Pakistan local government vs development authority

Ahmad Rafay Alam

After the recent election it was generally accepted that the Grand Musharruffian Experiment of welding a new local government administration onto our polity would not be rolled back. Sane counsel argued to do so would be as much a shock to the system as was the introduction of this clunky appendage. And so there has been no real or overt attempt to repeal the various local government ordinances of 2001. However, here in Punjab, and especially in Lahore, this might as well be the case.

Last week, Mian Amir Mahmood presented a Rs30.7 billion budget to the city’s District Council. Despite the fact that this is record-breaking city budget (last year’s budget was about Rs14 billion), it was a rare sighting of the District Nazim. The city is currently being run by four people: the Chief Minister, the MD of WASA, the DG of the LDA, and the DCO. The elected representatives of the people are scant on the ground.

So far, all this is being painted with party political brushes. It must also be examined in the context of the urban planning of Lahore.

In the early 20th Century, the planners in the United Kingdom and the United States were overcome by the brilliance of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, which was an urban planning solution to the pollution that industrialisation had brought to some Western cities. Big, greened houses were envisioned where people could enjoy the best of the countryside while still within easy access of the economic activity of the metropolis.

It was the time of the town and country planning associations, the governance model for such developments. The idea here was to hand over responsibility of the future development of a city to a board vested with the fiduciary responsibility to carry out their task of developing the city for the benefit of its residents.

The Garden City Movement was a mammoth intellectual achievement. Lewis Mumford called it one of the two great inventions of his time (the other being the Wright Brother’s shaky little aircraft). After the first serious urban migration in India about World War I (a wartime economy offers industrial employment), the English Colonialist thought it fit to implement it in our part of the world, and so, with modifications suited to the local climate – read, a complete distrust of the Natives’ capacity to govern themselves – we got the Punjab Town Improvement Act, 1922.

Improvement Trusts were set up for “controlled areas” far greater than city limits and trustees all appointed by the provincial government were given the mandate to develop the city in accordance with its needs. At the same time, the responsibility of governing – the colonialists preferred the word administration – already existing urban areas was handed over to various municipal bodies and corporations. These were a mix of appointed and elected office bearers.

The idea was for improvement trusts to undertake the development of new parts of the city and then hand over governance to the local municipal administrations. Save for the odd, anomalous exception, this handing over has never really taken place. Improvement trusts and their successors, development authorities, have forever been loath to the idea of handing over control of what they developed. This is the trend we see in Lahore today, where the Lahore Development Authority coexists, despite law and common sense to the contrary, alongside the elected local government representatives. Where the line between them is drawn is anybody’s guess.

Local and municipal government has been the black sheep of the polity. For a variety of reasons – lack of good leadership not being the least – there is very little money to be made in municipal administration. That’s not entirely true. I don’t think we’ve ever figured out how to make municipal administration profitable. Nonetheless, in our polity, at the local level, money to be made was through development. This much is clear to understand.

But this is Pakistan. The development of cities carried out by non-representative improvement trusts or development authorities has had its own drawbacks and limitations. For one, the development agenda is controlled by unelected elites and does not reflect ground reality. This is why, despite almost every local government screaming for investment in sewerage and sanitation facilities, most urban development funds are spent on expensive housing schemes and harebrained road- widening works. The fact that there was a private housing boom is an indication that the supply of housing hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. And just like the case of education – good education in Pakistan is now almost completely dominated by the private sector – the private sector responded to this lack of supply by providing its own. But this also has its drawbacks.

Last week I drove to see one of the many private housing schemes that continue for miles down Raiwind Road. Twenty years ago, this area was almost entirely rural (save for the odd Sharif intervention) and the elected local government never dealt with anything more complex than the odd murder, scandalous talaq or cattle theft. Private development has carpeted this local government administration with high-end housing. In the next decade, Raiwind Road will be full of middle- and upper-middle-class families with problems usually associated with middle- and upper-middle-class families in Third World urban areas. And whose door will they knock on if the sewerage doesn’t work? A political setup still dominated by rural capacity. This is an urban-planning and governance disaster in the offing.

The experiment to separate governance and development in our urban areas hasn’t seemed to work. This is not to say development authorities are not good. Some have good products. Look at the CDA or the many DHAs (they are a housing development authority supposedly for retired officers of our valiant armed forces, may God bless them). They are proof that democratic participation isn’t a necessary requirement of good urban management. But looking at a bigger picture, these settlements come at huge and unseen costs. There is sprawl and the congestion and pollution associated with it. There is social segregation, with the rich increasingly veiled from the disaster most of our urban areas are. Remember that every other urban dweller in Pakistan lives in a slum. These are problems which haven’t been fully appreciated yet, and whose dimensions will unfold with great drama in the years to come.

We need to find a means to effectively govern and develop our urban areas. It may be politically expedient to rely on trusted bureaucrats with good track records, but this is no way to run a city.

The Garden City Movement has long since died. It has seen the power time has wielded over many a Fighting Faith. Our cities bear no resemblance to the idealised version of the metropolis, and there is no longer any good reason why the development of a city by technocrats and bureaucrats should be kept distinct from its governance by elected representatives. In the historical context, therefore, the debate is no longer between improvement trust and development authority, but on how to govern our cities. We must recognise this and make the right decision.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx

Source: The News, 28/7/2008

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