Our local government problem

Shahmir Hamid

The military has promoted grassroots democracy and stifled political activity, whereas civilians have resisted devolving authority and espoused democracy

Our local government problem

Local governments have always been an inherent part of our governance system. Before the arrival of the British in India, there had been an elementary system of ‘panchayats’ and ‘village heads’ in the rural areas that had been operating on an ad hoc basis for centuries. But the modern local government system was introduced to the subcontinent by the British during their colonial rule.

The move was initiated right after the 1857 War of Independence when the British government took direct control of state affairs from the East India Company. This was a time when dissatisfaction and dissent was on the rise against the British rule and a system was required to ascertain complete administrative and financial control over India. The objective of the system was to concentrate power in the hands of the local landlords and revenue collectors who acted as patrons to the British rulers.

This ‘patron-client’ relationship was to act as the source of suppressing conflict, relaying information and collecting land revenue and taxes from the rural areas. This unfortunate legacy has lingered to modern day Pakistan.

Local governments have come to be used as an instrument of exploitation and manipulation from that era when the colonisers introduced the system in the name of self-government and set aside the traditional structures of governance in order to co-opt the native elite, to the military dictators who used the system to create a loyal political constituency to gain legitimacy. Since then the system has not been used to strengthen democracy but in fact to weaken it.

As far as civilian governments are concerned, it is a more or less accepted fact that civilians have always seen local governments as antagonistic because they mean a dilution of their own power, authority and available resources. Political parties have focused on local government the least because they have historically been rooted in provinces. They come to power with provincial autonomy in mind and the call for province-structured governance. The 18th amendment to the constitution was a culmination of that struggle.

The conclusion one may draw, is that it is not local government per se that holds the key to successful democracy in Pakistan but how the power balance is shifted.

Moreover, the prevalent feudal structure of the legislative assemblies means that politicians do not want to lose their influence on their rural fiefdoms and therefore actively resist grassroots democracy.

The only incentive for elected governments to stay engaged with local levels is to attempt to control local government development programme and use them for wielding influence and the preferred way to do this is through an unelected and pliant bureaucracy. If a genuine and effective local government system were to be implemented, the groups most certainly threatened would be the bureaucracy and the provincial and federal legislators. Currently the legislators hold development funds, and they get elected not on ideology or policy agenda, but based on the claim that they would carry out development in their constituencies.

If an effective local government system were implemented, members of parliament would lose this clout. If powers were shifted towards the local government, the locally elected leadership would have the power to nominate a member of parliament instead of vice versa. Similarly, the bureaucracy has historically held vast powers in the districts and civilian governments have nearly always put local administration in the hands of the district bureaucracy. They form a nexus of power with the political class, which would break if an effective local government were put in place.

There is a fine distinction between a local government system and a municipal one that has often been confused. Pakistan inherited the Government of India Act 1935 as its structure of government after partition. The Act prescribed a two tier federation with municipal bodies at the grassroots level as opposed to a third tier of local government. The 1973 constitution ‘encouraged’ the creation of local bodies and it was not until 2001 that they were made mandatory under the law through the addition of Article 140A to the constitution.

The ways this has been manipulated is something we are seeing even today.

The absence of a genuine local government would be an understandable indictment of democracy but even its presence in various eras has not strengthened democracy and, it may be said, has even been instrumental in weakening it. In fact, the various forms the local government has taken over the years are symptomatic of the illness that assails democracy in Pakistan but not the cause.

This is because of the paradoxical relationship the local governments have had with military and civilian dispensations in Pakistan. The military has promoted grassroots democracy while simultaneously stifling political activity, whereas civilians have resisted devolving authority while at the same time espousing democracy at the federal and provincial levels.  In both cases democracy has not taken root as an organic process and local government has remained a tool in the hands of vested interests.

Moreover, neither the military nor the civilians have gained an advantage from this tool. Military governments have not been successful in gaining legitimacy or a loyal constituency from their versions of local government. Civilian governments have remained vulnerable since the fruits of their version of democracy have only reached the pockets of a few. The vast majority has remained dissatisfied, disillusioned and ready to welcome any messiah that would save them from the corruption, mismanagement and the injustice that prevails.

The conclusion one may draw, therefore, is that it is not local government per se that holds the key to successful democracy and good governance in Pakistan but how the power balance is shifted, and which amongst the influential stakeholders is in control.

The local government system is hostage to vested interests and the real stakeholders, the people of Pakistan, have no say in the matter. It is a constitutional right of the citizens of Pakistan and one that can play a definitive role in strengthening democracy and good governance in the long term. But for that the power has to rest with the people.

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