After dilly-dallying for years and postponing them at different pretexts such as the unsatisfactory law and order situation, the local government elections were finally held in Punjab in 2015. There is no doubt that the provincial government was reluctant to hold the elections and conducted them only on the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP). The previous government had also adopted the same policy and stayed away from setting up the LG system. The apex court had reprimanded the government for not taking the issue seriously and avoiding fulfilling this constitutional obligation.
It was in the first week of January 2017 that the local governments became functional in Punjab, as an entire one year had been spent in completing formalities and electing mayors, deputy mayors, district council chairmen, etc. On one fateful day, the Town Hall in Lahore was all decked up for the local government representatives from the city to come and take oath. On the occasion, fiery speeches were made by the speakers that included Lord Mayor Col (retd) Mubashar Javed. The representatives vowed to change the fate of the city and provide services to the masses at their doorstep.
But what has happened over the year is totally the opposite, and the local government is nowhere to be seen. Its representatives are found in every Union Council (UC) but their role is ceremonial. Instead of serving their people they are avoiding them, and the reason is that they hardly have any powers or budgets in their control to play a role.
Secondly, the functions they performed in the past now fell in the domain of the many provincial authorities and companies — something that is against the spirit of local governance.
Talking about the main issues, Muhammad Mujtaba, a former UC member, tells TNS that the local governments are there but not in their true spirit as defined under the Article 140 A of the Constitution of Pakistan which states: “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”
Mujtaba says that the administrative authority is limited and the funds don’t exist, which paralyzes the system. He says that when he was part of the system, in Musharraf’s time, every UC would get separate funds and all the members including councillors, naib nazims, and nazims would participate in the budget-making process and identify development schemes in their respective areas. “Today, the chairman of a UC does not want to share anything even with his vice chairman, especially the accounts.”
This estrangement between the chairmen and vice chairmen came into limelight when the latter staged a sit-in outside the office of the City District Government Lahore (CDGL) and demanded authority to check the UCs’ accounts. To quote UC 233 Vice Chairman Shahbaz Jafri, “There’s trust deficit as well as apprehensions regarding the UC chairmen making money out of development schemes. That is why, the vice chairmen are asking the authority to check accounts.”
The third week of December last turned out to be quite eventful as hundreds of councillors from Lahore announced a protest against the provincial government under the platform of the Councilors’ Unity Lahore.
Interestingly, most of these councillors belonged to the PML-N. They demanded the government to amend the Local Bodies Act of 2013 and give clearly defined powers to the councillors so that they could solve the problems of the people of their areas directly. Their charter of demands included those related to provision of funds, establishment of offices for UCs, powers to check rate lists of basic commodities, binding the officers of utility services to cooperate with them regarding issues of their UCs, etc.
Salman Abid, an expert on local governments and executive director of the Institute of Democratic Education and Accountability (IDEA), says that the establishment of provincial authorities has hardly left any function for the local governments to perform. He gives the example of how there are provincial entities to manage cattle markets, solid waste, food business, and so on. Also, health and education authorities have been set up in every district with the representation of bureaucrats and members of parliament which is totally against the spirit of local governance.
Khawaja Ahmed Hassaan, Adviser to the Punjab Chief Minister, and a UC Chairman, agrees that there have been issues about powers and funds for local government but claims that they are close to finding a solution. “Multiple consultations with stakeholders have been made in this regard and meetings arranged with Manshaullah Butt, Punjab provincial minister for local government, in order to work out a solution to their problems. I believe solutions can be worked out amicably without going through the lengthy process of legislation.”
Amid all these protests, the Government of Punjab has approved Rs11.831 billion for local governments in the province. The local government representatives, especially those from opposition parties, believe that these are being given at the behest of the ruling party’s MNAs and MPAs to their favourites for the election year. The purpose, according to them, is to influence the voters and buy victory for the PML-N in the next general elections.
Anwar Hussain, President, Local Councils Association of Punjab (LCAP), says that the local governments seem “totally helpless when compared with the ones set up during Musharraf’s regime.
“Today, the UC members cannot even issue late registration certificates as these have to be approved by several government officers before issuance.”
Hussain insists that the members of national and provincial assemblies want development funds to spend these in their constituencies by themselves, whereas their function shall be legislation. Because of this, they exert control on government funds and the local government ends up with very little.
“Recently, the Government of Punjab carried out a cleanliness drive in villages which cost Rs25 billion. This has angered the [local government] representatives. Their point is that instead of incurring this one-time huge cost, the provincial government should have distributed it among the local governments.
“With this money, they could have bought trolleys, vehicles, and other equipment for use on a permanent basis for solid waste management,” he concludes.