Get the Latest News Updates

Devolution: An overview

Erum Ashfaq

Ever since 2013, the government of Punjab has been sceptical on whether or not to promulgate the Local Government ordinance. The legislative mechanism is of the weakest cadre in Pakistan. The debate over devolution powers to the local level has always only been a matter of debate. Now once again, the government has to follow the directions of the apex court with the least commitment to do so.

Local governance has been recognised as the most important government tier in terms of service delivery, economic development and democratic control. Local governments bring government to the doorsteps of the people and help turn local people’s choices into policy. In many countries, following the principle of subsidiarity, which argues that functions should reside at the lowest level most adept at fulfilling them, decentralisation of government functions have led to improved service delivery and more accountable governance.

The Punjab Local Government system was introduced through the Punjab Local Government Ordinance, 2001. It provided for a unified structure of local governments. The scheme was to strengthen local control and accountability and, according to President Pervez Musharraf, “empower the impoverished”

Despite the ill intentions of the apex ruler of that contemporary regime, the devolved legislation remains the finest form of governance to make maximum utilisation of all resources at the grassroots level. But there were certain serious concerns related to the promulgation of the system. Despite self-interest, the other reasons for its failure included the unawareness of law by technocrats, a skewed thought process and the lack of on-the-ground arrangements.

Pakistan is confronted with a growing population and haphazard cities to accommodate it. The gap between the increase in population and the provision of services and guided growth directions is on the rise. The devolved system was an answer to this. Consequently, capacity building was an integral part of the legislation but it was not taken to the level of concrete recommendations. Unfortunately, most of the important posts for instance, the Tehsil Officer of infrastructure and services, planning officers, draftsman or seconded officials remained vacant as there was a ban on government jobs.

Moreover, there existed no provision of development restrictions in the local government act. Our cities are chaotically expanding without any strategy. The central reason for such a sprawl is the development of unregulated housing schemes on private lands. Such mushroom growth results in mismanagement in the urban fabric, unfair distribution of resources and difficulties in the provision of municipal service delivery. These schemes are sparsely located and messily placed. The availability of infrastructure becomes nearly impossible to be laid in such a fashion. This problem stems from weakness in the decree. Local governments are not authorised by law to enforce the plans that were time and again prepared by government offices in collaboration with international donor organisations such as the World Bank and others for small- and medium-sized towns of the country. A lot of funds have been wasted because of flaws in the devolution plan. None of a planning proposal or decision could materialise if it is not supported by law and an implementation mechanism.

All provincial governments including Punjab should draft a new bill addressing all the shortcomings in PLGA 2013, organise a threadbare discussion on such draft and incorporate recommendations made by various experts and scholars. Such highly technical and thought provoking nation building measures are deferred due to the weak political scenario of Pakistan.

The devolved form of governance remains the finest of all forms to serve the people at the grassroots level. But it is so unfortunate that every time political agendas come into the play. Our government should take tangible measures to bring in all the stakeholders like technocrats, urban planners, government officials and general citizens closer and work in collaboration for this. Some success stories of other countries may be used as a guiding principle before traversing in any direction. But still, any task or project needs commitment without politics to work.