Whither local government? Ahmad Rafay Alam

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The prime minister has announced that the local government elections have been postponed indefinitely because of the security situation. Not content with using the security situation as the excuse to deprive citizens of their rightful public spaces, the government has employed it to adjourn, sine die, the democratic process.

It is ironic that a democratically elected government has chosen to postpone an election. Is democracy no longer The Best Revenge?

Isn’t it contradictory for the government and armed forced to tell us that the fight in Swat will be over soon – “in a matter of weeks” – while, on the other hand, claim that the security situation is too precarious to hold polls. Didn’t the present government win its election after widespread violence in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination?

The fact is that no one wants local governments. Even though it makes nothing but sense to decentralise government, all sorts of excuses are put forward when it’s actually time for the Federation and the provinces to relinquish their power in favour of grassroots governance. The excuse this time may be the security situation, but the other pernicious justifications for rubbishing local governments is that they are instruments of dictatorial regimes.

The argument runs thus: Pakistan’s military dictators, in an effort to break political status quo and assert their authority, rely on the mechanism of local government as a means of creating a new constituency of support. Evidence is offered in the form of Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracies, Zia-ul-Haq’s 1979 local-body elections and Pervez Musharraf’s local government ordinances. We are made to believe that local governments are the illegitimate offspring of undemocratic forces.

There are two major flaws in this thinking. To begin with, local governments predate Pakistan itself, let alone its military dictators. It was as early as the 1860s that the Colonialist, let by the reformed Lord Ripon, tried to introduce local self-government in India with the concept of municipal governments.

The fact that local governments don’t work – that they don’t “have capacity,” in World-Bank-Speak – has nothing to do with the fact that they may be the artificial creations of unelected powers. The reason they haven’t worked is simply because they have never been allowed to work.

Ripon’s Local Self-Government granted municipal authorities run by Indians the revolutionary power to levy and collect taxes to fund development works. In the Indian experience, this was a novel and reluctantly accepted innovation that didn’t sit well with the taxed populace. But the Colonialist, ever suspicious of the Native, didn’t allow the municipal authorities the power to determine the manner in which they could spend the taxes they collected. Oversight of municipal expenses was with the Deputy Collector, an unelected officer, who had power to veto the decisions of municipal authorities. By denying these democratically appointed Indians the power to spend the money they raised by levying taxes, the Colonialist killed local self-government. If the rallying cry of the American War of Independence was “No Taxation without Representation,” ours should have been “No Power to Tax without the Corresponding Power to Determine How to Spend” (though not nearly as succinct).

Pakistan’s local governments have fared no better. In Lahore, for example, under the Punjab Local Government Ordinance, 2001, the town municipal administrations have been given extensive jurisdiction to determine land use and zoning and equally extensive powers to collect taxes. But instead, it is the Lahore Development Authority, which is controlled, via the director-general, by the province of Punjab. As a result, local governments are broke. Even with eight million people in Pakistan’s second-largest city and commercial centre, local governments have to look to provincial government receipts as a main source of funds.

If there is a consistent theme in local governments, it is not that they are the creations of military regimes. It is that the powers that be have never wanted to relinquish power and control.

The other main flaw in the argument has to do with the massive blind spot most protagonists have with respect to military dictators. Why is that local governments are libelled as illegitimate attempts to create a political constituency, and therefore rejected while, on the other hand, Ayub Khan’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961, or the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, 2006, are hailed as great leaps forward? (We are told, with great awe, that only a military dictator’s firm hand can cut through the resistance of the truculent clergy.) If military dictatorships are bad, then all their laws should be bad. Why the picking and choosing? Why the hypocrisy?

The fact is that local governments are the only future for a country like Pakistan. We’ve had 60 years of centralised power, and its results speak for themselves. Yet, the government is adamant on imposing its control on the people from the federal and provincial levels. But what business is it of the federal minister of health to monitor and evaluate lady health workers? What business is it of the chief minister of a province to concern himself with the outdoor advertising of one city? The answer is: None. These are tasks better suited for local governments. It is the Tehsil Municipal Administration that should concern itself with the status of the health facilities within its jurisdiction. It is for Town Municipal Administrations to know which parts of a city are best suited for billboards.

Not allowing decisions to be taken at the grassroots level deprives people of their inalienable right to govern themselves and participate in the decision-making process. It also plays havoc with local government revenue. Take, for example, Pakistan’s industry and commerce. Despite the fact that the majority of industrial and commercial activity takes place in or near urban areas, well over half the taxes collected in Pakistan go to the federal government. The lion’s share of the remainder goes to the provinces and whatever’s left trickles down to the local governments. This is the reason why, for instance, the City District Government of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub, doesn’t have the money to invest in public transport.

With the inevitable urbanisation of Pakistan’s population, the only way to provide for its people is to plan for its cities. There is no other way to do this but to nurture and develop the capacity of local-government institutions. Calling off local-government elections, and that too indefinitely, is absolutely the wrong direction to take. It would have behooved the prime minister to have at least have made an assurance that polls would be held by a certain date. The holding of local government elections should be the reason – the driving motive, in fact – to improve the law-and-order situation in the country. Not the reason to call off polls.

In other news, has anyone noticed that neither the City District Government of Lahore or the Lahore Development Authority have announced their budgets for 2009-2010? The law requires them to announce and have their budgets approved at least once a year. What’s going on?

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.net.pk


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