Monday, September 17, 2012

Sindh Local Government misses the point

At first sight, the Sindh Local Government ordinance seems to be a step in the right direction of effective government administration. However, it is more of a tactical ploy driven by political interests than a strategic plan aimed at delivering quality government administration.

The concept of local governance is one that applies very well to Pakistan's situation. Given the ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences among Pakistanis it is impossible to devise a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of public administration. The One Unit policy of Ayub Khan and the subsequent secession of East Pakistan is but one example of how excessive centralization can result in disaster. The ongoing discontent in Balochistan is another example.

One possible solution to the problem of local administration is the creation of new provinces. Earlier this year, resolutions that called for the division of Punjab into further provinces were adopted by the National Assembly and the Punjab Provincial Assembly. However, the creation of provinces in a country as ethnically fragmented as Pakistan risks the revival of sectarianism and the mobilization of groups that demand the break-up of Pakistan into provinces based purely on ethnicity.

In contrast, a system of local governance would keep the current provinces intact and still allow for a devolution of powers that can respond to the varying needs of different regions. In addition, it is harder to devise a local government system on the basis of ethnicity than it is to form provinces based on ethnicity.

However, the problem with local government arises when one considers the relationship between the state and political parties as it has historically existed in Pakistan .

Far from viewing state finances as something to be used for public investment, Pakistan's political parties have primarily viewed them as a way of paying off supporters. The methods of payoff range from the creation and awarding of useless ministerial posts to the handing out of state loans that are never paid back. There is a strong possibility that the state money which will flow to the local government will be used as similar political payoff. There is nothing to indicate that local government will be different from the provincial or the federal government in this regard.

To make matters worse, there seems to be no way of keeping the creation of local government from becoming politicized. The PPP is a perfect example of this. Previously, they disbanded the local government system from the Musharraf era and reinstated the less democratic commissioner system. If the PPP truly believes in the urgent need for local governance, they wouldn't have gone through the trouble of first disbanding local government and then reviving it. Rather, they would have wasted no time and simply focused on reforming Musharraf's system. The fact that they have revived this issue so close to the end of their term is nothing short of pure political manoeuvring to score points with voters.

This move also calls into question the PPP's decision to support the division of Punjab into multiple provinces. If local government is good for Sindh, why isn't it so for Punjab? Or is it that the division of Punjab into additional provinces is suitable for the weakening of the PML-N and has nothing whatsoever to do with providing better local administration? If so, then the PPP is once again guilty of politicizing local government.

Local government will eventually have to develop in Pakistan. There is simply no other way to administer a land so diverse and fragmented. However, there are other problems that need to be tackled first.

The rule of law needs to be extended so that political party elites and the state bureaucrats that they appoint are held accountable for how they use state finances. Parties need to change to where their leaders stop viewing state finances as a way of granting political favours. The political culture needs to develop to where parties stop politicizing the issue of local governance.

Only then can we begin to think about implementing an effective local government system.