Nov 8, 2009

Time for a new system

December 31 will mark the end of the Local Government system. Does the government have a better plan to replace it?

By Babar Dogar

With the present Local Government system expiring on Dec 31, 2009, the Punjab government is actively engaged in drafting a new Local Government Act which is likely to replace the existing Local Government Ordinance 2001 promulgated by Musharraf.

The spadework on the new Local Government system in the province has been going on for quite some time. The provinces had earlier sent their suggestions to the Federal Government for getting presidential assent as the LG Ordinance is protected under the sixth schedule of the constitution. President Zardari however withheld his assent after facing resistance from his coalition partner MQM.

The recommendations sent by the prime minister secretariat for granting provinces permission to amend or repeal the LG ordinance were not accepted and no order was passed on the file. The constitution envisages that till the assumption of the new local governments, the existing local governments have to work. Hence, in effect, the inaction on the part of presidency provided an extension to the Nazims till Dec 31 when the Local Government becomes an exclusive domain of the provinces.

There is no denying the fact that the present LG system has certain plus points. It devolved powers to the local level and empowered the representatives of the people to solve their problems at local level. Due to this empowerment, there have been unprecedented development works at the local level. Despite its aforementioned positive aspects, the present local government system will be long remembered for the thoughtless demolition and destruction of time-tested administrative structures and creation of fiefs for the local elite.

The present LG system will also be remembered for the discord it sowed between various units of governance and between various stake holders of the system. It was primarily because mala fide was at the root of the new system. Had various stake-holders been consulted and their viewpoints accommodated, it would have been more acceptable and could last longer. Provinces were stripped of their powers and new tier of district governments was created without making corresponding amendments in the constitution. While the powers of the provinces were taken away and entrusted to the districts, the Federal Government refused to devolve powers to the provinces. Even the powers in the concurrent list of the constitution were not given exclusively to the provinces. During the period of the local government, particularly during Pervez Elahi's term, the joke went that the Provincial Government was confined only to the four walls of the Civil Secretariat.

Talking with TNS, Law Minister Rana Sana Ullah Khan stated there was no denying the fact that the Local Government system brought massive development. However, he added, the writ of the provincial government was eroded and there were no proper checks upon the district Nazims. He claimed that they wanted to retain its positive aspects and would restore the previous district magistracy system having control of district administration, while the elected representatives at district level would do the development work.

The system will be remembered for lack of any effective external and internal control. This lack of control bred unprecedented corruption in the local councils. The framers of the LG system, allegedly out of vengeance against the DMG, stripped every such institution of oversight over local councils where DMG officers could be posted. The internal control in the form of monitoring committees of the Zila Council squarely failed.

In the first place, these committees for various departments and offices were not constituted, and where the committees were constituted these were packed with vested interests. An example is the Works and Services Committee which was a favourite grazing ground of contractors. Likewise, those Nazims and other persons who were viewed by the local people as touts of the police were given membership of the District Public Safety & Complaint Commissions resulting in a collusive relationship between them and the police on the basis of "you scratch my back and I scratch yours". External control proved equally ineffective. The Local Government Commission failed to take cognizance of thousand of complaints against the local governments. The system became a classic example of free-for-all.

The effort to bring in the new system started when the expiry term of the existing Nazims neared. The Provincial Governments started their efforts to replace the system with a new one on Oct 17. Their efforts, however, failed due to many reasons. First and foremost being the inefficiency and ineptness of bureaucracy. The style of governance of the current provincial political leadership has scared away many efficient bureaucrats and the province was left only with "run-of-the-mill officers."

Some insiders have shared with this scribe an interesting incident of the incompetence of such officers. When the Federal Government asked the provincial government some months back to send their proposed local government acts, the local government reforms committee comprising supposedly of 'efficient' DMG officers, got a copy of the LG Draft Ordinance of NWFP, replaced the word NWFP with the Punjab and sent it to Federal Government. They say, even mimicry requires a modicum of intelligence. As the ill-luck would have it, the word Peshawar was not replaced and exposed the truth.

Behind the scenes negotiations are currently going on with the Presidency for an early introduction of the new LG system on the basis on some give and take. It has been reliably learnt that the provincial governments have shown their willingness to cede primary education and primary healthcare to the districts in addition to the municipal functions available to the Local Councils under the 1979 Ordinance.

Revival of the office of the deputy commissioner is the centre-piece of the new system. There may not be any legal hitch in restoring the institution of the Deputy Commissioner as Land Revenue Act will have to be amended besides the LG Ordinance which will become a provincial subject after Dec 31. There are, however, many legal issues involved in the restoration and strengthening of the tied office of the District Magistrate. Since the amendments in Criminal Procedure Code, through which District Magistracy was abolished, were made by the Federal Government and later validated by the Parliament, only the Parliament can withdraw the amendments and resurrect the Executive Magistracy.

Political pundits are of the view that a lot depends upon the success or failure of the political dialogue currently going on between the PPP and PML-N in the aftermath of which, a draft of constitutional amendments may be brought in the Parliament which may repeal some portions of the 17th Amendment including amendments in Article 270 AA and thus denude the Cr.P.C and Police Order of constitutional validity. If political dialogue fails, the provincial governments may have to contend with a very weak Deputy Commissioner without any magisterial or police powers.

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