Need for local government


That would be the real democracy

Most countries with parliamentary democracies have a three-tier system of governance, with local governments being a pivot of the whole system. The constitution of Pakistan also envisages a three-layered system of governance in the country comprising federal, provincial and local governments. But it is painful to note that while the federal and provincial governments have been functioning un-interrupted both under civilian and military rules, it were only the latter who installed systems of local governments during their rules, though not as envisaged in the constitution but with the sole purpose of building support for their regimes at the grass-root level and to undermine the political parties. The elected governments that interspersed the military regimes remained criminally oblivious to this constitutional requirement. The consequence of this willful breach of the constitution by the so-called elected governments is that the state of Pakistan has, to a great extent, failed to provide the required services to its citizens and building a responsible relationship with them.

Ayub Khan created a system of basic democracies which he ultimately turned into an electoral college for the election of president in 1964. General Zia through Local Government Ordinance 1979 created a system of local government under which elections were held in 1979, 1983 and 1987 on non-party basis. He provided enormous funds to the local governments. In 1985, he held general elections on non-party basis for the national and provincial assemblies and pursuing a policy of appeasement, started the tradition of allocating Rs5 million to each and every member of national and provincial assemblies. The latter governments enhanced it to Rs50 million. The PML-N government has however curtailed it to Rs10 million in the budget for 2013-14. The local governments during Ayub and Zia era, however, operated under the patronage and supervision of the Deputy Commissioner and Commissioners and therefore remained under the strict control of the provincial governments.

The model of local government originally crafted by the National Bureau of Reconstruction during Musharraf era was probably the boldest initiative that conformed to the system envisioned in the constitution. It enhanced the powers of the elected officials of the local government and abolished the office of District Magistrate and Divisional Commissioners. This step also finally fulfilled the constitutional requirement under article 175(3) for separation of judiciary from executive at the district level. However, the PML-Q government installed by Musharraf defanged the system by changing some of its features and initiating a process of recentralisation of some of the development departments. Due to resistance from the legislators who had developed a vested interest in having development funds at their disposal and the most powerful occupational groups like DMG and Police, who had a big stake in ascendancy of bureaucracy over the elected representatives at the local level, Musharraf acquiesced to these changes dictated by political expediencies.

Regrettably, the moment democracy was restored as a result of 2008 elections, all the provincial governments abandoned the system and revived the archaic and colonial system of district administration. None of the parties ruling the provinces, in spite of crying hoarse from every convenient roof top to rub in their democratic credentials, never bothered to hold local government elections. What a shame?

Thanks to the petitions filed by the citizens in the Supreme Court and its consequent order to the provinces to hold local government elections by September that a ray of hope has been rekindled to empower the people at the grass-root level to manage their own affairs. Article 140A (1&2) stipulates” 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. Elections to the local governments shall be held by the Election Commission of Pakistan.”As is evident from this article the local government system envisaged by the constitution demands devolution of full powers to the local government, including development projects and the local administration, free from strangulating control of the provincial governments.

In pursuance of the Supreme Court order, all the provinces are in the process of enacting laws to establish local governments in their areas of jurisdiction. The media reports in this regard indicate that all the provincial governments are probably contemplating a system of local government which gives the provincial governments authority to control them. If it is so, the provincial governments will only be fulfilling the constitutional requirement rather than actually putting in place an effective system of local government benefiting the people at the grass-root level. The local government system can deliver only when social sectors are completely decentralised and service providers made accountable to the local elected officials; the local administration is run by the elected representatives meaning that the police and district bureaucracy is under their control; sufficient funds are allocated to the them and the dubious practice of giving development funds to the legislators is done away with.

It is encouraging to note that the federal government seems willing to devolve more powers to the local bodies. It is a good omen for the future of local governments in the country. In a briefing given by the Punjab chief minister on the proposed document for holding local government elections in the province, the prime minister directed the CM to devise a local government system which might devolve maximum powers to the grass-root level, resolve problems of the people and ensure prosperity.

It is essential that all the provinces are mindful of the article 175(3) which stipulates separation of judiciary and executive while devising the local government systems. This will also help in eliminating the ‘thana culture’ as promised by the prime minister and Punjab chief minister. Perhaps, it would be advisable to the PML-N government to convene a meeting of chief ministers of all the provinces with a view to evolve consensus on the adoption of a uniform system of local government which grants maximum autonomy to the locally elected officials in dealing with development and law and order, free from the debilitating impact of the archaic and colonial legacy of the district administration. If Nawaz Sharif can pull this through, he will be remembered in the history as a great benefactor of Pakistan.

The writer is an academic.


  1. sir you have elaborated and emphasized the local government election in a sequential manner but please do write about the future of these electoral bodies and functions.
    Abdul wasey from Balochistan

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