NationalVolume 12 Issue # 11

When local government is hardly local

The Punjab government has promulgated a new ordinance to control local governments in the province. Under the new law, all public representatives, elected at local level, have the least possible administrative and financial authority and will work under the bureaucracy, ensuring that all powers remain in the hands of the chief minister.

Under the Civil Administration Ordinance 2016, district coordinating officers have been replaced by deputy commissioners. A commissioner will be the in-charge of general administration and the principal representative of the government in a division. A deputy commissioner will be the in charge of the general administration and principal representative of the government in districts while assistant commissioners will do the same job at tehsil level. The commissioners will supervise and monitor duties of the deputy commissioners in divisions and coordinate the work of all offices and public facilities in divisions. A deputy commissioner will wield the same authority over assistant commissioners in districts. The government may appoint one or more additional commissioners in each division and one or more additional deputy commissioners in each district from officers who will serve under the general administration and control of the commissioner.

The deputy commissioners will be able to hold court sessions in criminal cases as justice of the peace. The monitoring of all development projects in a district will be ensured by deputy commissioners. Their other duties will include consultation with police heads to safeguard peace and be responsible for the lives and properties of citizens. The deputy commissioners have been empowered to call the leader of a local council at any time for an inquiry. They will also monitor the performance of mayors.

According to the opposition, the Civil Administration Ordinance is against the constitution of Pakistan as local governments have been deprived of their due rights by it. Since local governments have the constitutional cover, the opposition urged the government to empower them by implementing the concept of devolution of power as per its spirit and requirements. According to experts, the ordinance also violates the Punjab Civil Services Act and the Police Order 2002. Under the new system, the civil and police services of the government will be at loggerheads for powers and it will add to problems of the public. The new system, instead of delivering and resolving public issues, will further confuse them.

People have pinned high hopes on their local representatives to resolve their problems at grassroots level, but they will soon realise that the provincial government has deceived them in the name of devolution of power. Powers are devolved to people through local elections all over the world. However, the provincial government in the Punjab, which was not willing to hold the elections from the outset, made amendments to local government laws to retain powers with itself. The Sindh government of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also adopted the same modus operandi. Both provincial governments delayed the elections until they had changed the spirit of the law. They are not willing to surrender their resources and have amended laws to control local governments. Local representatives will realise in a few months that they are powerless and they will have to take to the streets for their rights. In fact, local government ordinances in both provinces are against the spirit of the devolution of powers.

The PML-N and the PPP made several excuses in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to avoid local polls for almost 10 years. It is a pity that both mainstream parties, which have ruled the country for several decades, do not want to devolve power to local level, which is the essence of democracy. The Supreme Court had to intervene to remind politicians of their responsibilities to the people. The PML-N wanted to avoid polls because it feared PML-Q-backed city nazims and councillors could influence the voting, whereas the PPP has a proven track record of avoiding the elections. According to experts, the PML-N and the PPP had delayed the polls to get a better chance to exploit its weaknesses. In the meantime, they started their homework and selected most suitable candidates while other parties lagged behind.

Under the law, it is the responsibility of the provincial governments to hold local government polls within three months of the general election, but it has not happened since 2002. In Pakistan, legislators want all powers and development funds for themselves. Councillors and nazims are their enemies as they share powers with them and become more popular at local level. The new ordinance in the Punjab is a replica of the 1979 system introduced by General Ziaul Haq. The local leaders cannot take independent decisions and have to depend on bureaucrats’ approval. Besides, the government has empowered itself to dissolve local governments.

According to experts, the newly-elected local representatives will realise in a few months that they lack powers to resolve public problems at local level, because district councils and municipal and metropolitan corporations would be directly managed by the provincial government through the bureaucracy. Elected representatives will have nothing to do with any provincial department. The police will also remain subservient to MNAs and MPAs. A district council chairman or a city mayor will merely be removing encroachments, managing graveyards and approving building plans. It will also frustrate voters. The situation will force them to launch a movement for their rights. The fight will become interesting if the opposition parties support them.