Hardly local

With the completion of the local government elections in Punjab, the third tier of the government is finally in place. The representatives will take oath on December 31, and start functioning with the beginning of the new year.

Punjab is the last province to complete this exercise whereas Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have already achieved this landmark.

As expected, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), with a strong presence in centre as well as in Punjab, has swept the elections of mayors and deputy mayors. More than 90 per cent of the heads of local governments in Punjab now belong to the PML-N. It shows the party has got even bigger in the province, and will be in a position to increase its influence even at the union council level.

While the ruling PML-N claims credit for ultimately fulfilling this constitutional obligation, the critics think the local government representatives will be nothing more than a rubberstamp. They stress that according to Article 140-A of the Constitution of Pakistan, “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments”.

But that is really not the case. For the non-formation of a provincial finance commission, establishment of autonomous authorities mandated to perform functions falling in the purview of local governments and making these answerable to deputy commissioners hints at the provincial government’s intention to keep maximum powers in their hands.

Those in the ruling camp dispel such impressions. They say that a formula for distribution of funds among different districts is being worked out with the help of qualified consultants. They add that the elected representatives will be given a major say in the affairs of the local governments, and any check on them is meant only to increase their efficiency and ensure transparency in their working.

“As the local governments of different districts will lack powers to serve their people in a better way, the complaints of non-judicious use of funds will persist,” says Salman Abid.

Salman Abid, an expert in local governments, says that it is natural on the part of the PML-N to give limited powers to local governments because they never wanted to establish these in the first place. “Had the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) not intervened and pushed the provincial governments to establish these, there would not have been any local governments,” he adds.

Abid wonders what will be the role of local governments in the presence of 20 odd autonomous authorities set up by the Punjab government to look after affairs such as education, health, food, horticulture, waste management, land development and more. He says these functions fall in the domain of local governments but here the provincial government will control these through bureaucrats heading these authorities.

“As the local governments of different districts will lack powers to serve their people in a better way, the complaints of non-judicious use of funds will persist,” he says, continuing that the tendency of these provincial government-controlled authorities to focus more on big cities will create a sense of discrimination among smaller cities.

To add insult to injury, the Punjab government has restored the office of deputy commissioner (DC) and given the officers holding this position the authority to monitor development projects in their respective districts. They are also allowed to monitor the performance of local governments. The DCs will also consult with the district police heads to ensure peace and may call local government representatives for explanations if need be.

Dr Muhammad Mujtaba, a union council member during the Musharraf rule, terms it a big insult to the people elected with popular vote to report to bureaucrats who may not belong to the districts they are serving in. “When I was part of the local government, the district nazim would hold bureaucrats accountable but now it will be vice versa”.

He says the chief minister will control local governments through — “but nobody is complaining”.

“The reason seemingly is that the elected members from the PML-N, who are in a majority, cannot dare to speak in front of their leaders while other parties hardly have any stake in the new system,” he adds.

He also points out that there will be a likely clash between the DCs and the district police heads as the former will try to direct the latter who will resist such moves.

The government will create the posts of additional deputy commissioner (ADC) finance and planning, ADC (general) and ADC (headquarters) and abolish those of Executive District Officer (EDO) finance and planning, EDO (community development) etc. The posts of EDOs of health and education will also be abolished with the creation of health and education authorities that will report to provincial governments.

Dr Ayesha Ghaus Pasha, Minister for Finance, Punjab, has ruled out the impression that the local governments will be made to function without provision of funds. She says the government is working on a Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) Award for timely disbursement of funds to the local governments and has engaged consultants of international repute to define formulas. For example, she says, “Funds for the education sector would be provided on the basis of population, number of children in schools and on the streets and the number of female students enrolled in secondary schools. The figures from 1998 census and 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) data are being used to make calculations.”

Ejaz Chaudhry, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader from Punjab, says he is not surprised at all to see the PML-N provincial government assuming all the powers and rendering the local governments powerless. “It is the very mindset that prevails in the party. An example is Mian Shahbaz Sharif running a dozen ministries himself.”

Chaudhry says no doubt people choose candidates from the party that is in the government but the non-existence of defection clause has also caused a lot of damage. For this reason, he says, “winners from other political parties simply joined the PML-N and helped it secure top slots in the local governments.”

He adds that they had challenged the Punjab government’s decision to hold these elections on non-party basis to stop shifting of loyalties by winners but this has still not happened.

Citation: Ahmad,Shahzada. Hardly local. The News on Sunday, January 1, 2017. 

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