ISLAMABAD - The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s decision to challenge the Sindh Local Government Act in the apex court has irked Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which sees the move as an attack on the provincial autonomy and an attempt of the central government to reverse part of the already-devolved powers to the provinces.

The Core Committee of the PTI, recently held under the chair of Prime Minister Imran Khan, has decided that the party would move the Supreme Court to challenge the local bodies law in Sindh as it doesn’t empower the people politically, administratively, and financially at the local level as provided in the Constitution, said Minister for Planning & Development Asad Umar in a Tweet.

Background interviews with some key PTI leaders indicate that PTI, which is the ruling party in the centre, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtukhwa (KP), understands that the latest local government law introduced by it in Punjab was the best piece of legislation when it comes to distribution of development funds at each village and city level. An office bearer of the PTI central secretariat said that PTI wanted to replicate the Punjab Local Government Act, 2019 in other three provinces before going into the election phase of the local bodies.

“For this purpose, we will bring amendments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Act and want that similar amendments should be made by the Sindh Assembly where PTI is in opposition,” he said.

He added that similar efforts were being made in Balochistan where the matter of local government law was pending before the court.

He further said that Punjab’s law empowered the provincial government to directly distribute funds to the proposed neighbourhood and village councils while in Sindh these financial powers are with the tehsil and district councils that didn’t ensure fair and equal distribution of funds at each village level.

He said that the problem with the Sindh law was that opposition members of local bodies either didn’t get funds or receive very low amount of funds as compared to the members of the provincial ruling party.

Comparison of local government laws:

A senior official of the Election Commission of Pakistan while wishing anonymity as he was not authorized to speak, gave a caparison of the local government laws of all provinces and said that Punjab’s law provided for establishment of “panchayat councils” in rural areas and “neighbourhood councils” in urban areas. The law says that every village having minimum population of 300 would have its panchayat council. Similarly, there would be neighbourhood councils for cities.

The ECP official said that the law empowered the Punjab provincial government to directly distribute funds to panchayat and neighborhood councils to ensure uniform distribution of funds.

The law abolishes the district council at each district level and tehsil council would have no interference in distribution of funds to villages. The tehsil council can only release or allocate special funds for a special development scheme in its respective jurisdiction. The law says that anyone who will get maximum votes among elected members of each council would be its chairman and there would be not separate election for the position.  In KP, the local government law that was also prepared and got legislated by PTI’s provincial government in its last tenure provides for the establishment of neighborhood councils for cities and village councils for villages. However, the village council consists of more than one villages and more number of people than the number specified for Punjab’s proposed panchayat council. The law also empowers the provincial government to directly distribute funds to each council.

In KP, the elections for village and neighbourhood councils are non-party basis and for tehsil and district council, these will be on party-basis.

The Sindh local government law provides for the establishment of union and district councils — an old local bodies system — that remained functional in Punjab and other provinces for decades. The law allows that tehsil and district councils would distribute funds to union councils for its onward distribution to each village.

The ECP official said that the commission has also recommended to the provinces that there should be uniformity in the provincial local bodies’ laws for smooth handling of the matters concerned with the election process. However, he admitted that that local government was a total a provincial subject and had nothing to do with the federal government.

Senior PPP leader and former Senator Farhatullah Babar while talking to The Nation criticized the PTI government’s decision to challenge the law in the apex court and called it an attack on the provincial autonomy.

“Local government is altogether a provincial subject,” he said adding that it was only the Sindh Assembly that has to decide what kind of the local governments law the province was needed.

He further said that a comparative analysis of local bodies’ laws of all provinces showed that Sindh has an outstanding law. In Punjab, PTI has handed over the local governments to bureaucracy, he said. “It is the duality of policy and they are trying to chip away the provincial autonomy as guaranteed under the 18th Amendment,” he said adding that  the ruling party from the very first day wanted to demolish the landmark amendment, ensuring provincial autonomy, brick by brick and ultimately to reverse it.