September Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

For almost 16 months the people of Pakistan have been treated to an unedifying haggle over the future of the local government system. The arguments for and against the edifice raised by former President Pervez Musharraf have exposed the various interest groups that hold the national good to be synonymous with their own profit. The lack of decision-making capacity at the centre and its tendency to run with the hare and hunt with the hound has made the Pakistan state look like a pre-Partition rajwara — a poorly administered princely state.

A Tale of Farcical Errors

The Musharraf scheme of local government, launched in 2001, started coming under attack from the provincial governments soon after the latter were formed in 2008. The most fierce attacks were mounted by the Punjab government whose hostility to the district nazims was understandable. Musharraf’s party, the PML-Q, dominated the local bodies in the province and formed a barrier to the provincial government’s populist initiatives.

The Punjab government began by assailing the district nazims for massive corruption and at one stage, 24 district nazims in the province (out of a total of 36) were accused of grave financial irregularities. Steps to control the district governments, such as restrictions on the release of funds, followed. At some places pro-government elements also tried to overthrow the nazims (at district, tehsil and town levels) through no-confidence motions. A significant manoeuvre was the revival of the office of the divisional commissioner, through an amazing trick of amending the provincial Land Revenue Act. Apart from undermining the Musharraf scheme of nazim-controlled local government, the commissioners were supposed to rein in the nazims.

This strategy was followed by the provincial governments of Balochistan and NWFP. All provincial governments also started drafting laws to replace the provincial local government ordinances of 2001. They ran into an obstacle which they could not remove.

Musharraf had put, vide the Legal Framework Order of 2002, the provincial local government ordinances (under which the new local bodies had been formed, the offices of commissioner and district magistrates abolished, and local bodies elections held in 2001 and 2005) and the Police Order 2002 in the Sixth Schedule. This meant the provincial governments could not amend, repeal or replace their local government laws without the prior approval of the president. Under the 17th Amendment of 2003, the period of this restriction was reduced to six years, that is, till December 31, 2009. Thus, the provincial governments cannot make laws to regulate local bodies without the president’s permission, before January 1, 2010.

The discovery of the bar to the provinces’ legislative authority sent the ball into the federal government’s court and it only betrayed its incapacity to play the game. Islamabad hurriedly announced that it had been decided not to hold fresh polls after the expiry of the local bodies’ terms in 2009, that the local bodies were going to be dissolved forthwith and administrators were going to replace the elected nazims. The ambiguity in this announcement caused unavoidable controversies as to whether the administrators were going to be the government’s political hangers-on or bureaucrats, and whether they were going to be appointed on the expiry of the local bodies’ terms (the 2005 local bodies elections were held on different dates and thus, their four-year terms expire on different dates, e.g. in Sindh at the end of August and in the Punjab, in October 2009) or earlier.

Islamabad also made two tactical mistakes. First, its confused rhetoric gave the impression that the local government system was going to be abolished, whereas the fact is that no government can completely scrap the local bodies; at the most, the system can be modified for better or worse. Secondly, by sitting passively on provincial governments’ requests for permission to change the relevant laws, the presidency invited criticism for taking over a provincial subject. Its explanation that it wished to take all provincial governments and stakeholders on board and that it should like to have a uniform local bodies system in all provinces was not without merit, but nothing could justify procrastination and indecision. The centre could also be accused, perhaps, of delaying matters so as to give the elements that favour the existing system a chance to raise their heads. Whether prompted by the establishment or whether self-propelled, some fairly strong forces did take the field in defence of the Musharraf scheme.

It was not difficult for the former chief of the National Reconstruction Bureau, Danyal Aziz, who can legitimately claim a share in authorship of the system (though the lion’s share must belong to General Tanvir Naqvi), to gather nazims and councillors, including women, to serve as a vanguard at processions and, hold conventions and rallies throughout Pakistan.

Although in the kind of society Pakistan has become, questions about “donor support” to these demonstrations were unavoidable. The fact that the local bodies’ office-holders were fighting not only for their bread and butter but also for the cause of local self-government could not be denied. That Pakistan’s ‘friends’ abroad had a substantial interest in the existing local bodies system was confirmed when the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) drew Pakistan’s attention to the Commonwealth principles on good practice for local democracy and good governance (the Aberdeen Agenda).

More important than the nazims/councillors’ rallies was the emergence of the MQM as the principal defender of the Musharraf scheme of local bodies, though it took care not to deny the possibility of constructive changes in the system. The MQM’s interest in the matter is obvious — it has to protect its urban fiefs, especially after they had been threatened by one of the Sindh government’s unforced follies. The MQM broadside in defence of the status quo was a signal to Musharraf’s flabby legatees (PML-Q) to join the fight. And as the Jamaat-e-Islami can hardly leave any ground open to the MQM, it thus too joined the fray. There the matters rest.

Meanwhile, the centre has decided to let matters drift. The terms of the local bodies will be over by the end of the year and the bar to legislation by provinces will disappear. Islamabad will not mind a free-for-all. And nobody is thinking of the volatile issue the local bodies will become in the next general elections.

British Legacy

Many of the issues thrown up during the ongoing exchanges (these are much too sketchy to be described as a debate) on local government cannot be adequately appreciated without reference to the history of the local bodies’ growth, the arguments offered to justify them, and their use by the country’s rulers at different times.

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive elaborations of the local government idea is contained in the Government of India’s resolution of August 31, 1864, on the municipalities and another resolution of May 18, 1882, on the constitution of local boards.

The former resolution (of 1864) made the following points:

The government did not have the resources to meet the civic and development needs of cities and towns. The municipal bodies could meet the local communities’ needs more promptly and fully than any government agency. Besides, when the people began managing their affairs “they will feel confident to do things they would not have accepted from the government.” The people of the country “are perfectly capable of administering their local affairs — the municipal feeling is deeply rooted in them” … “Holding the position we do in India, every view of duty and policy should induce us to leave as much as possible of the business of the country to be done by the people, by means of funds raised by themselves, and to confine ourselves to doing those things which must be done by the government, and to influencing and directing, in a general way, all the movements of the social machine.”

The latter resolution (of 1882) made the following points:

Local boards are not proposed because their performance will be better than that of government departments; though with time local boards’ efficiency will improve. The objective now is to use local boards as instruments of “political and popular education.” The view that the people are indifferent to local government issues is not correct. In time “an intelligent class of public spirited men” will emerge and they must be utilised. The local boards will share the burden of the government. If local self-government has not worked well in the past, the fault lies with meddlesome bureaucrats. Only two issues are important — “the mode in which local boards should be constituted, and the degree of control the government should retain over local boards and the manner of exercising that control.” Local boards will have different features in different provinces. These boards should be dominated by non-officials who should be elected. The system of election will evolve with practice. As for control, the government should revise and check the acts of local boards but not dictate them. Executive officers should not head local boards, these should be headed by non-officials.

Little has been added to the arguments in support of local bodies over the past 120 to 140 years. The colonial rulers did much to promote municipalities in urban areas and district boards in the rural areas. These institutions relieved the government of a sizeable burden in the fields of education and health, built and maintained local roads, and initiated a large number of people, in both towns and the countryside, into electoral politics.

However, like other institutions established by the colonial rulers, such as ministries, assemblies, courts and educational centres, the local bodies were not wholly conceived as public service institutions. They were meant to function as props of a colonial system and one of their main tasks was to prevent the people from rebelling against alien rule. Empowerment of the people was never on the colonial power’s agenda.

After independence, Pakistan’s inadequate rulers grew progressively allergic to democratic institutions. Democratically structured local bodies were seen as a threat to the government and therefore, local bodies staggered along at its sufferance. The civilian governments that came after Ayub’s experiment called Basic Democracies and Zia-ul-Haq’s pampering of local bodies developed reservations about local bodies because they appeared as rivals for power and popularity to MNAs and MPAs who knew of no other route to power except for usurping local bodies functions.

The military rulers, from Ayub to Musharraf, saw local bodies office-holders as agents for isolating national and provincial political parties from the people and of raising a local-level force of elected representatives to serve as their hatchetmen. The two most important functions of the local bodies in their scheme of things have been to help military rulers with votes in elections and referenda, and to help the central authority in defending itself against provincial challenges.

These two attributes of the local bodies system lie at the root of the present provincial governments’ and political parties’ hostility to the Musharraf edition of the local government system.

The Musharraf Scheme

The National Reconstruction Bureau set up by Musharraf did not confine itself to rewriting the local bodies scheme after the earlier models, those designed before independence, by the Ayub regime, by the Bhutto government, and by General Zia. Instead, it undertook an experiment in local government in the broadest possible sense. The main features of the Musharraf model follow.

Whereas previously local government was mentioned somewhat casually in the constitution in the Principles of Policy (enforceable at the discretion of the government), a new article was added to the constitution to make it obligatory for provincial governments to set up local bodies. This, however, did not meet the demand for recognising local bodies as the third constitutional tier of government (after the federal and provincial governments).

The executive organ of the state, below the federal level, was radically restructured. The offices of divisional commissioners and district magistrates were abolished. The deputy commissioner was replaced by a district coordination officer  and other departments had their own district heads. All district officers were put under district nazims (elected).

The Police Act of 1861 was replaced with the Police Order which freed the police of the executive’s control and increased their powers. At the district level, the police were nominally under the district nazim but the provincial governments’ hold over the police department was considerably reduced. At all levels — federal, provincial and district — official-public commissions were proposed to deal with matters of superintendence and discipline.

A three-tier local bodies system was introduced in all provinces — union councils, tehsil councils (town councils in major cities) and district councils (city district governments in metropolitan cities). These councils had vast administrative and financial powers but little authority to raise revenues.

This scheme had certain innate flaws. The system was quite complex and cumbersome and it was introduced without any experimental trials and without any measures to ensure availability of personnel of the required calibre.

The new system threatened several vested interests. Although the fact of local government being a provincial subject was never denied, the provincial governments were not adequately consulted while the different aspects of the scheme were finalised. They were specially angry at the loss of their control over the selection and tenure of the provincial police chiefs and other officers. The bureaucracy was galled at the loss of its extraordinary authority in divisions and districts.

The antagonisms the new system aroused interfered with its implementation. The provincial authorities and bureaucrats did not support the system. They forced changes in the Police Order that considerably diluted its salient features. Several parts of the scheme were not sincerely implemented or not enforced at all.

Practical experience showed that some of the radical innovations did not achieve the expectations. Women did not benefit from their increased representation as they were marginalised everywhere. In certain parts of the country, women councillors were not allowed to attend meetings, their husbands supplanted them. Labour and peasant seats were grabbed by persons from outside these classes.

The system lost the goodwill of the democratic-minded public when local bodies were used to manipulate the referendum of 2002 in Musharraf’s favour and to help his party, PML-Q, in the general elections the same year. This placed the Musharraf scheme in the category of Ayub’s and Zia’s manoeuvres to employ local bodies as instruments for denying the people their democratic rights.

Above all, the system failed to throw up new grass roots leadership. The district councils were made so powerful and so rich that the traditional elite took them over. At the district level the MNAs, MPAs, the feudals and the police officers forged impregnable coalitions and established pockets of tyrannical rule.

The Charge-sheets

The ongoing discussion shows the critics of the existing system divided into two groups.

Dominating Karachi: A MQM rally in Sindh. Photo: AFP.

Dominating Karachi: A MQM rally in Sindh. Photo: AFP.

One of these groups concentrates on the administrative and personnel deficiencies. It cites the following reasons for changing the system: poor quality of human resources available to local bodies, lack of adequate operational budgets, weak monitoring mechanisms, absence of effective audit and accountability mechanisms, financial dependence on provincial and federal governments, lack of control over the police force and inability to generate development funds locally.

The other group adopts more politically relevant arguments. It says the new system has not achieved its declared objective of empowering the people at the grass roots level; there has been no visible improvement in service delivery, especially in the social sector; the nazims have become mini-dictators; lack of transparency and accountability has bred corruption; the election system is not fair; the local bodies have become rivals to MNAs/MPAs.

For obvious reasons these objections do not include any reference to the central grievance of the provincial governments, namely, the possibility that local bodies have cut into the provincial governments’ powers and their purses.

The Way Out

Some of the criticism of the local bodies system devised by Musharraf’s associates regarding its ambitious scale, raising of a heavy structure on a narrow base, lack of adequate checks and balances, the federal authority’s bid to create surrogates at the local level by bypassing the provinces, and abuse of the local government system to manipulate parliamentary/presidential election, is largely valid.

However, many of the complaints regarding the poor performance of the local bodies, their failure to improve service delivery and corruption, can be explained in terms of difficulties in implementing any new model of governance. Indeed, similar complaints can be made about the federal and provincial governments, but nobody has asked for their disbandment.

Thus, while trying to find a solution to the local bodies’ tangle, the following fundamental realities need to be kept in mind:

A democratic dispensation for Pakistan will not be complete without the institutionalisation of local government as the third constitutional tier of government. The structure of these institutions, their administrative and financial powers and procedures, and guarantees and mode of elections should all be spelt out in the constitution.

A large number of people have had a taste of the local government system during 2001-2009. They have a vital interest in the retention of local bodies with substantial powers. They will have possibilities of mobilising broader public support for reasonably effective local bodies, especially when parliamentary elections are held. It will not be prudent to ignore this element.

Devolution of power is a much more complex issue than was imagined by Musharraf’s associates. The provinces will resist devolution of authority to local governments more tenaciously than has been done by the federation in the matter of devolving power to the provinces.

While the essential features of local government should be common to all provinces, it is wrong to try for a single local bodies law for the whole country. The provinces must be free to devise legal instruments to suit their circumstances and levels of social development.

All of this means that the local government ordinances may be amended in such a manner that a balance is struck between the local governments’ right to financial and administrative autonomy and the provincial governments’ entitlement to oversight. The use of local bodies to manipulate elections should be made an offence and appropriate audit/accountability mechanisms should be put in place. The executive branch of the provincial administration should be reorganised and the Police Order thoroughly reviewed.

This task should have been assigned to a broad-based commission of experts, stakeholders (including local bodies members and the public), and parliamentarians/political parties. Instead, unfortunately, months have been wasted in unproductive fulminations. Even now, there is time to set up a statutory commission on local government with a mandate to produce, within three months, a formula that satisfies all stakeholders. The commission may begin its work by examining the draft laws reportedly prepared by the provincial governments.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.