Salman Abid

The people of Pakistan are faced with numerous problems today including poverty, terrorism, corruption, and unemployment as well as issues related to education, health, urbanization and local rural and urban issues. These common national issues cannot be tackled without simultaneous action and response at the local and provincial levels. Local democracy means giving people a say in the policies and decisions that affect their lives daily at the local level. Participatory democracy combines direct and representatives democracy, while encouraging the involvement of marginalized isolated or previously ignored groups including under represented communities and minorities. Strong and effective democratic local government is the best way of ensuring local democracy and good governance. Local government provides the good governance and leadership to enable local area to plan its development and provide services for local stakeholders- residents, community groups and others.

The process of devolution began with the 18th Constitutional amendment under the previous government and the revival of Local Government on priority would facilitate the implementation of devolution. Further Local Government as the third tier of government is necessary for a strong democratic setup.

After a clear directive from the Supreme Court that Provincial Governments must ensure that they conduct Local Government elections by 15th September 2013. The Supreme Court also gave the directive to provincial governments to complete and pass the Local Government act from provincial assemblies till 15th August, 2013. All four provincial assemblies are now moving fast to ensure the process of legislation is complete before the deadline. Punjab and Sindh have already passed legislation while Baluchistan has made minor amendments and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still in the process of finalizing Local Government Law.

The Punjab Local Government Act (PLGA) 2013 was tabled in the provincial assembly on July, 26th 2013 for approval and validation. Going through the act makes one realize that we are going back to Local Bodies of 1979, which strengthened the bureaucracy rather than elected representatives of the local government. As a democratic practice, we should define the difference between Local Government and Local bodies. We need Local Government not local bodies without administrative and financial powers. Perhaps, the provincial government is only interested in establishing local government that would work as their agents and remain dependent on the provincial government.

The PLGA, 2013 gives limited powers and functions to the local government. The 1979 Local Bodies System was created by the dictator General Ziaul Haq to crush political parties. The citizens of the provinces were optimistic after the 18th amendment that now the provincial government will devolve most of its functions at the local level but through this bill, the intentions of the Punjab Government towards centralization have been revealed.  There is a lack of political will to devolve powers at the local level through decentralization.  Therefore the PLGA 2013 is only an attempt to strengthen the centralized governance model in the provinces.

The PLGA, 2013 does not address the issue of independent and self-governance based on local Government model. It does not meet the benchmarks embedded in the Article 140-A of the Constitution that says:  Each provinces shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve Political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the Local Government.  For example PLGA 2013’s clause 119, subsection 3, says that the government may, on the recommendation of the Local Government Commission, suspend a Mayor or Chairman. This is not less than the article 58-2b under which in the past, several democratically elected governments had been dissolved. Due to this clause the provincial government will have a direct control over districts.

Similarly, the section (h) of this article states that the Local Government Commission would hold periodic meetings with national and provincial legislators to ensure their participation in development activities in Local government with regards to annual development plan, utilization of legislators’ development grants and implementation of decision in these meetings. Similarly, clause 102 of PLGA, 2013 subsection 3, states that the government may review approved budget of local government and if contrary to the budget rules may require the Local Government to rectify it. This is like providing a window to the provincial government to intervene in the matters of the local government and to use this window to snub their political opponents. These clause are against the spirit Article 140-A of the Constitution of Pakistan. The provincial government also didn’t address the issue of constitutional protection of the local government for the continuation of the system at the local level. The Article 10 of the Charter of Democracy mentions that after getting power we will provide the constitutional protection to local government system.

The decision of the Punjab Government to hold elections on a non-party basis also came as a great shock for the democratic forces in the country. An important agreement was made between Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N) through the Charter of Democracy on May 15th 2006 pledged that local bodies’ elections will be held on a party basis. The PML (N) has betrayed this agreement by announcing non-party based elections and through this decision has strengthened the Baradari politics at the grassroots level.

In PLGA, 2013 clause 17 mentions education and health authorities at the district level , local representative are part of the authority, but the chairman, vice chairman and chief executive officer  would be appointed by the provincial government. It is direct intervention of provincial government in the LG affairs and control on the resources and powers on education and health issues. We see already several regulatory bodies and departments are looking after the health and education, but the government is insisting on creating new authorities and departments just for the sake of involving their political entities rather than strengthening existing institutions.

Indirect election for chairman/ vice chairman/ Mayor and deputy Mayor and for reserve seats would again encourage high corruption, horse trading, nepotism and pressure of the ruling party. We had already seen this practice during the election of Nazimeen under the previous system of LG.

Interestingly, every window of community participation in the LG through PLGA, 2013 has been completely closed, previously this was ensured through the citizen community boards, village and neighborhood council. In PLGA, 2013 the 33 % women reserve seats formula has been distorted and diluted.  In urban and village councils out of 13 members only two are women. At the town, tehsil and district levels the quota of women reserve seats is only 12% that too on the basis of population can be changed. The civil society is committed to a target of no less than 33 % of women in the decision making in the political, public and private sector and to developing strategies for increasing their active participation.

Under this bill, executive magistracy puts a question mark on the independence of judiciary. Initially the Punjab government announced different system for urban and rural areas. But after consultation and process of amendment now there is the same uniform system for both urban and rural areas. The PLGA, 2013 didn’t mention any clause related Right to Information and Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) mentioned the formula of resource distribution on the basis of population, poverty and backwardness.

Over all PLGA, 2013 is a mixture of Local Bodies act 1979 under the Ziaul Haq and 2000-01 Local Government act under the Gen Pervaiz Mushraf, but in totality the present bill is more close to the 1979 Ordinance and strengthens the provincial government and bureaucracy at the cost of elected representatives and local communities. Some experts also highlighted that this bill even minimizes the power of 1979 local bodies act making them puppet institutions in the name of independent local government.

(The writer is a political analyst and development practitioner based in Lahore)