The PTI government is according top priority to reforming the local bodies with a view to enabling them to resolve the problems of the people at the grass-root level. Reportedly Prime Minister Imran Khan presiding over a high level meeting held to review the local government system on Monday asked the concerned committee to present its recommendations within 48 hours. The resolve to reform the local government system is a pragmatic and much needed initiative.

Most of 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 government. 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 regimes, though not as envisaged in the constitution but with the sole purpose of building support for their governments 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 consequences of this willful breach of the constitution by the successive regimes are 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. That arguably is the reason for emergence of fissiparous tendencies in smaller provinces, undermining the process of national integration, so vitally needed in a multi-cultural entity like Pakistan.

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, 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 Rs.5 million to each and every Member of National and Provincial Assembly. The latter governments enhanced it to Rs.50 million.

The local governments during Ayub and Zia era however operated under the disdainful patronage and supervision of the Deputy Commissioners and Commissioners and therefore remained under the strict control of the provincial governments. The end result was that the provincial governments, legislators of the provinces and bureaucracy developed a vested interest in the continuation of local governments under their thumb with very limited powers and have been resisting any reform in the system which could end their ascendency.

The model of local government originally crafted by the National Bureau of Reconstruction during Musharraf era probably 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 recentralization 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 in the country as a result of 2008 general election 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, ever bothered to hold local government elections. What a shame.

Thanks to SC orders the elections for local bodies were finally held in 2015. However none of the provincial government empowered the local bodies in consonance with the constitution except for KPK where some reforms were introduced to empower them. Article 140 A (1&2) of the constitution 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 the local government system envisaged by the constitution demands devolution of full powers to the local governments including development projects and the local administration, free from the strangulating control of the provincial governments.

The local government system can deliver only when social sectors are completely decentralized and service providers made accountable to the local elected representatives and the administration and police work under them besides the allocation sufficient financial resources to them by the provincial governments. A faithful implementation of this system can also help in eliminating the ‘Thana Culture’ and separation of judiciary and the executive as envisaged in article 175(3) of the constitution.

Empowering the local bodies as per the constitution, would also perhaps obviate the need for creation of new provinces, an undertaking which could prove to be quite cumbersome and difficult to implement for political reasons. The real issue at hand is giving good governance to the country and providing quick and cheap justice to the people at their door step. That can be achieved by making the local bodies effective as well as by having high court benches at every district headquarters so that the people can get justice nearest to their homes instead of travelling to far off provincial headquarters.

The PTI government should ask the committee tasked to make recommendations in this regard, to evolve the contours of the local bodies strictly in conformity with article 140 A (1&2) and make sure that the country has a uniform system of local bodies. It would also be advisable to consult all the provincial governments and political parties to build a consensus on the envisaged reforms. It is a very serious issue and must be thoroughly discussed and deliberated upon in consultation with all the stakeholders without bothering about the time constraints.

If the PTI under the stewardship of Imran Khan, who seems honest in providing good governance to the people and justice at their door steps, succeeds in implement the envisaged reforms in the local bodies and system of governance it would long be remembered as a benefactor of this hapless nation.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

None of the parties ruling the provinces, in spite of crying hoarse from every convenient roof top to rub in their democratic credentials, ever bothered to hold local government elections. What a shame.