April Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

devolution-1-apr03With both the national and provincial assemblies now in place, General Musharraf’s much publicised devolution of power plan is on a quick march to falling apart.

The grandiose devolution of power plan presented by the military regime as a tool for ‘empowering the grass root masses’ was challenged by major political parties and civil society at the very outset as an ill-conceived and short sighted plan. All the objections and suggestions put forward to make the system more viable and realistic were rejected outright by the military regime, particularly by the then chairman of the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), General (Retd.) Tanvir Naqvi. However, now even ministers of the civil-cum-military government are raising their voices in protest against the local government system.

The newly elected members of the Sindh provincial assembly want an alteration in the Sindh Local Government Ordinance (SLGO), which they contend gives sweeping powers to the district nazims. The conflict between the provincial and district governments, in Sindh in general and Karachi in particular, is deteriorating with each passing day as town and city nazims and provincial ministers accuse each other of violation and abuse of powers and authority.

Analysts see the conflict as the natural outcome of a basically flawed and hastily implemented plan. “There is an inbuilt contradiction in the system because local bodies elections were held on a non-party basis, while general elections took place on a party basis,” says Dr. Jaffar Ahmed, director, Pakistan Studies Centre at Karachi University. According to him the local bodies system was brought in when there were no national and provincial assemblies and the government did not foresee the impact of the system on the provincial assemblies, even though future clashes between the provincial and district level set-ups had been widely predicted when the devolution plan was first introduced.

Differences first surfaced between provincial and local bodies institutions when new ministers were inducted in the Sindh government just a few months before the October 10 general elections. The then local bodies minister, Arbab Ghulam Rahim, now minister of communication and works, was accused not only of interfering in the affairs of district nazims, but of using vulgar and abusive language particularly against the PPP nazims. Some district councils even passed resolutions asking the minister to mind his language.

Many observers feel that the holding of local bodies elections on a non-party basis was nothing short of a move to hoodwink the masses. All the major parties, except the MQM which boycotted the local bodies elections, contested the elections under assumed names. As a result, many known PPP politicians who were elected district nazims in interior Sindh contested under the “Awam Dost” banner, while the Jamaat-e-Islami, contested under the name of Al-Khidmat and won most of the town nazim seats as well as the post of city nazim in Karachi.

Analysts feel that holding the local bodies elections on a non-party basis was part of the establishment’s game plan to use the nazims for mustering support for General Musharraf’s controversial referendum. Surprisingly, the military regime suffered their first blow from the nazims, when some of them refused to attend the public rallies addressed by General Musharraf as part of his referendum campaign.

Khairpur district nazim, Ms Nafisa Shah, daughter of the PPP’s former Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah, was the first nazim who dared not to attend General Musharraf’s rally, terming it nothing but a political ploy. She was also the first nazim to openly criticise the military regime for using nazims for their own political ends. The conflict between local and provincial governments became even more obvious after the induction of the Sindh cabinet in January, with the MQM getting the lion’s share in Ali Mohammad Mahar’s coalition government. “They (ministers) are interfering in my work and in the affairs of the city government, it is wrong and illegal interference,” complains city nazim, Naimatullah Khan. “They want to destroy the system but we won’t allow it to happen because this system is in favour of the masses. We will resist,” he vowed. He also alleged that many of Karachi’s government officials had been transferred without taking him into confidence in a direct move aimed at disrupting his work.

In the Sindh Assembly session earlier this month, many opposition members also joined the treasury benches when they protested against an all-powerful district government and called for participation in the development work being carried out by the district government. “The devolution plan, under which the district government system was introduced, was enforced when no elected or political government was in office,” said the MQM’s Mohammad Hussain, minister for local bodies, on the floor of the Sindh Assembly. “There is a need that the plan should be modified in such a way that elected MPAs and MNAs could also have a say in development projects.”

devolution-2-apr03Differences began when MPAs felt powerless under the new system, even though they have their own areas of operation and responsibility under the new law. “I don’t know why the MPAs are fighting for funds, they have other things to do,” says B. M. Kutti, joint director at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), which supports the new system. “Their ultimate role is to legislate. They should work for enacting good laws and repealing bad ones rather than fighting for funds.” According to Dr. Jaffar of the Pakistan Studies Centre, MPAs with particular political and cultural backgrounds consider development work their responsibility which is why they are seeking funds. “They must be told that their job is legislation, not development work,” he said.

Interestingly, at a time when the battle to wrest control and authority from the city/district governments has already begun, the Sindh chief minister has approved five million rupees as an annual development grant for each MPA, thus antagonising the nazims. Analysts consider the step contrary to the spirit of the devolution plan under which development work is the sole responsibility of local governments. The mass confusion caused by the absence of proper demarcation of responsibilities for the representatives of both institutions — having people from one party in the local bodies and another party in the provincial government — is another major source of conflict.

In Karachi, for instance, the battle is more between the nazims of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the MQM ministers, rather than a clash between the two systems. According to Mohammad Hussain, Sindh minister for local bodies, the newly elected provincial government has constituted a task force to prepare recommendations for changes in the SLGO. “There were many flaws in the SLGO and the task force will suggest ways to make the local bodies system accountable and effective as well as instal a proper monitoring check and balance on the nazims.” However, the nazims fear that the whole exercise is meant to curtail their powers and have vowed to fight back sending a clear signal that the issue is going to intensify unless somebody steps in to prevent the two systems from clashing. “We will reject any commission or committee constituted to curtail our powers,” city nazim Naimatullah Khan declared at a nazim training conference held in Karachi in early March. “These persons should realise the implications and avoid meddling in local government affairs,” he warned.

Apart from the long list of existing differences between the Jamaat nazims and the provincial MQM ministers, the recent resignation of the medical superintendent of Abbasi Shaheed Hospital allegedly after an MQM minister threatened him, is also said to be the main cause behind the current tension. According to inside sources, the issue of Dr. Masood Javed’s resignation was reported to the corps commander Karachi, by Naimatullah Khan. Though the MQM was annoyed by this, one of the party’s key leaders, now advisor in the provincial government, visited Dr Javed’s residence and expressed regret over the incident. Dr Javed re-joined the hospital in a simple ceremony attended by the city nazim. However, this is not the end of the matter. With the MQM controlling all the important ministries, they can easily make life difficult for Naimatullah Khan just by carrying out postings and transfers.

Recently, a number of key city government officials have been transferred, while a large number of police officers disliked by the MQM for their role in the June 1992 military operation, have also been transferred to interior Sindh. Provoked by the transfers, the city nazim says that such steps can only disturb the working of the city government which is responsible for the basic needs of 14 million inhabitants. “We were effective because of official co-ordination and co-operation, but now some elements don’t want to see us serving the masses,” said Naimatullah Khan. “Though the city nazim is responsible for the maintenance of law and order, transfers and postings of police officers are being made on the whims of others,” said Naimatullah. “How can law and order be maintained in such a situation?”

Many of the district and town nazims in interior Sindh also echo the views of Karachi’s nazim. “When a district nazim is the head of his district, according to the SLGO, there is no need for others to interfere in the affairs of the district,” says Khursheed Junejo, district Nazim Larkana. “Ministers are creating difficulties by making transfers on a large scale without consulting the nazims,” he complained. Ironically, the billions of rupees that were spent on the devolution plan, which was later used as the main excuse for holding the referendum enabling General Musharraf to stay on in power for another five years, has not achieved its purpose. Many analysts believe that even the legality of the devolution plan is questionable. Some maintain that it has been provided constitutional cover under the LFO, while others disagree. “Even if it is included in the LFO,” says Dr. Jaffar, “The LFO itself is controversial. There is no current constitutional cover for the system.”

Though the powers-that-be seem to be playing the “wait and see” game as far as the conflict between the provincial and local governments is concerned, many think it’s an issue that has to be tackled on an urgent basis. “The masses will suffer even more if the local bodies system fails, or is made to fail,” says B.M. Kutti. “All the progressive forces in the country have been demanding devolution of power for the last 50 years, so we need to save this system despite its short comings.” He feels that whenever there is a conflict, which is normally a clash of interests, rather than a clash of systems, the people, particularly the marginalised sections of society are the main sufferers. “The ministers and MPAs must find a way to work with those nazims who are not from their parties,” says Kutti. According to Dr Jaffar, presenting the SLGO in the Sindh Assembly is the only viable and permanent solution of the conflict. “It can be debated, or even revised if necessary and then provided constitutional cover through the assembly,” he suggested. “We need to bring this system closer to our constitution.”

Interestingly enough, however, though the local bodies is a provincial subject under the devolution plan, the system was installed from the centre with the promise that some federal government powers would also be decentralised to the provinces. That promise has yet to be fulfilled, as only the powers of the provincial government have been devolved to the district level.

Political observers feel that MPA’s and provincial ministers should fight for more provincial rights from the central government rather than take on a confrontation with the nazims. “They need to fight for provincial autonomy rather than trying to take back whatever powers have been devolved to the district level,” maintains Dr Jaffar.