Intrigues keep Sindh’s local government system in doldrums

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Karachi: The lack of a well-defined local government system is taking its toll on Karachi, the economic hub and the largest city of Pakistan.

In last week of January the residents of Clifton gathered outside the Bilawal House demanding from the Sindh government to clear heaps of garbage lying in the area and improve the sanitation system.

Five months ago, residents of slums situated on the outskirts of the city protested against a three-month-long drought in their area. Their demand was to get water at least once a week.

Earlier in April 2014, similar protests erupted in Banaras and Orangi and grew so violent that the police had to use batons and tear gas to control the mob.

In July 2014, the Sindh government restored the old Commissionerate System, revived under the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 1979, but its functioning remains handicapped because a local government has not been elected into power for political reasons and loopholes in the Sindh Local Government Act 2013.

A retired bureaucrat who served as the Secretary of the Local Government Department, Ghulam Arif told News Lens Pakistan, “The law, under which local bodies election are to be held, does not clarify whether the provincial or the federal government will be the appellate authority.”

He said it did not provide clear rule for conducting the election since there were frequent references to ‘prescribed laws’ in it.

“This means pre-existing laws. There are no pre-existing laws except the Local Government Ordinance of 2001 towards which the current commissionerate system is totally counteractive,” said Arif. “Moreover, the current metropolitan bodies are not even truly independent. This means the current local bodies function with their heads cut off.

The Local Government Ordinance 2001 referred to by Arif was introduced by the former President Pervez Musharraf.

Non-partisan elections were held in 2001 and then in 2005, however, according to a paper by Pildat, political parties were involved in every step of the election. In the first election, Naimatullah Khan of Jamat e Islami was elected as the city Nazim while in 2005 Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Mustafa Kamal was elected on the post.

“The system was introduced to decentralize democracy via making districts and union councils and, thus, the City District Government Karachi was established,” said a lawyer, Zameer Ghumro while talking to News Lens Pakistan. ”However, the mayors had too much power and directly approached the Centre for funds while by-passing the Sindh government.”

Since the rule of a dictator couldn’t be legitimized through parliament, non-partisan local government elections was a way to establish his authority by breaking up powers of the provincial government, remarked the Director of Pakistan Studies Centre at Karachi University, Dr. Syed Jaffar Ahmed.

Under this ordinance, city district governments in Hyderabad, Jamshoro, Sukkur, Larkana, Jacobabad and Dadu were formed. Meanwhile, town administrations were set up in other areas.

Karachi’s five districts were merged into one district and the two lower tiers comprised of 18 towns and 178 union councils.

In 2011, the City District Government Karachi went bankrupt and was unable to pay salaries to its 80,000 employees.

Going back and forth

 Later on, Sindh government led by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, with Nisar Ahmed Khuhro as acting Governor, decided to revert to the old local bodies system of 1979, better known as the commissionerate system.

The city governments in Karachi, Hyderabad, Jamshoro, Larkana, Jacobabad and Dadu were abolished.

“There will not be any district Nazim now and we will get rid of the town system,” Khuhro had said on the occasion. “When the ordinance was issued, there was no local government system in place. The decision was taken unilaterally by Musharraf just to legitimize his own tenure.”

A sub-provincial tier of government, divisions, which had been abolished under Musharraf’s local government were brought back to life and handed back to commissioners.

The move did not sit well with PPP’s coalition partner Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which raised a hue and cry over ‘going back to the time of the British Rule’.

Thus, began a long chain of negotiations between the PPP and MQM, the former having its stronghold in rural areas while the latter with its power centres in Karachi and other urban centres of the province.

A ‘middle ground’ was reached by the two parties, resulting in the Sindh People’s Local Government Act 2012, a mish-mash of the commissionerate and township systems, less than a year before the general elections were held in May 2013.

Under this system, district councils were set up in 18 districts of the province while metropolitan corporations were established in other five districts — Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Mirpurkhas and Larkana.

“It was a formula for power sharing by two parties. The opposition and other coalition partners too rejected the ordinance,” said a former Secretary of Election Commission of Pakistan, Kanwar Dilshad.

Indeed, after the ordinance was passed by the Sindh Assembly amid protests, provincial ministers from the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional and Awami National Party had tendered their resignations.

The protests had spread to other areas of the province where nationalist parties blocked highways to protest against “division” of rural and urban areas of the province.

Then in February 2013, the Sindh Assembly adopted another bill to withdraw the SPLGO 2012 and restore the local government system of 1979, again leading to vehement protests by the MQM.

“The fight is, of course, over the control of resources in Karachi,” said Jaffar Ahmed.

Local government elections

In July 2013, the system was given legal cover by the newly-elected Sindh Assembly by issuing a notification for restoring the local bodies system under the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 1979 and abolishment of town administrations under the 2012 law.

Metropolitan corporations were subsequently set up in Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur and Larkana with district councils in other districts.

Five districts in Karachi were restored with deputy commissioners who looked after the municipal corporations in their areas.

However, full implementation of the system, especially revival of municipal corporations in cities except Karachi, required representatives elected via a local government election, another contentious issue for PPP and MQM, said the former Secretary of the Provincial Local Government Department, Dr. Mustafa Sohaq.

He said all preparations for holding an elections had been completed in December 2013, however, the process was halted after the Sindh High Court struck down delimitation of a several constituencies carried out by the Sindh government.

This led to an amendment in the Sindh Local Government Act 2013, in December 2014, under which the appellate authority for redrawing constituencies became the Election Commission of Pakistan. In the earlier version, the power of redrawing constituencies was with the Provincial Government, led by the PPP, according to the document available with News Lens.

Apart from that, there are many other serious flaws in the law, said Hassan Nasir of Democracy Reporting International.

The most glaring gap was confusion over procedure for selection of directly-elected candidates of municipals, towns and union committees, and union councils.

Moreover, he said, the law did not clarify whether the Sindh or the Federal Government would be the authority on pertinent matters.

On the other hand, Jaffar Ahmed, believed that certain shortcomings were to be accommodated to enable the democratic process to continue. He said local governments had earned a bad name in Pakistan because their only purpose had been to lend legitimacy to military dictators.

He said if the process was allowed to go forward, it would gradually ensure accountability, no matter how flawed the system might seem at the start.

“When people from the neighborhood are elected and live around the ones who elected them to the local bodies, they will be bound to deliver,” he said.

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