Strong local government needed (Daily Times)

Inclusive democracy sans local governments is a mirage

By Babar Ayaz

Demand for a separate ‘Mohajir Sooba’ (Province for Urdu-speaking immigrants from India), 15 people killed in firing on a rally against Mohajir Sooba demand, assassination of Muzaffar Bhutto a Sindhi nationalist leader and murder of seven persons in ethnic killing by the Sindhudesh Liberation Army in the span of a week’s time have shaken the people of Sindh. The way people in Pakistan have become gradually used to political terrorism and killings, I am not quite sure all this has alarmed the rest of Pakistan as it did those in Sindh. A question that is haunting the people here is: Is Sindh slipping out of the government’s hands like Balochistan?

The adversarial relations between the Sindhis and Mohajirs have always simmered in this province. The friction had started reducing in the last few years particularly since MQM dropped the ridiculous nomenclature ‘Mohajir’ and started calling themselves as ‘Urdu-speaking Sindhis.’  But the tussle between PPP and MQM for control over Karachi and Hyderabad has been going on behind the scenes since this government came to power; in spite of the fact that both parties are part of the ruling coalition. The third contender for the share in power has also emerged after the 2008 elections and that was ANP representing around four million Pasthun population of Karachi.

In this backdrop the wall chalking demanding division of Sindh and creation of ‘Mohajir Sooba’ has flared the simmering fire. Though officially MQM has distanced itself from this demand and has spoken against division of Sindh, it has admitted that its leadership is under pressure from its workers to support ‘Mohajir Sooba.’ So the tacit support to the cause cannot be ignored.

This brings us to the question: Why a Mohajir Sooba demand now? Empirical evidence and analysis of Sindh politics shows that this demand has emerged mainly because of three factors: One, the discussion of creating new provinces has been initiated in the country. And this time it looks serious because both major parties – PPP and PML (N) – have supported the division of Punjab; two, PPP and MQM are still haggling over power sharing within the province which has delayed the local government elections. (But now Sindh High Court has mandated that local governments elections should be held in three months — so no more time left); and three, the PML (N) alliance in Sindh with Sindhi nationalists has increased pressure on PPP not to give in much to MQM. It is almost like the same pressure which PTI is exerting on PML (N) in Punjab which has pushed it to play the role of a hawkish opposition.

The crux of the problem is that unfortunately, all the military dictators have relied heavily on the elected local governments for support because they strike down the provincial and federal representative system. On the other hand whenever there has been an elected democratic government in the country they have disbanded the elected local governments. With all its faults local governments system given by the Musharraf government was a good initiative. Undoubtedly, the major defect of Musharraf’s local government system was that it imposed from above. While the provinces were not given their due rights, the federal government imposed the system. But now when the provincial autonomy issue has been settled to a large extent, thanks to the 18th Amendment and 7th NFC Award, the provinces should hoard the powers with the provincial governments. The argument that it was imposed from above has withered away. Under this system two elections were held and most issues were localized reducing friction among different linguistic groups.

So what’s the hitch in giving an effective local government system? The main problem is that the bureaucracy, who was made subservient to the local Nazims, was not happy. They disliked the local government system which made them accountable to elected representatives. The provincial and national assembly representatives did not like emergence of local power pockets. Although in many cases local Nazims and councilors were their own scions or protégés. Interestingly, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar’s paper on Inclusive Sustainable Development in India ‘Panchayat System’ was also resisted by the same forces.

The local government law is yet to be agreed between PPP and MQM. This means that they will have to agree with sharing power at the local level. Initially, in Sindh MQM was pushing for the local government bill but its senior coalition partner wanted to cut the local government powers and its control on the bureaucracy so that provincial government has a more say in local matters. Control over Karachi, the goose that lays the golden eggs, is crucial in this tug of war. But now with the court order the issue cannot be postponed for long. Hence the pressure tactics is getting intense and one lever is the ‘Mohajir Sooba’ demand.

In a survey conducted by AC Neilson sometime back it emerged that the provincial leaders and the bureaucracy is also concerned about “the devolution of authority for policing; discretionary powers in by-laws enforcement; and administrative control over land registry and revenue collection. In many regions of the country, this has accentuated existing tendencies toward elite capture and contributed to a deterioration of law and order and increased crime.”

 The elected provincial officials and bureaucrats have openly supported the idea of abrogating the 2001 LGO and return to the 1979 LGO. They base their case on the problems caused by bureaucratic subordination to local elected politicians; deterioration of law and order and the inability of local governments to enforce laws and regulations. This is a bogus argument because law and order has deteriorated in Sindh in the absence of local governments and has not improved.

ACNielsen survey findings show overwhelming support for maintaining control of service delivery in local governments. Only a small minority support federal or provincial control. This finding contradicts the statements from some provincial authorities that the “general public” wants the local government system to be rolled back. The survey results suggest the exact opposite. “In the provision of household services, the tehsils did not fare well—the respondents favored a strong role for the union councils …The survey results suggest that citizens want more localized service provision, which would lend support for going back to local governments for each urban place by reactivating the town and city governments. Another policy-relevant finding was with respect to the role of the union councils. On almost all measures of accountability, access and responsiveness they received the most positive mentions of any level of government. Despite the fact that the unions do not provide any social services or household services, by virtue of their frequent face-to-face interactions with their community they appear to play a key role in representing citizens’ concerns and resolving specific problems with higher levels of government.”

The major political parties that are in the federal and provincial governments know that their popularity is dwindling owing to the incumbency factor. Consequently they are reluctant to expose themselves to the local government elections, lest they lose most of the tehsil and union councils. But they fail to recognize that most of the common man’s priorities, as the survey shows, are of gutter and garbage management, safe drinking water, improved education system, better roads and healthcare facilities and local law and order. And these priorities are in that order. These basic amenities can only be best delivered by an elected local government.

Simultaneously elected local governments would provide sound foundation to the democracy that is hanging in the air. They can help in mobilising the political party’s local workers and galvanise them to counter extremist ethnic elements in their respective constituencies. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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