Mani Shankar (March 16, 2010) Daily Times

Listening to Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Indian diplomat, turned politician and columnist, at the Mohatta Palace lecture series on a Sunday evening, one couldn’t help but co-relate it with many political and economic issues of Pakistan.

He spoke at length about Rajiv Gandhi views on the importance of grass root democracy – a subject he has dealt with in his book “India after Rajiv”. Mani, who is a great orator can speak with facts and figures for hours without any written notes. He said that Rajiv thought of introducing ‘Panchayat’ system because he felt that some 5000 elected members of Lok Sabha and State assemblies cannot truly represent over 1.2 billion Indians. That means one representative for every 240,000 Indians. It is not possible for the common man to reach his/her representative, Rajiv told Mani. After the introduction of the Panchayat system by Rajiv, India has 250,000 Panchayats and around 3.2 million elected representatives at the village level, which includes 1.2 million women. Which means a representative for every 375 Indians.

Now let’s look at the Pakistan representation ratios before we analyse  the resistance to the grass root democracy in Pakistan by the national and provincial level leaders and the bureaucracy. Before the local governments were dissolved on completion of their tenure we had 144,223 elected representatives – meaning one representative for every 1144 persons of Pakistan. This is a pretty good representation level. In the absence of the local governments we are represented by 1270 members of the federal parliament and provincial assembly. So the ratio of representation has shot up to 1:129,921 and that is pretty bad for the people.

In spite of all the criticism one can say that two major positive changes were made in the Musharraf devolution system: One, it gave 33% representation to the women, although the last figures show only 27.6% seats were held by them in the local governments and around 17% in the federal and provincial assemblies. Still it was a step ahead towards women empowerment. (In India the congress has moved a law to reserve 50% seats for women, which has been passed by the upper house. Mani says that in India in some ‘Panchayats’ the  women representation is already 50% and above).  And two, it had put the local bureaucracy under the elected representative, which  irked the former. I had the opportunity of attending a couple of seminars on devolution issues last year. The critics main charge is that much of the development funds were lost to corruption. The question then arises will there be less pilferage of funds if everything is left with provincial elected leaders and their crony bureaucrats? Indeed nobody can swear of these gentlemen’s honesty! The fact is that while the electorate cannot reach the national and provincial assemblies members and hold them responsible for their local problems, they can corner their local government member who lives down the lane. If they are not attended they would not elect them the next time.

The trouble is that all elected governments in Pakistan have undermined the role of the local governments and all military dictators had given their own devolution system. Why? Elected governments problems is that the national and provincial assembly members do not want to share the powers with the local representatives. Although local governments representatives are asset of the political parties at the grass root level. Globally the parties which perform well at the local government level are difficult to be defeated in national and provincial elections. Notwithstanding this fact big boys feel that the local government dilutes their power base. What these politicians and political parties fail to recognise is that the democratic set up without sound local governments hangs in the air. In this crime of marginalising the local bodies the provincial and federal elected members are abetted by the bureaucracy, these ‘Babus’ do not want to serve middle class elected members at tehsil, town and district levels.

Undoubtedly Musharraf’s devolution was not perfect. For that matter no constitution is perfect either. Such laws evolve with time and have to be dynamic.

On the other hand the military dictators, who dissolve the national and  provincial assemblies create local bodies system of their choice thinking it would be their loyal political lobby. In this country some times rulers do the right things inadvertently or for wrong reasons. The major fault of Musharraf’s local government system was that it by-passed the provincial governments and was directly dealt by the central government. The present government can take this credit that it has returned local bodies law promulgation to the provinces which honours the provincial autonomy spirit. But the fear is that the provincial governments are now trying to cut the powers of the local governments in the revised law. Isn’t it something they despise when the center tries to usurp their due powers?

Devolution of power to the local level along with the capacity to raise revenue localises the problems and grievances. The prime ministers and chief ministers are not held responsible for the failure in gutter and garbage management. Most of the day-to-day people’s problems are related to local administration and infrastructure. While working hard to amend the constitution to purge the clauses inserted by military dictators and give more provincial autonomy, parliamentarians should also make it mandatory for the provincial government to hold elections of the local government within 90 days of the completion of their tenure. Major parties should keep in mind that to strengthen democracy it should have stakeholders in every tehsil and town. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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