London was jubilant after making Sadiq Khan the Mayor of London on May 7, 2016. Khan brings hopes for the working class in that important British metropolis.
While Londoners had a reason to celebrate, those amongst us who believe local empowerment is a genuine approach to development and good governance, also empathised with our brethren in that city.
Prospects for local government are less than promising in this part of the world. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has laid stress on empowering local governments in provinces where they have been formed and creating the same where they are yet to take oath of offices as per procedures.
While hearing various cases in April 2016, the apex court has cautioned that local governments without appropriate administrative and financial powers would not be able to deliver the services to people for which they are constitutionally mandated.
While the Supreme Court is right on the target, as always, the provincial governments do not seem willing to change their respective positions. In Sindh, where the local government matters have been most acutely contested, the provincial government is busy promulgating laws and arrangements that give maximum powers to newly formed provincial bodies.
We now have a Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, Sindh Mass Transit Authority, Sindh Building Control Authority, and provincially controlled Karachi Water and Sewerage Board. The status of the present local government act and other statutes inform that when constituted, these local bodies would have virtually no powers and no administrative jurisdiction to deliver according to the constitutional mandate provided in Section 140A.
The Mayor of Quetta, Dr Kaleemullah Khan Kaker, has been engaging with Balochistan government to obtain rightful budgets and authority to undertake his usual tasks. Last year, he was made to protest the slashing of Rs80 million from the usual allocation. And in Lahore, the existence of local government is totally eclipsed in the presence of an all-encompassing Punjab government.
At present, many institutional arrangements are at work to undertake development work. Provincial departments, donor-supported new institutional outfits, directly extended projects/programmes by the donor agencies and left-over federal or autonomous bodies are some examples.
Despite the well-intentioned approaches of respective managements, the outcome seldom benefits the respective sector. For example, the Punjab government has instituted ‘companies’ to manage various urban and municipal tasks. Expensive consultancy assignments, more costly moots and meetings as well as consultative processes are done in a bid to evolve physical and visible outcomes of development.
The impact of this approach at the city level is huge. Whether Lahore or Multan, mega projects of big scale are in abundance. It is disappointing to note that rent seekers descent down on provincial government administrations to sell their ventures. With a lack of vision and primordial understanding about local problems and issues, bureaucrats swiftly surrender and accept whatever is doled out to them.
No local political vision of any kind exists to question the validity or otherwise of these unsustainable and costly development doses. The chief of Sindh Solid Waste Management Board was reported as consulting Chinese experts to learn about how to lift garbage from various locations in Karachi.
He may be advised to consult scores of valuable researches and studies done in the recent past that outline the issues and remedial measures under the auspices of erstwhile city district government and the defunct Solid Waste Management Department of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation.
Managing urban waste does not need rocket science; it needs basic institutional arrangements at the municipal level with effective supervision and monitoring.
Whereas the country is urbanising fast, the preparedness to deal with the essential matters is weak. Absence of qualified and competent technical human resource is a big issue. With the passage of time, infrastructural bodies and technical departments have not been able to replenish cadres of engineers, technicians and foremen that have either retired or left the jobs for better prospects.
Besides, the job conditions and routes of hiring are anything but desirable. Many water and sanitation agencies in our cities do not even possesses the capacity of contract management, leave alone in-house capability of operation and management. It may be remembered that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by international financial institutions under the head of capacity-building and similar fancy nomenclature.
But these programmes end up in the form of costly foreign trips, short courses in expensive overseas institutions or a plethora of workshops and seminars abroad. The presently executed rapid transit project in Karachi is a case in point. It is believed to cost over Rs160 billion but shall only cater to less than ten per cent of passenger trips.
One questions the validity of such an expensive proposition against various low-cost options, such as increase in the number of large buses, comprehensive maintenance of roads, regulatory control on the rise in private vehicles and incentivising travel using public transport modes.
A chronic problem that has marred the functioning of local bodies is the inability to generate revenue from their respective sources. Whenever instituted, the local governments soon fall under the financial tutelage of provincial and federal governments. True, the local government acts had prescribed several avenues of taxation to generate funds through a variety of formats but they were not applied.
Absence of political will, weak taxation culture, poor capacity of tax collection and limited innovation in revenue generation are some points in this respect. As the local governments have spread out functions to perform, they have to be totally dependent on the federal or provincial transfers. In urban areas, the untapped resource basket is very large and diversified.
Property tax, motor vehicle tax, conservancy, betterment, infrastructure and many other avenues can be focused and expanded. A true local government can only function as a potent tier if it becomes capable of generating its own revenue for its expenditure. Time demands a full-scale discourse amongst the political parties to formulate consensus on this vital tier of governance for implementation and management of service provision and development work.