Torpedoed local bodies


Scuffles and pandemonium was the order of the day on Saturday in the Sindh Assembly. The amended version of the Sindh Local Government Bill 2021 stands legislated. It has further clipped the powers of the elected local tiers, as a parallel mechanism continues to be at work under the supervision of the Sindh Cabinet. This dichotomy has undermined the very essence of local bodies, and what remains is a pitched and perpetual standoff between the bureaucracy, provincial nominees and the so-called elected representatives.

The push and pull was warranted as the Election Commission of Pakistan had pressed upon the provinces to legislate in due time. Thus, ensued a whirlwind of activity in both Punjab and Sindh. The local bodies’ elections are scheduled in the first quarter of 2022. An earlier bill in this regard that was passed by the Sindh Assembly was shot down by Governor Imran Ismail, as he sent it back with a number of recommendations.

The ruling PPP says it has conceded to most of the issues pointed out, but the opposition still cries foul. A more diluted version of the bill now takes away functions of education and health from the municipal bodies; abolishes district municipal corporations (DMCs) in urban areas and replaces them with town municipal corporations. As a carrot, the mayor has been bestowed with the co-chairpersonship of the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board along with the Local Government minister. But as far as revenue and discretionary powers are concerned, they remain mostly with the LG ministry, rendering the lower tiers as redundant as possible.

Karachiites’ dream to see an empowered local government at work is in shambles. Sindh is perhaps the only province which is so allergic to this concept and believes in an urban-rural paradox. Apparently, it is an extension of the quota system discrimination that is still in vogue. For many it is a déjà vu of the contentious language bill in 1972 by the first government of PPP, which carries the harshness of otherness to this day.

This pro- Sindhi politics has bred ethnicity and the traumatised rejoinder of MQM is a backlash. The adamancy of provincial authorities to run the local government led to the treacherous Act in 2013, wherein manning Karachi went to the bureaucrats. The MQM too cannot be absolved as it gave in to the then PPP government’s demands in all humility.

The Saturday amended bill leaves little in the hands of locally elected people as the powers to regulate civic utilities including water, sewage, garbage, electricity, transport, development, taxation (inclusive toll and octroi) and police fall under parallel paradigms.

Whereas, a comparative study of Punjab Local Government Act 2021 reveals that local bodies have been empowered to collect the toll tax, establishment and management of vegetable and fruit markets, property leasing, and manning of parks and monuments. Likewise, powers to regulate flyovers, expressways, bridges, underpasses and signboards also rest with the local bodies.

In retrospection, the passion for popular participation at the local government level has always been a muted affair. Political parties, somehow, are reluctant to share the booty of power, at least with the local tiers. This is an enigma of sorts, and undermines the basic credentials of a democratic process. But Pakistanis have lived with it.

The maximum number of experiments have been carried out in the local powers module right from Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracies to General Zia, and then fast forward to 2021. Ironically, the dictators were more generous in devolution, rather than the cherished democrats. The psyche behind is half-heartedness to devolve powers in a sordid attempt to retain authoritarianism in politics.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2021.

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