On Friday 20th December, CPPG organized a seminar on “Power to the People: Elite incentives and Devolution in Pakistan.” There were four main panelists, Dr. Ali Cheema Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS, Dr. Sameen Mohsin Assistant Professor of Political Science also at LUMS, Mr. Ahmad Iqbal, former Chairman District Council Narowal, PMLN and Mr. Bilal Rao, a Management Consultant and Member of PTI Policy Team. Dr. Saeed Shafqat chaired the event.
Dr. Ali Cheema initiated his talk by explaining the pros and cons of the new local governance system. He argued that a lack of demand for reforms in local governance from the citizens is one of the main reasons why the system continues to by dysfunctional. Article 140-A in the new act of PLGA 2019 gives more autonomy to the provincial assemblies without defining any boundaries for empowerment. He further contested that every government wants to shape local governance act in its own way and fails to learn from previous mistakes, which is contributing to our inability to progress. Four big challenges have to be faced and revised in every act. Any particular act has to devolve a meaningful set of functions to local government rather than presenting precarious assignments of the functions which the current act does efficiently. Moreover, it must have an improved fiscal plan where tax collection should come under local governance for the provision of basic facilities. The taxation base was joined to local governance in Britain and basic facilities were provided through local taxation. While Pakistan’s administrative and other main functions like taxes are given to provincial governments hence removing any possibility for accountability. He concluded that the political elite of Pakistan is a very closed political elite, which gives little room for local reforms. Hence, the future of local governance depends on the extent to which this elite is open to reform.
Dr. Sameen Mohsin talked about the importance of public participation led by donors. The absence of elections within the party system creates a party elite. Local governance challenges and sidelines this party elite. She contested that the Bureaucracy favors the formation of local governance for managing functions but at the same time it fears being deluded of its autonomy and power. The current act of 2019 stands in favor of this undue power as it gives magisterial power to the Deputy Commissioner and all administrative authorities have been given to Bureaucrats. The PLGA 19 seems very ambitious in its goals but it fails to address the need for training for electorates of local governance. Similarly, it does not address the necessity of educating the voters about their rights and responsibilities. She appreciated the increase in women’s representation and desolation of separate electorates for them. This zipping in the move would help in creating a more inclusive environment for women within parties but how it is going to happen, is still a question not addressed.
Mr. Bilal Rao talked about the application of an improved version of KP’s local governance reforms 2013 to Punjab in 2019. He explained the current government’s approach towards learning lessons from previous reforms with few other additions. The formation of village councilors was highly successful in their previous tenure in KP as it restricted the appearance of traditional representation and made new faces to come to the surface. The three important moves which were added in PLGA 2019 include the direct electorate, improving the urban/rural divide, and improvement of city governments. Union Councils were further divided into smaller units for the creation of an organic community atmosphere. Moreover, the idea of vertical growth was adopted which favored the power of Mayor over LDA, WASA, waste management, etc. The funding was increased to approximately 437 billion Rs in Punjab for local governance. The Finance Commission was made to send funding directly to the prescribed areas or councils. The power was transferred from district to tehsil level for better administration. He did acknowledged the need for further improvements in the act. The power to D.C has to be revised with more authority to be given to elected representatives. The Chief Officer must report to the Mayor and the mayor should be held accountable.
Mr. Ahmad Iqbal spoke about the importance of local governance for the prevalence of democracy. He said that local governance is taken as a footnote and undercover area which makes the foundation of democratic building weak and feeble. Much of the experimentation in local governance has been brought by military rule for self-cover. This creates a sense of insecurity within political parties for its application as political parties always have had a conflict with this system. The year 2013 was the first time when elected parties embraced the local governance system. He further declared a necessity for the political struggle for bringing major local governance reforms. The PLGA act of 2019 presented similar features of 2013 with new packaging as far as the creation of neighboring councils is concerned. Punchayat and Village Councils act is made separately from the local governance act which is promoting the clan-based system rather than strengthening the party-based system. If the government is serious about empowering councils, it did not have to make new laws. Education and health institutions are taken on an independent level, which is favoring the rise of the political elite. The law has many loose ends that need to be revised. He felt that the government further weakened the local government officers instead of strengthening them. He emphasized that every government must respect the mandate of the other one. It should let their tenure complete and funds should not be stopped. There is a need to take local governance as the main prerogative for democracy. Therefore, there should be a charter for all parties for local governance constitutional reform as democracy is the real motive.