A questionable monopoly

What will the local governments do if they have no control on vital urban and regional affairs?

A questionable monopoly


he locus standi of the provincial government has prevailed once again. The Election Commission of Pakistan has postponed the local government elections for various Karachi districts, which were scheduled to take place on October 23. This decision has not come as a surprise.

With the Sindh and federal governments completely aligned, the ECP had to take into consideration the willingness of the provincial regime. Given a choice, the provincial regime may never agree to hold such elections. After all, the near total control on provincial and municipal affairs is firmly under the thumb of the provincial administration after the 18th Constitutional Amendment. The previous local elections were held after the Supreme Court issued specific orders directing the provincial government to enable the holding of elections and installation of local councils. But with the new adjustments made in the structure, powers and responsibilities of future local councils, extremely little space shall be available to the new elected bodies.

A walk through the institutional architecture of local institutions of urban Sindh unveils an extremely interesting tutelage by Sindh government in local affairs. Water and sewerage in Karachi are under the control of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), which functions through the KWSB Act of 1996. The board is run by the province with only token representation of elected local government representatives (when they exist). The Sindh Solid Waste Management Board is largely responsible for collecting, transporting and disposing of the municipal solid waste. Earlier this function was performed by the KMC/ DMCs and other elected councils. City and regional planning functions are currently performed by the Karachi, Lyari and Malir Development Authorities. These bodies remained largely moribund during the Musharraf era and for some time thereafter. A Sindh Master Planning Authority is on the cards. For urban transportation, there is a Sindh Mass Transit Authority (SMTA) that manages the various contractual arrangements for procuring public transport services. The bus rapid transit project is managed by the SMTA and other subsidiary entities enacted by the provincial government. Environmental control and management are looked after by Sindh Environmental Control Agency. Similarly, building and zoning control in Karachi is performed by the Sindh Building Control Authority. For industrial development and management, Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate is the relevant entity. For various other functions in respect to social infrastructure, similar arrangements are to be found. One wonders what the local governments will do if they have absolutely no control over these and other vital urban and regional affairs.

If and when the local elections are held, ordinary people will have very high hopes from the councillors and the mayor. The new local leadership shall find itself enormously constrained due to the absence of common jurisdiction on civic affairs and the total absence of resources to spend on civic amenities. Quite complicated changes have been made to the structure and composition of the local tiers by the provincial government. It is obvious that the new local institutions will have a tough time establishing themselves and carrying through the prevailing phase of transition.

A questionable monopoly

Also, most of the future councillors will be affiliated with major political parties. They shall either be certified supporters of the parties or members who nominally left the party organisations only for the sake of electoral eligibility. Therefore, party mandates and desires are likely to override the needs of the communities and the electorate. Secondly, the limited budgets will pose a barrier to launching and sustaining any kind of development projects. Thirdly, in a majority of cases, local representatives shall have little experience of managing any kind of local maintenance or small development works. An enormous amount of capacity building shall be needed to ensure that these local councillors live up to the expectations of their constituents.

Ordinary people often need help with problems that warrant solutions at the lowest level – not in headquarters of mighty organisations. These people need an efficient service delivery mechanism and complaint redress system for routines like attestation, verification and certification of various kinds. Local institutions and their elected members are generally forthcoming with such tasks. Small scale development schemes, maintenance and repair projects are also important and require immediate attention. If the decision-making apparatus is centralised in the person of ministers and their secretaries, very little progress can be expected.

Expecting all bureaucrats to be sympathetic to the local issues may not be very realistic. A well-functioning local government system has to be installed and strengthened after removing the various handicaps that the local governments have faced. Problems identified during the past several years include poor quality of human resource, paucity of operational budgets, weak monitoring mechanisms, absence of effective audit and accounts procedures, financial dependence on the provincial and federal governments, lack of control over police force, control exercised by federal/ provincial institutions and the inability to generate development finance for local works. While the tutelage of the provincial government shall remain, mobilisation of the local government tier for common causes shall be a very effective bargaining tool. If the municipal councillors, UC chairmen, town officials and mayor come together with the objective of serving the city and its citizens, their voice will definitely be heard.

An important factor that shall determine the performance of future local institutions will be the secretariat and departments they establish to undertake routine affairs. It is well-known that the quality of human resource at the KMC, the DMCs and other municipal units is extremely poor. The municipal tier shall need the support of well trained and capable staff. The future local leadership will need to undertake tough negotiation. Proper staffing and human resource support are the fundamental pre-requisites for effective governance. Provincial government shall have to be convinced to provide essential hand holding input for local government units.

Published in The News By Dr Noman Ahmed 23 October 2022