Feb 15, 2009

Future of local government

THE constitutional reforms that Gen Musharraf handed down have but few adherents. The scheme of local government that he introduced has many.A number of years have gone by but both issues are still hanging fire, although for different reasons. President Zardari does not seem at all inclined to undo Musharraf’s constitutional arrangement, at least for now. His own party, the PPP, acquiesces in this stance, while others squirm or but know very well that Mr Zardari would not like to be a figurehead president in the image of Chaudhry Fazal Elahi or Rafiq Tarar. Thus it is going to remain a ‘Zardari government’ for quite a while.Views on the future shape and powers of local government institutions, on the other hand, cut across party lines. The MQM would not like to see any change in the system as the party’s ethnic character gives it control over Karachi, Hyderabad and other smaller towns in Sindh — a hold which it can expect to retain in the future as well. The PML-Q also supports the system for it gives the party a foothold in a number of Punjab districts from where they can resist the incursions of the government headed by their rival faction.The PPP in Sindh and the PML-N in Punjab appear to oppose the system for the very reason that the MQM and PML-Q support it. Both feel compelled to assert the authority of their governments in districts where nazims belong to the opposite party. The situation gets further complicated in Punjab where the PPP and PML-N are partners in government but where the governor who is a PPP nominee encourages the nazims not to let the chief minister interfere in their affairs.Gen Musharraf revived the local councils after they had been extinct for 30 years both under democratic and dictatorial regimes preceding his coup. Z.A. Bhutto, as he became president after the separation of East Pakistan, appeared so keen on local government that he would give no more than a week or two to organise the polls. When Roedad Khan, the chief secretary, and Shoaib Sultan Khan, the commissioner (this writer, then Karachi’s deputy commissioner, took a back seat), asked for more time, Bhutto’s curt response was that he would have to find replacements for them to meet the deadline.Just as a nervy lot of officials got down to work, the elections were put off and then altogether abandoned. In Bhutto’s five years and in the following 25 years, most of the period divided almost equally between Ziaul Haq’s military rule and the democratic governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the municipal affairs were managed all along by civil servants. Our leaders, it seems, are ever keen to help the people at the bottom of the heap but unwilling to share power with them.Musharraf’s devolution plan that was intended to “empower the people at the grass roots” was not without a selfish motive. He did revive the local councils to complete the democratic polity which was praiseworthy. But, at the same time, he demolished the law and order and revenue administration of the provinces and transferred almost all their functions to the districts. That way, he thought, he would be creating a political support base once he relinquished the army command.The district governments headed by the nazims elected by the councillors thus emerged as rivals to the provincial ministers and officials both in power and patronage. The rivalry became intense as the nazims, whom the law expected to be apolitical and neutral, increasingly turned out to be wholly committed to one or the other party.Notwithstanding the political baggage that the district nazim carried and the hostility of the ministers that he faced, the new local government law required him to “perform functions relating to law and order” and the new police law made the district police officer answerable to him. Since the nazim was neither neutral nor trained nor had the wherewithal, law and order fell victim to competing political interests.With Musharraf’s protective umbrella gone, a question mark now hangs over the role and perhaps over the very existence of the local councils as a whole and of the district nazim in particular. Ayub Khan’s basic democracies did not outlast him because there was little to do and they were much under the control of the bureaucracy. The continuance of Musharraf’s district governments after him is threatened for an altogether different reason. They were given a lot to do at the cost of the provincial government and have been using their enormous power and funds to promote rival political interests.The local government institutions can survive — and survive they must — only if their charter is restricted to civic and developmental functions without coming into conflict with the administration and politics of the provincial government. For that to happen the condition is that the district nazim must not be in charge of law and order. That area belongs to professional administrators.In size and scope, the administrative or developmental functions assigned to the local councils must also relate to their capacity and to the needs of the area. It would be absurd for a district government to establish medical and engineering colleges and build motorways while primary schools crumble and garbage piles up on the streets for lack of resources.Once the sphere of the activities of the district and lower tiers of the councils is curtailed, the local government institutions must be protected under the constitution in the same way as the panchayats and municipalities are in India. The Indian constitution contains a full chapter of 43 articles covering their composition, duties, audit and every other detail.The effort at this critical juncture should be to put the local councils on a permanent footing with their place and role in municipal administration and community development set out in the constitution itself. The councils should not exist at the sufferance of the provincial government, nor, in turn, should they impair or challenge its authority.By Kunwar Idris

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