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Capital’s governance

WELL-DESIGNED local government (LG) systems help achieve both the techno-managerial goals of efficiency and effectiveness in local service delivery and the more critical political economy goals of equity and egalitarianism in society by restructuring the state in favour of weaker classes.

The Islamabad LG system 2015 represents an important step towards both goals. This is the first time the whole city has an LG system. The new system contains many strengths, eg party-based elections, an increase in tenure and the removal of some grounds whereby higher powers could dissolve LGs or fire elected officials. But further political, administrative and financial devolution is necessary to strengthen the system.

The federal government is empowered under the Islamabad LG Act to dissolve the LGs before national elections. But neither this act nor the Constitution mandates immediate LG re-elections, unlike the 90 days mandate for provincial and national assemblies. The act must be modified to mandate only at most a limited suspension of LGs during national elections. Critical aspects of LG systems, eg, immediate re-elections, sufficient devolution, and checks on arbitrary higher interference, must be protected constitutionally not only for Islamabad but all Pakistani LG bodies. LG functions in Islamabad are currently done by non-local agencies, eg the ICTA, CADD and CDA. Key functions like education and development are not clearly mentioned in the act. These issues must be rectified. The overlap with the CDA has been fixed by making the Islamabad mayor the head of CDA too. But both are full-time roles. There should be full-time heads of CDA and ICTA who report to the mayor.

Islamabad’s LG system is an important step.

The centre enjoys wide powers to control LGs. An unelected federal bureaucrat will ensure compliance with federal laws. An LG commission responsible to the federal government will conduct inspections. A board appointed by the centre will control appointments and transfers of LG employees. The government can unilaterally change the number of union councils. Currently, 18 urban and 32 rural UCs have been formed. But this ratio is based neither on area nor population. While the centre must monitor LGs, its authority must be rationalised to better balance federal supervision and LG autonomy.

The legislation provides reserved seats for peasants and workers. However, a review by Pattan Development Organisation shows that affluent candidates have captured many of these seats. The mistakes this time should be rectified, if necessary by disqualification. The poll application process must be reviewed to eliminate future elite capture of such seats. The act does not mandate community groups below UCs, which usually do not represent natural communities. Community-level groups must be facilitated to mobilise communities and be equipped with mechanisms, eg, complaint mechanisms and visits requirements, to apply accountability pressure on the UC and district LG structures.

In terms of financial matters, no budget has been given for this year. A budget must be adopted with the involvement of councillors by reallocating MNA funds to LGs. The list of around 25 types of LG taxes mentioned in the act is shorter than under the 2001 LG system. Some key taxes that are missing include education and health taxes. Financial projections must be undertaken to identify the likely annual expenses of the district government and different UCs. Financial principle must be devised for dividing federal funds among and between district and UCs. Kutchi abadis, villages and sectors G and I contain the majority of the district population but get lower levels of municipal services. They must be given adequate funds to afford good-quality local services. Kutchi abadis must not be neglected due to the non-regularised status and surveys must be done there to identify their population and municipal needs.

In short, the Islamabad LG system, despite its pluses, still needs many changes to more fully achieve the technocratic aims of effectiveness and efficiency and the more crucial political economy goals of egalitarianism. The presence of LGs under elected regimes has resulted in some state restructuring with the visible control of the military and bureaucracy being absent. But power has merely shifted to the elite industrial, landed and professional classes which formally control the state in Pakistan under democracy. The elite capture of labour and peasant seats highlights this partial state restructuring.

Improving the quality of Islamabad LGs further will require constitutional protection for their continuity; removal of the latitude given to the government; and the elimination of the role of non-local agencies in local functions. It will also require protecting labour and peasant seats from elite capture; adequate financial independence and planning; strong community accountability tools; and prioritising the localities most in need of municipal services.

Niaz, Murtaza. Capital’s governance. Dawn, January 31, 2017. 

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