Local Government Reform in Pakistan: Some Issues

My talk is derived from my personal experiences of working in various areas of Pakistan (mostly in Sindh and its capital city of Karachi), some literature that I value important surveys that have been conducted to seek people’s views on governance in Pakistan, and press reports. I will not provide details of the devolved system in Pakistan. I hope that that will already have been done by Mr. Daniyal Aziz and Ms. Shahina Hanif. I will only deal with issues that have surfaced as a result of the devolution process as I have experienced them.

Before coming to the issues, I would like to sum up devolution in Pakistan. It has made the old bureaucratic system subservient to elected representatives at all levels of local government and dissolved it from the province to the district. Except for the lowest rung of government (union council), elections to Nazims and Naib Nazims (mayors and deputy mayors) are indirect. Magisterial powers that were vested in the District Commissioners (DCs) have been transferred to courts of law.

According to surveys1, the people of Pakistan, especially at the union council level, prefer the new system as compared to the old bureaucratic one. This is in spite of the fact that they are unhappy with governance as a whole. Also, observation and research2  both tell us that far more funds have been transferred to the district and union councils than ever before. This has been made possible because of devolution. As a result, far more work on physical infrastructure provision has been done. Because of the devolution process, entrepreneurs at the union council level, have become councillors, nazims and naib nazims. They have also become contractors and suppliers. An important and emerging commercial class, that did not have a voice in local politics before, are now determining development issues in their settlements and constituencies. At the same time, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. I list the more important ones below:

  1. Local government under the constitution is a provincial subject. However, the 2001 Local Government Ordinance (LGO) was promulgated by a military government and imposed on all the provinces. Political parties were not taken into confidence. No public hearings preceded the preparation of the policy. As a result, when democracy returned to Pakistan, elected officials and senior bureaucrats called for the abrogation of the law. Three provinces, out of four, decided to revert back to the old system. In April 2010, the 18th amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution was enacted. Local government are mandated under it as a provincial subject but the structure (administrative and financial), are not provided for it.
  2. The strength of the union councils is because of direct elections for the councillors, nazims and naib nazims.  The indirect elections of the other tiers have been criticised because they can be won through coercion, blackmail, and/or bribes. The press has reported this extensively and I have personal experience of some cases. The seriousness of this issue can be judged by the fact that 2,132 votes are cast for the election of the Karachi Mayor. Karachi is a city of 16 million. A number of eminent Karachiites have claimed that they would have contested elections if they had been direct. Karachi would have benefited from their knowledge and understanding of the city and its linkages with other parts of Pakistan.
  3. Although there has been a lot of development work (as a result of the new system), research, observation and press reports tell us that as compared to development under the bureaucratic system, there has been a lot of nepotism under the new system. Villages and settlements that have been opponents of the nazim, or do not belong to his clan or ethnicity, have been deprived of their rightful share of development projects. As such, development has been unequal and there is considerable resentment concerning it. The reason for this is that under the bureaucratic system decisions on investments were, by and large, rule based. Under the new system, the nazim decides. In addition, it is claimed at all locations I have worked in that there is a lack of transparency in awarding contracts as compared to before. Profit margins in these contracts are also substantially higher pointing towards a higher level of corruption. Maybe this is because of an increase in the number of actors in the development drama.
  4. Investments made by the nazims at all levels have been on visible physical infrastructure. Investments on social infrastructure have been comparatively less. The reason for this is simple and I do not need to elaborate on this. As a result, very little improvement has taken place in the development of social sector infrastructure.
  5. The bureaucratic system sought legitimacy by involving CBOs and NGOs in the decision making process. Much of this was “window dressing” but the CBOs and NGOs felt “good” about it.  The elected representatives do not need to involve CBOs and NGOs because they claim that they represent the people since they have been elected by them “to take decisions”. Due to this reasoning some important citizen-government monitoring committees have been dissolved.
  6. Under the old system, the DC was all powerful. All development, law and order, land revenue and related issues were subservient to him. He had magisterial powers to deal with crime and social and political conflicts. As such, there was a powerful nexus between him and the police. This often resulted in victimisation of the opponents of the establishment. By transferring the magisterial powers of the DC to the courts, this has been curtailed. 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 new system (in the absence of the DC’s magisterial powers), gives greater powers to the police and promotes corruption and coercion, and as such, insecurity in communities. I do not know if the increasing police-community conflict all over Pakistan has anything to do with this issue.
  7. Land is an important issue in Pakistan as in other countries. The revenue department, whose district head was the DC, had powers to prevent land encroachment. Since the new system was enforced, there have been massive land encroachments in all the areas (both rural and urban) 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 have no such constraints.
  8. 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 constant changes in important staff members and the hiring of incompetent staff. Both these problems are said to be “politically motivated” for political and financial gain of powerful individuals in the political and local government systems.
  9. In the case of Karachi, all the above factors have come into play. It is the capital of Sindh but 48 percent of its population is Urdu speaking, 14 percent Pushto speaking, 14 percent Punjabi speaking and only 9 percent Sindhi speaking. It contains 33 percent of the total population of Sindh and 62 percent of its urban population. 71.4 percent of the fixed assets of the Government of Sindh are located in Karachi. As such, with the creation of the City (District) Government Karachi (CDGK), it was natural that a conflict between the province and the city would ensue. This conflict is still unresolved and bitter. In addition, the Urdu speakers are represented by the Muttehida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party whose origins are based on ethnicity; the Pushto speakers are represented by the Awami National Party (ANP) who is the ruling party in the Khayber Pukhtoonkhwa Province; and the Sindhi speakers are represented by the Pakistan Peoples Party which is the majority party in Sindh. The MQM being the majority party controls the CDGK. Consequently, there is a major battle for turf between these different entities although they are partners in the Sindh government. In this conflict, not only the Sindh provincial government but also the political parties of Khayber Pukhtoonhkwa Province and Sindhi Nationalists Party are involved. They all accuse the CDGK for bringing development to the Urdu speaking areas while ignoring the areas inhabited by other ethnicities. The case of Karachi points to the problems of the relationship between a provincial government and its powerful city, and between the different elements that constitute the city itself. The 2001 LGO failed to understand and deal with these very complex issues.

The above factors are really about legitimacy, consensus creation (rather than the majority deciding), transparency and accountability. In short, this is about the nature of the executive and the extent of its power in making the elected representatives responsible. An alternative to the executive are institutions of participatory governance. This last option would take three to four generations to build. In my opinion, the old system can work and deliver provided appropriate rules, regulations and procedures are developed and provided the institutions to oversee and implement them are created.

  1. Shehzad Arif et al; National Survey, October 2008 and March 2010: Local Government System: Citizen’s Perceptions and Preferences; The Urban Institute, May 2010.
  2. Ali Cheema and Shandana Khan Mohmand; Decentralisation and Inequality in Pakistan: Bridging the Gap that Divides; Lahore University of Management Science; November 2007.

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