Where dynastic and aristocratic claims to leadership overtake merit, the only option which can enable future political leadership to emerge is local government
By Dr Noman Ahmed
At last, the cat is out of the bag. Echoing the sentiments of provincial governments and his own party, the prime minister finally sealed the fate of local governments.
With the installation of bureaucratic administrators, the administrative scene shall revert to pre-Musharraf days. Statements and body language of the decision-makers show that they are not firm on the future course of action in this respect. Friction between provincial and local governments has been most visible since the present regime ascended to power. The distribution of powers, authority, jurisdiction and allocation of resources has made an extremely contentious agenda which even coalition parties were not willing to openly deliberate.
It is ironic to observe that in many cases, disputes have become prominent between local administrations and provincial governments belonging to the same political camp. Punjab, NWFP and Balochistan have already restored the old district and divisional administrative structure after some modifications. Control of law and order as well as revenue collection functions has passed on to the offices of commissioners.
In May, the Balochistan cabinet decided to repeal BLGO 2001. A new statute namely Balochistan Local Government Act of 2009 has been approved by the cabinet for presentation to Balochistan assembly in the near future. The act stipulates the abolishing of present local government institutions and revival of erstwhile corporations and municipal committees. In Sindh, the balance is more than stable. A weak provincial government cannot augment the relatively organised city and district governments where they exist. Sindh cannot afford a political discord to jeopardise the feeble coalition arrangement at the province and centre.
The political leadership considers local bodies as a competing rival, not a collaborating arm. This feeling is especially widespread amongst the henchmen who control provincial tiers of respective parties. It is correct that the local government systems have been bolstered by military dictators for their own vested interests but this fact does not undermine the merits and opportunities inbuilt in it. Foremost in this respect is the creation of a legitimate avenue for leadership development. In an arena where dynastic and aristocratic claims to leadership overtake merit at every point, the only option which can enable future political leadership to emerge is local government.
There are hundreds of case studies pertinent to ordinary councillors, women/labour councillors, union council nazims, town/tehsil/taluka level leaders and district level representatives who were able to win their offices purely on merit and later proved their popularity through re-election. Even in the most dangerous labyrinths of NWFP and Balochistan, these dedicated public representatives made tireless efforts to address pressing problems related to education, health, social welfare and area management. Some of them were even devoid of any political affiliation and had to face the wrath of both right and left wing parties.
The two elections during 2001 and 2005 were reasonable tests for their performance evaluation, mal-functioning of electoral process notwithstanding. Real political culture cannot be nurtured without frequent practice of voting process along the party cadres, local, provincial and national assemblies. It is disappointing to note that the parties that demand promotion of democracy are probably the closest to dictatorship. Cataclysm in the recent PML-Q elections is a case in point.
People need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redressal system for routines such as attestation, verification and certification of various kinds. Local institutions and their elected members are normally forthcoming in such tasks. Small scale development schemes, maintenance and repair projects are also important works that require immediate attention. If the decision making apparatus is centralised in the provincial headquarters and in the person of chief minister, very little progress can be expected. Expectation from bureaucrats alone to be sympathetic to the local issues may not be very realistic. A well functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be strengthened after removing the various handicaps that it has faced. Problems identified during the past eight years include poor quality of human resource, paucity of operational budgets, weak mechanism of monitoring, absence of effective audit and accounts procedures, financial dependence on the provincial/federal government, lack of control over police force, tutelage exercised by federal/provincial institutions and inability to generate development finance for local scale works. One finds more developed cities like Karachi struggling with shortage of funds to strengthen vital services such as fire fighting. Many other contexts are even worse in service delivery outreaches.
Politicians may evolve a fresh strategy by using elected local government to serve their manifestoes. Capacity building in the local service delivery; notification and inaction of bodies such as public safety commissions, citizen community boards or finance commissions; development of municipal services as specialised cadres; launch of appropriate taxes to generate local revenue and the acceleration of mass contact to stretch the outreach of this tier are some basic steps.
The nearly dead National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) may be tasked to manage this discourse and establish its own capacity by leading to creation of acceptable institutional options. Millions of rupees were spent to train a bevy of councillors and other cadres in different tasks of managing local affairs during the heydays of local government. Much of this investment can be salvaged if the government evince a proper terms of reference for NRB to chalk out a future strategy. In rationality, future of local government can become a populist moot point to generate discussion and draw conclusions thereafter.