Feb 24, 2010

Find the fault

A well-functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be implemented after removing various problems

By Dr Noman Ahmed

During the past few weeks, the governments of Sindh and Punjab have been grappling with the issues facing the local governments. Each of the provincial administration has taken steps that suited their narrowly carved approach to survival and extension of political power. The distribution of authority, jurisdiction, and allocation of resources has made an extremely contentious agenda which even coalition parties have been unwilling to openly deliberate upon. There appears to be a discord on the core matters that concern local government system.

Large political parties intend to keep the role of local bodies under strict control of provincial administration. In contrast, parties which have a strong following in districts and cities want to acquire maximum autonomy for local institutions. According to the present malaise of our political structure, the establishment also considers local governments as an anomaly that deserves to be swept under the carpet. In this undesirable tug-of-war, the real merits of a local government system are overshadowed to a disappointing extent.

It is correct that the local government system has been enacted and reinforced by 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 overstake merit at every end, the only option which can enable future political leadership to emerge is local government. There are hundreds of case studies pertinent to ordinary councilors, women/labour councilors, 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.

In the most dangerous locations 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 political affiliation and had to face the wrath of both the right and left wing parties. Episodes of local elections during Musharraf era proved that enthusiasm was more than visible amongst ordinary folks despite many incidences of violence. 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 some parties that apparently promote democracy have been once closest to dictatorship. No internal elections are held in these parties. Party heads nominate committees of handpicked faithful who are termed as working or executives committees. Thus, the common people have little or no capacity to make inroads into this well guarded enterprise.

Poor governance and breakdown in the service delivery system is not desirable in any system. People need an efficient service delivery mechanism and some forum to get their complaints redressed.

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 and concurrent actions are centralised in the provincial headquarters and in the person of the chief minister, very little progress can be expected. Similarly, the expectation from bureaucrats to be sympathetic to the issues faced by the people is distant from reality. A well-functioning local government system in urban and rural domains has to be strengthened after removing various handicaps that it has faced.

Continuing 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. At many instances, local political interests also out-weigh decision making and implementation mechanisms.

Our country has been experiencing a painful transition from a tribal society to civil society with democratic values. Whereas the former promotes centrality of power and decision making prerogatives, the later cannot be developed without the subscription and practice of democratic values in the true sense of the term. It may be beneficial for the political masters of the country to try local government tier as a tool for emboldening democracy.

This can only be achieved after removing the anomalies and handicaps that exist in the system. Capacity building in the local service delivery; notification and formation of bodies such as public safety commissions, citizen community boards or finance commissions; development of municipal services as specialized 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. Recently, a major political party demanded to hold local elections on party basis.

The argument is quite logical as non party based elections have been held in theory only. Party affiliations and support become too conspicuous to be ignored. The elections to the local bodies must be held on party basis subject to a strict code of conduct. The past precedence has clearly shown that party affiliation and support automatically comes into play. Violence and muscle tactics must be controlled by administrative means during the conduct of electoral process. It claimed many lives during the past instance. The matter must be taken upfront as a core policy issue.

To generate a debate, it may not be out of context to suggest a multi-stakeholder conference to deliberate the matter in an open ended manner. The experience sharing and option forming approach may be applied. Besides, too much experimentation is also a counterproductive exercise. The futile debate of resurrecting local bodies to the status of Local Government Ordinances of 1979 may be dealt with caution.

Times and contexts have advanced to fresh challenges where gradual enrichment of the present system can prove useful. This requires frank dialogue with all concerned parties. It must be remembered that a democratic government will do the greatest injustice to itself it if does not engage with its constituencies on a continuous basis. And local governments obviously make an effective platform to nurture democracy on a continuing basis.

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