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Local Government System a Tool to Citizen’s Empowerment:
A CSO Perspective May 2008

History of Decentralization in Pakistan

Decentralization of power has been the mantra of the military regimes in the name of ensuring real democracy and empowering grassroots communities which resulted in series of local governance systems, named from local bodies to local governments. Each of the country’s military dictators, General Ayub Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, were the architects of Local Government System (LGS). It could cultivate partial ownership in the seventies and late eighties as political parties remained wary of them. The first Benazir Bhutto did prepare a new outline for LGS named New Social Contract but it could not reach the implementation stage. The current three-tier LGS topped the seven-point reforms agenda of General Pervez Musharraf which got incubated in National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB).
A brief history of the LGS in Pakistan is:

  1. General Ayub Khan introduced it as “Basic Democracies (BD)”. BD was the Electoral College for presidential election in 1960. It validated him through a referendum that led to abrogation of 1956 constitution, promulgation of 1962 Constitution and change to presidential form of government. The control of general administration, law & order and/or policing remained with civil bureaucracy.

  2. Civil ruler Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 1972-1977, promulgated a Peoples Local Government Ordinance in 1975, under which no elections were held.

1979- General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq revived LGS in 1979 through provincial ordinances. Local Councils were legally under provincial control. It had three tiers Union Council (consisting of villages), Tehsil Committees (Sub Districts) and Zila (District) Council. Similar to the BD scheme, general administration, law & order and policing remained under civil bureaucracy.

1988 to 1999 - Political space was shared twice each between Benazir Bhutto (1988 -1990 & 1994-1996) and Nawaz Sharif (1990-1993 & 1997-1999). During Benazir Bhutto’s tenure no LG elections were held. Whereas they were held across country in the 1st tenure of Nawaz Sharif and in 2nd tenure only Punjab and Balochistan held these elections.

1999 - General Pervez Musharraf through NRB introduced Devolution of Power Plan 2000 under federally promulgated Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2001 which was re-enacted provincially. It has three tiers i.e. Union, Tehsil and Zila Council. LG were the conduit to validate the Presidential tenure through referendum in April 2002.  This system, as oppose to the earlier, placed civil bureaucracy and administrative structures under the elected representative, i.e. Nazim.

Decentralization/ LGS has been a legitimacy gaining mechanism, predominantly for, military governments. The situation pre 2000, did not recognize women as an equal or necessary stakeholder in the process. The Devolution Plan 2000 redesigned the political landscape of Pakistan especially at the grass root level through a reformatory policy intervention under Local Government Order (LGO). This reorientation of Local government politics provided 33% reservation of seats for women through a combination of direct and indirect elections. This resulted in politico-cultural transformation of society as substantial number of women, 36000+ in first phase and 26,000+, entered the local politics arena establishing massive support from their families and dispelling the misconception non-existence of women in political arena is due to their own lack of interest.

The Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2000, provided 33% quota for women at the District, Tehsil and Union councils, thus, creating a critical mass of women councillors in Pakistan, which in itself remains an unprecedented event in the political evolutionof the country. This opened up not only an enormous political space but a strategic opportunity for women to make a difference in setting and implementing the agenda of local governments. With the devolution process, this level of government was expected to have the most impact on people’s lives and offered the greatest hope for social change. The basic question was how women could use this critical mass to affect public policy, particularly policies affecting gender issues especially related to poverty reduction, the biggest challenge in Pakistan and mainstream them selves in political arena. It is a known fact that women in Pakistan have always been more deprived than men; more than half are plagued by poverty of opportunities to income, health and education; and even where overall poverty of opportunity has been steadily declining, the male-female gaps have actually widened.

On empowerment scale this policy has provided women an opportunity to be socially acceptable in a public role. It’s a progressive step from earlier lip servicing initiatives to more concrete integration of women in political decision making as they were directly and indirectly elected rather being nominated. Economically, being a State functionary it is to provide some financial relief. Besides, there are various committees in LGS where women can be members and they also have an opportunity of access to development funds.

Local Government System: Conception to Standstill

Pakistan, 62 years down the road, is still in practicing net when it comes to democratic norms and institutionalization. The LGS in Pakistan, in all its iterations, has been controversial. The most recurring characteristics in all have been that (a) it never became fully functional; (b) it served to carve a civil constituency for the military ruler and (c) it had a disconnect from previous experience. Devolution of Power Plan 2000, despite all its stated vision, lacked on three counts i.e. (a) consultation with and recognition of political parties as major stakeholders and (b) time bound Constitutional Protection as an add on to the Provincial tier; and (c) implementation of a new model without Pilot testing hence resulting in too much too soon. These limitations restricted LGO 2001 from covering the envisioned governance deficit as it continued to be one step forward and two steps back.

However, the fact remains that the LGO 2001 has a detailed legal cover and anchoring. It is constitutionally protected under the 6th Schedule and is aligned with Articles 140 (A) and Principle of Policy 32 that support local governments and binds the State with a responsibility to encourage citizen equality and participation for its welfare. Amendments in LGO 2001 require previous sanction of the President after consultations with the Prime Minister in accordance with the provisions of Article 268(2) of the Constitution.

LGO 2001 was designed to ensure genuine people participation in bottom up developmental planning, improved service delivery mechanisms and promises checks and balances to safeguard against abuse of authority. It also provided an opportunity to make the political scene in Pakistan more broad based, participatory and improve upon the colonial rule experiences. Citizen Community Board (CCB) led social mobilization remained to be its developmental flag. LG had a four-year term, 23 members in every Union Council, which subsequently formed Tehsil and District councils. In its first tenure (2001-2005), the total strength of elected members was around 140,000, which was reduced to nearly 80,000 in the second tenure (2005-2009) as the number of councilors was slashed from 23 to 13 due to over-representation. The women representation remained at 33% . citizen

The federal incubator approach i.e. Federal legislation protecting it from provincial governments and political parties, led to its weak institutional acceptance and immunity to stand on its own two feet. Political parties took it as a conspiracy against them and for the Provincial governments it was an intrusion in their autonomy and administrative space; hence both remained suspicious to it.

Politically, the LG elections were largely indirect and on non-political party basis. Remaining suspicious of Musharraf regime major political parties landed their B-teams of close relatives in a bid to counter and contest the pro-Musharraf forces. The indirect election at District and Tehsil/Town level lowered the chances of emergence of new local leadership and resulted in elite political capture at the slots of District and Tehsil Nazim. A direct election for the top slots, as envisioned in LGO 2001, would have led to new level of local leadership, accountability and ownership.

An academic and paternalistic elitist approach is based on the notion that people are not equipped to know what is good for them; hence the bureaucracy has been ditching efforts at empowering the people. This was the first concerted effort to empower elected representative over civil bureaucracy and following a participatory approach model that involved communities in development process i.e. through Citizen Community Boards (CCB). It also attempted to improve governance by involving elected representatives in the monitoring mechanism and formalize informal Alternate Dispute Resolution mechanism through Justice, Arbitration, Security and Ethics Committees.

The Union Council, a grassroots organ of the local government, had limited authority, functions and autonomy despite being Electoral College to both upper tiers, Union Nazim (District Council) and Union Niab Nazim (Tehsil/Town Council). The monitoring mechanism of LG remained slow in its operationalization and effectiveness, e.g. the formation and activation of Local Government Commissions in each province, including the activation of Mohtasib (Ombudsman) office in each district, could oversee, integrate and orchestrate the local government functioning effectively. The air of uncertainty for LGS in 2008, affected the City District and urban districts administratively.

The biggest contribution of LGS, and its support programmes, is advocacy and awareness about the communal rights and their access through political means. It provided an opportunity to have the marginalized groups to have their own voice despite the fact that it remained weak but still far flung communities do relate to it as a system that “recognized them”. Rural areas had a better feel of its positive elements through tangible CCB projects and within reach local political leadership. People in rural areas at the Union Council level were more anguished by LGS suspension as the conduit to facilitate and resolve series of local issues suddenly went in vacuum.

LGS 2000 replaced 19th century colonial style of governance that abolished the archaic system of commissioners including deputy and additional commissioners. This abolition was the cardinal difference between the LGS of 2000 and all other models of LG.

The provincial governments brought the LGS to standstill under the audit requirement and by freezing development funds and taking over the power to dismiss and suspend the district government. The development funds are slowly being unlocked. This was the first dent on the essence of the system and a step forward for the provincial governments to centralize power. The bone of contention remains the centralization of power in the province which requires control over civil administrator and Police.

Post General Election 2008, the provincial governments have revived the abolished structure of Divisions under Commissioners i.e. 5 in Sindh, 6 in Balochistan, 7 in North-West Frontier Province and 8 in Punjab. Interestingly, in Punjab the commissioners have been revived after amending the Land Revenue Act, 1967, instead of the LGO 2001 under which they were removed. Unfortunately, weak and disconnected politician prefers to have the civilian bureaucracy calling the shorts as it provides them space to exert political influence and manoeuvring.

Citizen’s Empowerment under LGS: Opportunity to Performance

Pakistan is a status ridden society which is visible in its political overtures as well. Democracy is not an ultimate goal for Pakistani elite which brings in a divide between the middle class and the political class. The middle class is the recruiting ground for the civil bureaucracy and officer cadre of army, the so-called ‘state elite’ who hold many of the civilian bureaucratic posts once retired or as serving army officers.

The middle class is socially progressive but politically conservative. It controls the levers of power from outside parliament. Many people from the middle class migrated from India, are educated overseas and some even have dual citizenship. They are diametrically opposed to the feudal elements in Pakistan’s political culture, which dominates the politics of some of the major political parties, notably the PPP and PML. On the other hand, they are not necessarily interested in investing in the development of an alternative political society representing more ‘progressive and empowered’ interests. This middle class continues to adhere to a model of paternalistic rule within the framework of district politics. It finds local government institutions the right level for the public to participate in the business of the state. Hence, it supported local government reform 2000.

LGO 2001 has been defined by a Union Council Nazim in Haripur, NWFP, as “Easy load to the people”, meaning thereby that it has increased their access to rights. LGS 2001 despite having various options for citizen engagement and empowerment was subjected to “individualistic

Personification” i.e. of Gen. Musharraf as oppose to an “institutionalized service delivery mechanism”. The limited political and provincial buy in led to non provision of required socio-political scaffolding to LGS which had a multiplier effect post General Election 2008. The institutional fault lines remains to be separation of powers of Executive from Judiciary and revival of colonial reminiscent of civil bureaucracy i.e. over ridding the elected representatives which this system tried to address by formalizing the TORs for Local, Provincial and National Government i.e. satisfying local needs to the legislation, respectively.

The age old patron client relationship cultivated by the politicians as MPAs and MNAs came under the threat of being eroded along with their political base as the LGS would lead the voter to realign to an institution then an individual for socio-political and administrative service delivery that once strengthened could be responsive and accountable then them. Weak administrative capacities of the 3 tiers of LG and Nazims were played up by the non cooperative attitude of civil bureaucracy which resulted in further slow down of the governmental dispensation.

In contrast, the citizens' participation and empowerment through Citizen Community Boards (CCBs) reportedly showed better results in responding to the local needs. The community organization turning into CCBs gave the mechanism some share of credibility which came along its share of criticism that funds were granted to favorites then on merit besides being an elite and/ or contractor capture entities. Despite all odds the registered CCB figure stands now at approximately 42,000 which has been able to unlock approximately PKR 5.2 billion of development funds.

Largely, the critics of this system have said that the devolution of power makes the district police and the civil administration subservient to the elected local councils but the plan could not touch Pakistan's social and cultural peculiarities. With the installation of the local governments, the partial power was devolved to the locally elected representatives including decentralization of administrative and financial authority to local governments and the rest was robbed off during the process, which means that the partial empowerment created a new reality and if the system is given the opportunity to perform it will create wider ownership in times to come.

Future of LGS: Revival of Democracy or Bureaucracy?

Uncertainty of the future of LGS gained momentum when PPP and PML-N signed Charter of Democracy which ranged between major changes to abolition of the existing system. Change of government led to introduction of a Constitutional Reform Package (CRP) which hinted at scrapping to amending the LGS. The political alliance building issues at federal level led to delay in the CRP and the Provincial governments of the Punjab and  NWFP initiated major changes on the premise of deteriorating law & order, loss in revenue generation, want of transparency and  lack of administrative coordination. 

The Punjab government suspended district governments working, froze its funds and initiated an audit and has brought back Commissioners as dealing with 34 DCO is more of administrative hassle for the Chief Minister. Most of the financial irregularities were found at the Tehsil level. In NWFP, the office of District Coordination Officer was given back magisterial powers and Regional Coordination Officers (RCO) were appointed. The Government of Sindh lamented LGS to be parallel with over lapping powers among Provincial, District and Tehsil level which are against the Constitution. Balochistan was a Province where LGS could not even unfold to its fullest and its law & order situation became the basis for its demand to have the magisterial system revived.

Overall, the Magistracy and Revenue functions remain to be the contentious issues. Post General election, the ‘political color” of “A- political LGS” started to wear off as well. The perceptive and impressionist opinion making generated political debates regarding LGS, including media, but none has talked about the socio political cost of rolling back the LGS and/or need for an empirical field assessment to take such a decision. Interestingly, Nazim’s Local Government Association (LGA) in NWFP has joined hand and filed a Court petition in Peshawar High Court.

There are two streams of ongoing consultations which are expected to suggest changes in the LGS i.e. under Chairman NRB that reports to President and under Federal Secretary Local Government constituted by the Prime Minister that will submit its recommendations to the Cabinet. Both these streams are mandated to get the views of the Provincial Governments. Unfortunately both streams have no coordination between them.

NRB has been falling short of institutional legitimacy since its inception and its retention in current government has further weakened its acceptance level as lead on LGS. NRB is aligning with the Presidential directive, as was in Musharraf regime, to recommend changes for provincial re-enactment. It aims to introduce gradual improvisation focusing on financial transparency, empowered Local Government Commissions (LGC), revival of magistracy through DCO & Commissioners and to create District Civil Service cadre.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s taskforce is also targeting incremental changes in LGS to enhance its effectiveness and legal protection post provincial consultations. The committee does not recognize any role of /for NRB in this process. It also focuses on magisterial revival, accountability, improved municipal services management and Commissioners for development planning and coordination by recognizing the need based differences between the Urban & Rural districts.

The coming months would unfold recommendations of the both streams of consultation that will be re-enacted as LGO 2009. However, it remains to be seen that would it be put in Parliament for validation or would be consented by the President as was the case earlier. Assessment of both these streams is reflective of governance deficit at highest level which is under mining each other and capitalizing on its respective “contacts” with the political leadership to deliver the change. Hence it’s not surprising that Provinces have undertaken major structural changes in LGS confirming that its not legal provisions/ parameters but individualistic political whims that will lead the future of local governance.

Administrative control by civil bureaucracy is being considered more important then the rights of the elected representatives and role of citizen in development at LG level. Thus, elaborating that the need and opportunity for citizen engagement and empowerment remains valid because irrespective of the “system” the need of the people will stay to be addressed. Continuity is essential for political change and support for access to rights by the community.

Way Forward: Changing LG Scenario

Pakistan is in needs of friends in its transition to democracy and current economic crisis to improve its over all governance rating. The recently held Friends of Pakistan forum has prioritized four areas of support i.e. development, security, energy and institution building. Support to devolution in itself is a contribution to institution building. The current impasse should be interpreted as a positive development as the under lying factor is to give it an indigenous flavor by aligning itself to 
respective provincial socio-political needs. Community development would remain its critical element with improved law and order by having changed administrative coordination and management mechanisms.

LGS is under going challenging times, but its complete roll back should not be an option because the political space created at the grass root level through elected representatives is creating an upward pressure on their parties for its existence. The elected governments have recognized the validity of LGS as a mechanism to create and manage areas of power influences - be it in their favor or against. Continuation of LGS, 5 -1 0 years, would ultimately create the pressure on political parties to internally democratize and strengthen the democratic practices and institutions.

Pakistan is a nation of 180 million with 117 districts – each having its own peculiar need and complexities. One shoe fits all formula can not be applied to it as it demands creation of customized institutional models of growth. Most importantly, the LGS may not have been able to solve all problems in a perfect way but it has created awareness in community about their rights and responsibilities to the system as well as of their local representatives towards them. It is no more novel that a community questions their elected representative, development work and or asserts organized pressure against an unjust action at local level.

The patron-client relationship of Pakistani politics has also taken another turn at local level by increased access to local representative as compare to MPA or MNA which are difficult to access. The participation of women has also contributed to widening of the political space as well as their structured input in to political decision making and social acceptance in political arena.

On the administrative side, the role of the civil bureaucracy is expected to get a re-carving. This may not be similar to as it was, but may lead to a hybrid which is acceptable to both politicians and bureaucracy. Pakistan is facing multiple crises - economic, political and security that does not allow it to under take experimentation hence reverting to a time tested system is the best option. The situation may come to a point where magistracy, revenue, land management and development activities are pushed under the control of the civil bureaucracy but it can not ignore the fact that times have changed and community involvement and empowerment can not be deleted by a stroke of pen.

There are strong pressures from civil society, locally elected representatives and international agencies to retain citizen engagement and empowerment through the LGS that has led to formalization of social capital through CCBs. The elected representative preferred them as it offered technical competencies to build their systemic capacities for effective structures of local governance.

LGS ability to create demonstrable models for government, community and local civil society with limited financial resources has added to its credibility, which is a new political paradigm. The issue of access to rights and related accountability at communal level has become inalienable hence it warrants protective support.

CCBs should not be scrapped but worked towards new Terms of Reference. It is not prudent for the government at any level to invest in new experiments as they should focus to establish best practices as political governments are running against time and want immediate results. The entry points created through LGS can be used to further the social protection programmes of the donors as well as economic support programmes of the government such as Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP); and support Pakistan Census Commission, Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal, NADRA, etc to collect village and Union Council level data to develop baselines to map 
vulnerable and marginalized groups and undertake the veracity of both established need and earlier collected data.

LGS has yielded result and been effective for communities based empowerment, therefore, it should continue with the option of re-programming and re-alignment post in-depth stakeholder consultation rather then creating new opportunities or scrapping the social & technical investment that has gone in developing LGS as an institution and effective tier of governance.

Devolution in Pakistan: reform or regression, a report by International Crisis Group (ICG), 22.03.2004, Islamabad