudent to note that no infrastructures in the world can bring about prosperity until and unless the pilot and his team piloting the plane are honest and sincere to make the flight a safe one. The quality of people contesting and duly elected at the local government level is what matters the most. If those elected are not qualified to hold the seats on administrative as well as the level of character, no infrastructure, no matter how elaborately developed, can deliver.
But this is not all, Shaheen Atique-ur-Rehman writes, “In the latest Local Government Ordinance…. women’s seats have been done away with or are present in name only; everything is again under the DCO. The role of the Union Council, a pivotal role for the rural, especially the illiterate, is diluted. The question is ‘not’ what ‘should/could’ be but what is happening NOW!”
But that’s not all. We see the same loopholes reflected in the Local Government Act as we see in our Constitution. The member contesting must be a citizen of Pakistan but it is quiet on the issue of dual citizenship. There is no mention of the contestants to file tax returns for a given period to ascertain the compatibility between source of income and lifestyle maintained. The Act is also quiet on the level of education required. Agreed, the level may be less in case of the rural area; however, a certain criteria must be met.
I am reminded here of Abraham Lincoln who stated, “Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
Unfortunately for the people of Pakistan, they must choose from the crop offered in absence of NOTA.
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yasmeen_9.
Cross post http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2015/09/14/local-government-elections-2015/