The Sindh Government after remaining in power for five long years and after a massive push from the Supreme Court has finally been able to get a law relating to the local government system passed. It is a sad reflection on the democratic credentials of all the parties in power in the provinces as not a single one was able to introduce the local government system during its tenure.
This is sad as the system is so important for service delivery at grassroot level which is currently malfunctioning.
Considering Sindh’s prevalent ethnic and geographic schism and its uneven demographic composition, the local government system should ideally have inclusive characteristics to cement the widening cleavages along various fault lines.
The new law should focus on effective service delivery and good governance for all citizens without any discrimination.
Karachi and other cities of Sindh should get an equitable treatment.
The 2012 law gave Karachi Metropolitan Corporation an exclusive domain in some of the subjects. Karachi has five administrative districts that should determine the configuration of Local Government structure for Karachi Metropolitan.
An important fact need to be recognized that rural areas of Karachi fall in District Malir and District West. These rural areas are impoverished and under developed. Special status to these areas should be accorded to these rural areas under KMC by allocating dedicated development funds, certain urban based tax exemptions and a reserved share in jobs and admissions in academic institutions etc. Such arrangement will help in bridging rural-urban and ethnic divide over the long run and create a harmonious political ambience in Karachi.
For coordination purpose an apex body in the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation should be established to manage inter-district development projects and other affairs.
Elected local government representatives should have authority to take decisions in their respective areas. Bureaucracy should not dominate the elected representatives. A balance of authority should be created whereby elected representatives’ authority is not encroached upon by bureaucracy and similarly elected representatives should be answerable to elected house and should not encroach in executive functions. Balance and segregation of power between the two should be amply delineated and demarcated.
Subjects like security, police and land management should not be the exclusive prerogative of the Metropolitan/District Councils. Land, particularly in urban areas is among the key sources of major conflicts. Its management therefore should rest with the Provincial Government.
Similarly the police have already been much politicized and has been grossly misused as a tool of control and oppression. Considering the social and ethnic fabric of Sindh, the police should not be made subordinate to Local Governments in order to ensure its impartiality. However there should be a mechanism of coordination between the police and local governments so that elected representatives have some role in maintenance of law and order. There is an urgent need to enact a new law on Police Reforms, revising the Police Order of 2001.
Metropolitan/District Councils should be placed under the Provincial Government and the Chief Minister should be their ultimate authority. An independent Local Government Commission needs to be established under the chairpersonship of the Chief Minister to look after Local Government affairs. It would be appropriate to have representation from each geographic division on this body to make it more inclusive. Adequate representation of women and minorities should be ensured on this Commission. This high powered body should have the final authority to take appropriate decisions regarding any matters pertaining to local governments.
Women should have at least one-third (33%) reserved seats at all tiers of the Local Government. They should be elected through direct voting and not nominated/selected by the men on the elected Councils. Additionally, women should be given party tickets to contest elections on general seats too. Any ancillary structures within the Local Government should also have a minimum of 33% women’s representation to ensure their participation in decision-making process at all levels.
Religious and sectarian minorities, peasants and worker of the labor classes (with fair gender balance) should have adequate representation at all tiers and they should also be elected through direct voting on reserved seats. Criteria for their selection should be well defined to avoid abuse of these reserved slots.
Allocation of development funds to the elected Councils should be made through transparent, fair, rights-based and needs-based criteria. Principles of provincial finance and budgeting should categorically mention indicators like poverty, gender gaps, geographic backwardness and development gap. The Human Development Index empirically establishes these indicators.
The existing structure of Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) may be reviewed and revised on the aforementioned indicators. Composition of the PFC should include independent and apolitical technocrats to ensure fair distribution of resources.
Special provisions should be made for the areas recently ravaged by catastrophic floods. The affected districts have lost their economic base and public infrastructure has also been destroyed. Therefore they deserve special resource allocation for at least one decade.
Sindh is a disaster prone area and during the past three years, the province has witnessed a series of devastating catastrophes. The new law should empower and charge the Local Governments to develop and execute disaster risk reduction and disaster management plans under the technical guidance and supervision of Provincial Disaster Management Authority.
District Disaster Management Authority or a department should be introduced at district level. The department may have institutional link with Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) yet at the same time a well defined coordination mechanism with elected Local Government AND civil society organizations should be in place. This mechanism should ensure a coordinated response in case of any natural or human made disaster.
The Right to information is a key to empower citizens and ensure transparency and good governance at the local level and is also enshrined in our Constitution. Sindh can take a progressive step by introducing Right to Information clause in the new Local Government law. Citizens should be given access to information on development planning, budgeting, expenditure, engendering, meeting minutes and other matters of governance at the district level and at the lower tiers. An easily accessible institutional mechanism such as the Provincial Commission on Information should make it simple and convenient for citizens to get updated information on any aspect of the performance of the provincial and Local Government tiers.
The new Local Government law should make a provision for grievance redressal /complaint management mechanism enabling citizens to hold their elected Councils accountable to them, and to check discriminatory practices such as sidelining, threatening or other excesses against women members and other council members or citizens who do not belong to the local power structures. This mandate can be given to the aforementioned Local Government Commission. However access for every citizen should be made convenient through an institutional mechanism.
District Ombudsman can be an option with appropriate powers to make local Govt. departments accountable and efficient. Right of Appeal may also be given to aggrieved parties through Local Government Commission.
No Metropolitan or District Council should be exempted from accountability mechanism. In past a political group managed to evade Audits of local government fund in their areas of influence. Local governments should be subject to accountability and transparency under the constitutional and legal framework of the province. District Public Accounts Committee should also be introduced to create a check and balance with a council member of the opposition of repute as its head.
In the past local development has been biased towards politically driven infrastructure projects at the expense of social delivery in the education, health, water and sanitation sectors. The future system needs to include checks and balances to circumvent such practices.
Local Governments should be made responsible to issue an annual performance report to the Provincial Government and also through the mass media. Such public disclosures should also be in the local languages to ensure wider outreach.
In order to ensure and promote democratic culture at the grassroots level and to make them directly responsible to people; District, Taulka and Town/Municipal Committee Chairpersons should be elected through direct voting under adult franchises system on party basis.
Appointments for the district level bureaucrats of grade 17 and above should be made mandatory for three years unless serious allegations and complaints are established through a committee of elected council members, both from treasury and opposition benches. Right of Appeal may be extended to the aggrieved officer through Local Government Commission.
A representative and empowered district planning and development committee should be included in the new local government regime with a mandate to plan and monitor demand driven development schemes. Composition of the committee should be included both men and women members both from treasury and opposition benches and ex-officio officers.
With an objective to make districts and Talukas financially sustainable, appropriate powers to impose taxes and duties at the district level may be ensured to district councils. Collection of taxes and duties should be the responsibility of Sindh Revenue Board (SRB), who can establish its offices at the districts. SRB should be awarded one percent of the total taxes collected and rest should be directly transferred to the district accounts concerned on monthly basis.