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The Punjab factor

Punjab is a major test case for the PTI as far as local government bodies are concerned

The Punjab factor

Recommendations for the new local bodies’ system have been finalised by the Punjab Ministry of Local Government and Community Development (LG&CD).

The current local bodies’ system in Punjab was established under the Local Government Act, 2013. Called the third tier of administration, local government is protected by the constitution and facilitated by legislation in the provinces.

More than 58,000 candidates in Punjab were elected in the local bodies’ election held in 2015. However, all elected council members and mayors are dissatisfied for not being empowered under the said law. Even the local projects in big cities, such as Lahore, were being controlled by companies established by the former Punjab government.

Under the finalised recommendations of the PTI government, “Mayor and deputy mayor would be elected directly and on party basis, 30 per cent development budget would be given to local bodies’ institutions, city mayor would manage municipal, health and education departments, and fresh delimitations would be done in the province before new local bodies’ election”.

Like the local government system of 2001, the powers of over 20 departments will be transferred to district governments. Besides, the new system is being designed to give powers to executive magistrates to enforce laws to handle encroachment, recovery of municipal taxes and bills, and profiteering.

The Punjab government wants to introduce this new system in the first quarter of 2019. Senior Minister Punjab and the Minister of LG&CD, Aleem Khan, claims that the new system would be flawless and unique. “The Punjab government and the concerned ministry have completed the task assigned by the Prime Minister Imran Khan. After the approval by the Prime Minister, the new law would be presented in the assembly for final approval,” he says, talking to TNS.

At present, an overwhelming majority of mayors and local council members in Punjab belong to the PML-N. Chairmen of 32 out of 36 districts belong to PML-N.

Three options are under consideration of the government to implement the new system. First, to amend the current local bodies’ system and empower it with new recommendations. Second, to hold election after abolishing the current system. And, lastly, to suspend the finances of local bodies’ institutions till the completion of their tenure.

The Punjab government has taken the last step as first by suspending all the funds of general councilors, mayors and district chairmen. This policy has panicked representatives of local bodies. They have decided to resist government’s policy of putting off funds and the expected step of abolishing the current system before time. Different groups of local bodies’ representatives have started conducting meetings to chalk out steps to resist government’s policy.

“The steps the PTI government is taking against local bodies’ elected representatives prove its conformist and anti-change approach. The policy to halt funds clearly indicates the intentions of the government,” says Pir Ghulam Mohyuddin Chishti, district chairman Vehari.

“Ninety nine per cent of representatives do not want elections before time, therefore, we will resist at all levels if the government tries to abolish the present system and goes for new local bodies’ election,” he adds.

“The government can turn the present system into a productive one by empowering local bodies’ institutions. The PTI can set a precedent by taking such steps for the upcoming governments,” he adds.

Besides, representatives of local bodies express serious concerns about the PTI government not holding local government elections if it abolishes the present one.

“The practice of taking U-turn can be manueuvered by the same bureaucracy that did not let PML-N’s government bring local bodies’ system back in place for seven years,” says Qalandar Shah, district chairman Bahawalnagar. “The bureaucracy always wants to keep all funds and power under their control,” he says.

“Non-political elements always desire to have an upper hand. The bureaucracy has always resisted whenever preceding governments have decided to give public representatives authority over civil servants, complete control on funds and to write an ACR (Annual Confidential Report)”, he adds.

The Punjab government is committed to conducting the direct election of Mayor and Deputy Mayor. The mayors shall be elected directly with the entire district as the Electoral College and not the House, considering they may be in a position to deliver better.

Direct election means a candidate for the office of Mayor will cover the whole district. Hafizabad district, with the population of 1.1 million, is the only district in Punjab which has one MNA (member of national assembly) and two MPAs (members of provincial assembly). Normally, many districts have two MNA and four or five MPA seats. Sargodha and Bahawalnagar have 5 MNA and 10 MPA seats each, Sialkot 5 MNA and 11 MPA seats, Multan and Rahim Yar Khan 6 MNA and 13 MPA seats, Gujranwala 6 MNA and 14 MPA seats, Rawalpindi 7 MNA and 15 MPA seats, Faisalabad 10 MNA and 22 MPA seats, Lahore 14 MNA and 30 MPA seats.

Direct election to the office of Mayor and Deputy Mayor is a costly proposition, “The system PTI wants to introduce is not for the middle or lower middle class. It is for the elite class. The government is, in fact, going to facilitate the ruling elite which couldn’t become part of the current parliamentary system,” says Engineer Muhammad Raza Sargaana,” district chairman, Khanewal.

The PML-N has dismissed the current recommendations presented by the Punjab government through the media. A meeting of senior officials was chaired by Hamza Shahbaz, the opposition leader in the Punjab Assembly. They have announced to counter these recommendations in the streets and decided to approach the court as well.

“The government’s step to halt funds of local bodies’ institutions is condemnable. The PTI is introducing similar local bodies policies as given in 1958, 1962 and 1979. They are more focused on the composition of local bodies’ institutions but not discussing the functions, financial structure, and political empowerment of local bodies’ system,” says Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan, former spokesperson of PML-N government in Punjab and member provincial assembly.

“We will welcome the government if it empowers the present system and lets it complete its tenure. Otherwise, we will resist it at all levels,” he concludes.

An expert on local bodies system, Anwar Hussain, says the law does not hold any provision under which the current local bodies’ system can be suspended or terminated. The PTI government has to introduce a new law to terminate it.”

Read also: Duality in Sindh

“The government has not introduced any official proposal yet. Both the Local Government Ordinance, 2001 and Local Government Act, 2013 are under consideration by the government so that an acceptable devolution-based system may be introduced,” says Hussain, Executive Director Local Councils Association of the Punjab (LCAP).

“The resentment regarding conducting direct election cannot be ignored. Besides, it is still not clear whether the DCOs will remain independent as the contemporary system is or work under the mayor,” he adds.

Shehryar Warraich

The author is a member of the staff

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