Local Government in Pakistan | A Historical Perspective

Decentralization is a popular theme of the modern world. It is being widely accepted as a symbol of good governance and political modernization as well as an indicator of the quality of democratic process. Indeed, a democracy works when all people including the most marginalised ones participate in the process of governance, have capability to ask questions and seek accountability. For Third World countries, it is an indispensable pre-condition for social, economic and political development, stability and national unity.


A true democratic setup has, as its integral part, an efficient, effectual and transparent system of local governments which, on one hand, work as a linkage and agency between the central and provincial governments, while on the other, keep animated and intact the essence of Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”


A democracy is successful only when it involves the fullest participation of all segments of society in the matters of administration and decision making thru a consolidated and effectual local government system. The local government system is thus, in essence, the administration and management of a given locality extending from a division, subdivision and district to Tehsil, Union /Rural Councils by the elected representatives of those areas.

In modern states — whether unitary or federal — the need for a local government is so necessitated that for an effective control over various units, divisions etc., and measuring up to the aspirations and needs of the citizens, governments make local bodies more and more powerful and the powers are devolved to the local level so that the state citizens are provided the best of facilities and amenities within the shortest possible time. Another striking feature of the local government system is that people of a particular locality or town or city elect, amongst themselves, their representatives to deal with the issues of common people. Thus, “the only,” as G.K Chesterton remarked, “purely popular government is local, and founded on local knowledge. He advocates this view because in his opinion, “The citizens themselves can rule the city because they know the city.” Local governments attend to the pitfalls and problems as well as the jeremiads and entreaties of people keeping in view their sensibilities and tastes.

History in the Subcontinent

The local government system in the Subcontinent has its roots in the early history of the region as Megasthenes in his “Indiaca” — wrote in around 302 BC — identifies local bodies as “Gram Parishads” which later assumed the nomenclature of Panchayat. Panchayat literally meaning “group of five,” existed in almost every other village in the subcontinent, comprising the elderly members or rather landlords and upper class Hindus who wielded fairly greater influence on the rest villagers and were given the carte blanche to adjudicate and arbitrate in their mutual disputes.

In his famous book, “Discovery of India,” Jawaharlal Nehru wrote:

“The institutions of local self-government have been the integral part of Indian society from ancient past. As mentioned in the ‘Rig Veda’ , the oldest written text of India’s recorded history, village communities known as ‘Sabha'(assembly)/’Samiti'(Committee) across the Indian sub-continent were self-governing over millennia.”

During Mughal rule in the Subcontinent, many a reform was introduced in every field of life. However, it is to be noted that panchayats were not interfered in. They, however, suffered a setback during British rule as imperial interests of the foreign rulers demanded a powerful central control.

Acts Introduced during British Raj

With respect to Local Governments a number of laws were enacted from time to time such as:

i. Conservancy Act of 1842
ii. Municipal Act of 1850
iii. Resolution of 1854 which was passed with the word of acknowledgement “People of India are perfectly capable of administering their own local affairs.”
iv. Ripon’s Resolution
v. Government of India Act 1919: one of the novelties of the act pertaining to the LG was the transfer of local self government to be administered by Indian minister.
vi. Government of India Act 1935: Under this Act, provinces were authorized to legislate with respect to the local bodies. As for urban areas, Lahore Corporation Act 1941 was enacted.

Local Government in Pakistan

After Pakistan got independence from the British raj in 1947, following developments regarding the Local Governments took place in the country:

1. Basic Democracies (BD)

It is said that it was Ayub Khan’s dream to have a kind of “guided/ controlled” democracy to be espoused in Pakistan. He wanted to do so by doing away with the traditional parliamentary setup — Ayub Khan contended in his “Friends not Masters,” that this system had met fiasco to such an extent as to vindicate our conviction that it no more be imposed on people. Thus, shortly after seizing power, he came up with his own brand of local government entitled as BD system which comprised four-tier structure:

For Rural Areas

(1) Union council; (2) Tehsil/Thana council (3) District council and (4) Divisional council

For Urban Areas

(1) Union committee (2) Town committee (3) Municipal Committee (4) Municipal corporation
It is to be noted here that the members of these BD members were also assigned a constitutional role of electing the president of Pakistan and the members of National and provincial assemblies. Notwithstanding its aims and objectives, this system failed, and couldn’t help being turned into a democratic facade to an autocratic structure.

2. People’s Local Government

As a result of 1970 election, PPP rose to power and in view of its manifesto, the government spearheaded by Bhutto took revolutionary steps. The uniform structure of local government was promulgated through a presidential decree in 1972. Like its predecessor, it too was classified into two groups:

For Rural Areas

(1) Dehi Council (2) Halqa Council (3) Zila Council.

For Urban Areas

(1) Town committee (2) Municipal committee (3) Municipal corporation

Besides government also initiated a scheme known as People’s Works program which was destined to furnish people with basic human facilities. However, these reforms were never put in place, neither were the elections for LGs held.

3. Devolution of Power Plan 2001

With the ouster of Nawaz Sharif after a military coup, Gen Musharraf took over as the Chief Executive of the country. He came up with a “Seven-Point Agenda,” for steering Pakistan out of multifarious crises. For this purpose Local Government Ordinance 2001 was issued. The plan to devolve powers to the grassroots level was seen as a good omen. The Ordinance also sought the replacement of bureaucracy by the popularly elected representatives.

Enforced with effect from August 14, 2001, this programme envisaged a system comprising

(1) District government, (2) Tehsil/Town government, and (3) Union Council government. At the district level, the Nazim assisted by Naib Nazim and district council was made the executive head, with all the district authority vested in his person. District coordination officer (DCO) stripped of most of hid powers, was tasked to coordinate and assist Nazim. Exactly the similar structural changes were made at the Tehsil level where Nazim was assisted by Tehsil Municipal Officer (TMO).

There is no denying the fact that to a greater extent, this LG system went in pursuing its objectives. But, indeed much was left to be achieved. Moreover, the actual working of the system necessitated many reforms. In 2008, this local government system was wrapped up by the new ‘democratic’ rulers, and the reason hurled for its abolition was simple: “It was a dictatorial creation meant to legalize Musharraf’s rule.”


Now it is almost seven years since the democratic setup took roots and the transfer of the power from one democratically elected government to the other had also taken place. However, despite Supreme Court verdict in this regard, the clamour from various quarters of society and much hue and cry from various political players, the dream to form local governments is still elusive. Our rulers must formulate an extensive policy and programme, through legislation, for the enforcement of an effective local government system, to devolve the maximum power to the lower level as it is the only panacea to strengthen democracy in Pakistan ergo making Pakistan a true welfare state as reamed by the founders of Pakistan.

By:Farrukh Aziz

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