Local Government Reform In Pakistan: Some Issues

The contents of this article are drawn from my personal experiences of working since 1971 in various areas of Pakistan under three different local government’s systems, some literature that I value, and important surveys that have been conducted to seek people’s views on governance issues in Pakistan.

According to surveys, the people of Pakistan, especially at the union council level, prefer Musharraf’s system as compared to the old bureaucratic one. Also, observation, research and budgets tell us that under Musharraf’s system large funds were transferred to the district and union councils. As a result, far more work on physical infrastructure projects at the local level was carried out in the last decade than ever before. Because of the devolution process, entrepreneurs at the union council level became councillors, nazims and naib nazims. They also became contractors and suppliers. An important and emerging commercial class, that did not have a voice in local politics before, started to determine development issues in their settlements. However, apart from being imposed by a dictator, the system had various other shortcomings.

The support that people have shown in the surveys for the union councils is related to the fact that direct elections were held at this level for councillors, nazims and naib nazims and as a result people felt involved and empowered. This is especially true for women who for the first time in Pakistan’s history became councillors in large numbers. The indirect elections of the other tiers have been criticised universally because they can be won through coercion, blackmail, and/or bribes. The seriousness of this issue can be judged by the fact that 2,293 votes were cast for the election of the Karachi Mayor who represents a city of 16 million.

However, under Musharraf’s system, there was a lot of nepotism in the allocation of development budgets. Villages and settlements that had been opponents of the nazim, or did not belong to his clan or ethnicity, were deprived of their rightful share of development projects. As such, development was unequal and there is considerable resentment concerning it. Under the old bureaucratic system, decisions on investments were, by and large, rule based. Under the 2001 system, the nazim decided. In addition, it is claimed at all locations I have worked in, that there was a lack of transparency in awarding contracts as compared to before. Profit margins in these contracts have also been substantially higher pointing towards a considerable higher level of corruption.

Under the pre-Musharraf colonial system, the Deputy Commissioner (DC) was all powerful. All development, law and order, land revenue and related issues were subservient to him. This system was developed in colonial times to guarantee revenue collection and to suppress social and political dissent. The two functions are closely interrelated. The post-colonial Pakistan state has used this system to effectively suppress democratic movements and eliminate political opponents. The 2001 Act by transferring the magisterial powers of the DC to the courts seeks to address this serious fault in the colonial system. However, in my experience, poorer people want the DC’s powers to be restored. They claim that going to the courts of law is difficult, expensive and time consuming. They also feel that the 2001 Act gives greater powers to the police and promotes corruption and coercion, and as such, insecurity in communities. In any case, containing and eliminating political dissent is now the job of the intelligence agencies.

Land is arguably the most important issue in Pakistan. The revenue department, whose district head was the DC, had powers to prevent land encroachment. Since the 2001 Act was enforced, there have been massive land encroachments in all the areas I have worked in. It is claimed by the locals that the nazims, their relatives and political supporters are actively involved in this. Land encroachment also took place before, but was curtailed because the DC had to function according to bureaucratic rules and regulations. The nazims had no such constraints.

Many physical infrastructure development projects made during the last 10 years have serious technical faults. The investments made in them have also been questioned as a waste of money. Many technocrats have agreed with these contentions and some of them have said that their advice was not listened to by their nazims. They have further claimed that under the old system they stood a better chance of being listened to. In addition, they claim that their organisations have become “non-functional” due to politically motivated and corruption related changes in important staff members and the hiring of incompetent personnel in large numbers. There is considerable truth in the allegations.

In the case of Karachi, other factors come into play. It is the capital of Sindh but only 14 percent of its population speaks the historical languages of the province and 48 percent speak Urdu. Meanwhile, the Punjabi and Pushto speakers put together constitute about 28 percent of its population. On the other hand, 66 percent of the population of the province is either Sindhi, Balochi, Saraiki and/or Brohi speaking. A strong autonomous city government will naturally be dominated by the Urdu speakers. This alienates the 66 percent and also the politically organised Pushto speakers who in such a system cannot easily access Karachi’s job market and commercial, health and educational institutions, or influence development related decisions regarding issues that affect their lives and communities. The 2001 LGO recipe has an inbuilt conflict between the province and the city. To resolve this issue requires clearly defined ethical parameters within which discussions can take place and also statesmanship, generosity and trust on the part of the protagonists, something none of them have.

Between elected representatives and the people, an effective bureaucracy and justice system is required that functions strictly according to rules, regulations and procedures and in the process holds public representative responsible and accountable, guarantees transparency and makes national assets available to all its citizens (men and women) as a matter of right. Only such a system can overcome the issues I have discussed above.

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