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EDITORIAL: Sindh Minister for Information and Focal Person on Rain Emergency Sharjeel Inam Memon was in Hyderabad the other day where he presided over a meeting of municipal corporation officers, directing them to keep the city clean and make arrangements for collection of garbage and deliver it to the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, and also to fire absentee employees and recruit new people.

Shifting the blame for the mess awaiting his attention the Sindh government, he said, was getting a bad name due to the incompetence of the local bodies. There is a glaring contradiction in this. Until the first phase of local governments (LGs) elections held two months ago in 14 districts of the province, including Hyderabad, unelected administrators presided over all functions that belong to LGs.

Even now, they are virtually powerless. Under the Sindh Local Government (Amendment) Act, 2021, provincial authorities have taken over almost all their functions from healthcare, education, to municipal affairs.

Except for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the situation in the other provinces is not any better. Elected provincial governments fiercely defend provincial autonomy the 18th Amendment bestows on them, but remain averse to the idea of devolution of power to the grassroots. They have been delaying LG elections for as long as they could.

In Punjab, besides an indefinite postponement of polls the previous PTI-led coalition government prematurely dissolved LGs in 2019, replacing them with commissionerate system. They were restored, though, more than 22 months later on Supreme Court’s orders declaring the move as unconstitutional. That shuts the door on such actions in future.

But unwillingness to empower local bodies persists. While hearing a petition filed by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) against Sindh LG law the apex court observed that as per Article 140-A of the Constitution, LGs should have “meaningful Authority and responsibility” in the administrative, political and financial spheres. So far there is no sign of that happening. In fact, the government has gone back on the assurances it gave the MQM when its help was needed for the success of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) parties’ no-confidence motion against the then prime minister, Imran Khan, and the Jamaat-e-Islami when it launched agitation demanding withdrawal of the Sindh LG law. Again, they are up in arms about it.

There is no point in holding LG elections if these bodies are to have only nominal authority. Like such bodies in functioning democracies they must be handed administrative control over all local affairs as well as financial autonomy.

The NFC (National Finance Commission) award formula for distribution of financial resources between the federal government and the provinces should be replicated at this level as well. That needs to be made binding through a constitutional amendment. That may not be easy but is possible if the stakeholders in this governance project pressed the right button. They may have a small presence in Parliament, but can introduce a constitutional amendment bill, putting the major political parties in a tight spot. It is high time they tried this option.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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