Collapsing Local Governance

Recent floods have exposed the capacity of the state to govern, especially at the local level. The disintegration of local state is not a recent phenomenon. The continued experimentation with and frequent strangulation of local governance arrangements have led to a situation that Pakistan’s burgeoning population is now without a representative, accountable local state.

Erosion of state writ: Three historical trends are noticeable for their impact on the overall governance and the writ of the state. First, centralisation is a tendency that is most attractive to those who govern Pakistan at the federal and provincial levels. The post-colonial Pakistani state has retained the official obsession of controlling power and patronage at the top and denuding the local space for democratic development and sound mechanisms of accountability. Secondly, granting local autonomy has, by and large, been a smokescreen for powerful military governments to bypass provincial politics and control the levers of state and society from above. Thus, we have an established pattern: local government experiments flourish under authoritarian regimes and get undermined whenever democracy, a la Pakistani variety, returns. Finally, the constant denial of a responsive state at the local level has led to erosion of state legitimacy and the void has been filled in by mafias, politico-criminal gangs and militant non-state actors.

While the 2001 Ordinance empowered the local governments and led to some improvements in service delivery, the abolishment of executive magistracy led to a complete collapse of social regulation functions of the local state. The local and special laws that require ‘executive’ action and on-the-spot enforcement (food adulteration, public hygiene, forests, public nuisances etc.) slid from partial enforcement earlier to a wide-ranging non-enforcement. Data is difficult to gather in a secretive and fragmented public sector culture but media reports have cited numerous instances where flagrant abuse and violation of local laws and regulation has taken place. In addition, the non-enforcement and later subversion of Police Order 2002 further compounded issues of local governance. Partial implementation of 2001 reforms has after a decade reached willful non-implementation without alternative arrangements. Lack of police accountability and demolition of executive magistracy have had grave implications.

Service delivery: The recently published Social Audit Survey 2010 revealed that over the period 2002-2010 (during the functioning of the local government bodies), all, considered indicators had improved (level of satisfaction had increased). These included ‘sewerage and sanitation’ (25 percent from 12 percent), ‘water supply’ (39 percent from 18 percent), ‘health’ (33 percent from 23 percent), with marginal increases in quantifiable ‘satisfaction’ for education and drinking water. The replacement of the local government bodies has been criticized for a lack of empirical evidence against their functioning, and the lost potential during the relief activities associated with the super-flood that has hit Pakistan. However, the more worrying aspect of this provincial conundrum is the slow pace with which a relatively successful system that has been scrapped is being replaced. The void being created by this sluggishness is adding to the deficient capacity of the state to provide adequate services to the country’s population, something that has been aggravated and brought to the fore by the ongoing crisis.

Conceptual fallacies: It is unfortunate that most analysts in Pakistan tend to focus on the centre and the top level governance arrangements with little attention to where the state is most relevant: in the remote villages and qasbas, in small towns and union councils. Lack of fair mediation and negotiation of citizen interest means traditional power structures remain intact and prosper at the expense of public interest. Even the hyped lawyers’ movement (2007-2009) focused on apex justice institutions and paid scant attention to issues of subordinate courts, local dispute resolution and above all social justice. The discourse remains locked in the conventional wisdom: fix things at the top with ‘good individuals’ and institutions will auto-correct. This approach to institutional development is akin to the failed and discredited trickle down theory whereby economic growth gains are somehow supposed to reach the poor.

Old wine in new bottles: With the lapsing of temporary constitutional protection on 31st of December 2009 provided to the Local Government Ordinance 2001, the PPP-led government abolished the National Reconstruction Bureau (which had introduced the local government system in 2000). In this context, Punjab and Sindh are yet to enact local government laws, while Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have enacted the new legislation which essentially reverses the reform achieved in 2001 and reverts to the bureaucratic led, provincialised management of local governments. In Balochistan, the bill named “Balochistan Local Government (Amendment) Act, 2010? has now been passed. The Act provides for deletion of the sub-section (4) of Section 150 of Balochistan Local Government Ordinance 2001 which calls for holding of local governments elections every four years. It also empowers the provincial government to appoint administrators in districts and towns/tehsils vice nazims and restricts it to hold local councils’ elections within a year. Even if all the legislative frameworks are completed in the next few weeks, the provincial governments are likely to cite floods as a logistical constraint against the holding of local government elections.

Governance vacuum: In Sindh, PPP and MQM face a deadlock between divergent positions, whereby the PPP wants to curtail the powers of the local governments by enforcing the LGO system of 1979, whereas, the MQM favours the empowered local governments in the light of the SLGO 2001. The effectiveness of local government bodies in KP has been stalled by successive crises and parliamentary ineffectiveness. The largest part of Pakistan, the Punjab with a population of nearly 10 crores is being managed by district coordination officers acting as administrators in place of Nazims. Further, the revival of the commissioner’s offices in the province has led to another layer of bureaucracy with no provision for citizen participation. With the province and the federation passing to and for the responsibility of holding elections in the province, the Lahore High Court has issued a notice to the province to get its act together and resolve all pending issues. There is a draft law which is being debated by the provincial government, which is a hybrid of 1979 and 2001 models of local government.

Urgent need to engage communities:
In the aftermath of the floods which have affected more than 20 million people through the destruction of crops, livestock, infrastructure and residential facilities, it is necessary that reconstruction activities invoke community participation. Involving the affected community in reconstruction not only provides a direct stake to the affectees in reconstruction abilities (thereby, adding the element of ownership to such projects), but also utilizes the resource pool present in the community, in turn creating income-earning potential for those who have lost almost everything in the floods. However, the lack of elected tiers of local government will impede this process. In the immediate term, the options are limited. Thus the role of community organisations and their networks becomes quite significant.

Rural Support Programmes: Grassroots organisations such as Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) are uniquely positioned to exploit their already established local networks. Over the years, the RSPs have been able to acquire intense leverage in rural populations through their programmes of social mobilization. Community mobilization involves the formation of male and female community groups at the village level, and their indigenous management of interventions aimed at rehabilitation. Such an approach can enhance the role of target communities in reconstruction activities of the government and other stakeholders in their respective areas. Given the fact that the flood-affectees will be hard pressed to acquire seeds for sowing at the prescribed time in the context of a dearth of residual resources, such income opportunities will be more than welcome. Involvement in rural reconstruction will also take the pressure off urban centers which promise the flood victims little more than absorption into the already bulging informal sector of the economy.

The provincial governments – especially Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – face an uphill task of restoring livelihoods and arresting discontent. More importantly, after the 18th Amendment they have a huge responsibility to make the local state functional not through unaccountable bureaucrats but through elected representatives. This is vital for their credibility and legitimacy in the medium term. Therefore, the local government legislative frameworks need to finalized immediately and local elections should take place. In the meantime, they should ensure that the local civil society, communities, media and other stakeholders are fully involved in the reconstruction process. Reports on rewarding the favourites and impairing aid flows are potentially disastrous for the future of democracy given the relentless attacks on the political elites these days.

Finally, to curb terrorism, enforce local regulation and to improve services (including post-flood relief and reconstruction) the local state must work. There is no other option.

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