It was only after the intervention of the Supreme Court, hopes for the revival of Local Governments have rekindled. So far three provinces have completed legislation on local government laws and the law in KP is on anvil. With a wide margin of socio-political diversity, each province is applying its own priorities and realities to frame this vital legislative piece. Sindh has an entirely different political vista where legislation on any kind of power or resource sharing is like walking on a tight rope. Recently, Sindh had been oscillating between the local government law of 1979 and 2001. In a bid to keep power-partners sedate, PPP government introduced Sindh Peoples’ Local Government Act 2013 that turned Sindh into a tinderbox and the law was countermanded subsequently, leaving behind a trail of ignominy for PPP. The law and the legislation process exposed the sheer incompetence and political prudence within the party ranks.
After emerging triumphant in the 2013 elections in Sindh and eloping of MQM with PML-N, the PPP government in Sindh embarked upon the new law to mollify its enraged constituency. Since Musharraf’s LGO 2001 was much resented in Sindh and its replicas in 2011 and 2013 met intense public ire, the only option left was to supplant the law of 1979 with some new features. In fact Musharraf’s LGO 2001 was rabidly opposed by Sindhis in the province. Sindhi leadership including the then PPP considered it as a precursor of administrative division of Sindh that effectively converted Karachi into a semi-autonomous unit rendering provincial government a mere spectator in the affairs of its capital city. Whereas Sindhis are not fond of 1979 law, they loath 2001 law as well. The recently adopted SLGA 2013 was conceived and developed in the aforementioned context.
Legislation process of SLGA-2013 despite the paucity of time was unusually democratic and consultative. The Ministry of Law and Parliamentary Affairs approached all parties in the House, leading nationalist parties, writers, intellectuals and civil society organizations to elicit their views and recommendations.
The new SLGA confines the local government’s functions largely to basic municipal services and retains provincial subjects with the provincial government. This is a key point of departure from SLGO 2001 that devolved key departments to district governments. Subjects like security, police and land management had been a source of consternation. Land, particularly in urban areas is among the key sources of conflict. Similarly the police has already been much politicized and has been grossly misused as a tool of control and oppression by those in power. Considering the social and ethnic fabric of Sindh, there was a demand that revenue and the police should not be made subordinate to Local Governments in order to ensure its impartiality.
Both SLGO 2011 and SPLGA 2013 accorded Karachi Metropolitan Corporation an exclusive domain in some of the subjects which disturbed the equilibrium of authority across the Metropolitan Corporations in the province that received opprobrium from people of Sindh. Whereas Karachi has its peculiarities as the capital and the largest city of the province, it has a political dimension as well, which is distinct from largest cities/capitals in other provinces. Other provincial capitals are not dominated by ethnic groups who dictate their terms by force. Any legislation or administrative array in Sindh cannot be oblivious to this reality. SLGA 2013 has addressed anomalies of the earlier laws by restoring district level Councils in Karachi. It provides representation to Union Committees through directly elected Chairmen and Vice Chairmen that would inculcate a sense of greater participation to all residents of Karachi irrespective of their identity and political affiliation. This will also mainstream under-developed rural areas of Karachi that were subsumed in urban towns in 2001 leaving them starved of funds.
In contrast with other provinces, urban-rural divide in Sindh has ethnic contours. The demographic distortion induced in Sindh at the time of partition continues to spook polity in Sindh. Striking political and developmental harmony in Sindh requires equal consideration for both urban and rural areas rather than painting both with the same brush. Rhetoric of merging urban and rural areas meets thorny resistance in Sindh due to its demographic complexion.
SLGA 2013 however showered immense disappointment by curtailing women’s representation. Peoples Party possesses a cherished history of bestowing political empowerment to women through pro-women legislation and administrative measures. However the new law has curtailed the share of women on reserved seats to less than 10% in Union Committees and Union Council and 22% in other Councils. Except on Union Council/Union Committees, women will be indirectly elected by the Councils. Non-Muslims and laborer/peasants categories have been allocated five percent seats in each council except in Union Council/Union Committees where both categories will have one representative in the House of nine members.
Save Union Committees and Union Councils, representation of women, non-Muslims, laborer/peasants in District Municipal Corporations, Metropolitan Corporation, District Council, Municipal Corporations, Municipal Committees, Municipal Committees and Town Committees has been provided through indirect elections. It is a proven fact that indirect elections are often marred by nepotism and favoritism which renders representation of these segments of society practically ineffective.
Upholding its legacy, PPP government was the first one to announce local government elections on party basis. This is widely welcomed by all stakeholders in the province and elsewhere.
Fiscal devolution is lynchpin of the local government system. The new law envisages a Provincial Finance Commission in the province. The principles of finance award include population, backwardness, need and performance of a Council. Considering the stark development gap in urban and rural areas it will be justified and fair that backwardness should be given at least 50 percent weightage to cater to the areas at the lower rung of development ladder. Human Development Index can be used to rank backwardness of all areas in the province.
A well defined criterion for “performance of a Council” should be sufficiently delineated to eschew any potential subjectivity and misinterpretation. The moribund SPLGA 2012 introduced principles and indicators like fiscal capacity, fiscal effort and fiscal performance, which had inherent tilt in favor of the big cities where economic activity can generate surplus resources. The new law also addressed this anomaly.
The new law has a very progressive feature of Right to Information. Article 160 of the law makes it mandatory to furnish requisite information within seven days. It also requires quarterly public disclosure of information regarding staffing and performance of the offices of the local government. The Article however has one ambiguity that it restricts right to information with “reasonable restriction”. Rules of business ought to demystify the term “reasonable restriction” so that it is not used unreasonably.
Author is Chief Executive of Strengthening Participatory organization, SPO: firstname.lastname@example.org)