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All politics is local. Or at least it ought to be to address the needs, problems, challenges, opportunities and aspirations of people living in different constituencies across the country. Yet despite having a local government system in place, this idea seems to be lost on both Pakistan’s state and society.

At a seminar held at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) this week, Dr. Murtaza Haider, Professor at Ryerson University, spoke at length about the various challenges and opportunities faced by urban dwellers in Pakistan. He discussed, inter alia, haphazard and rapid urbanization in Pakistan, the waning ability of Pakistani cities to deliver reliable public services and infrastructure to urban dwellers, and planning failures to build new cities.

Drawing on global literature that emerged in the 80s, the discussion on Pakistani cities as engines of growth was kickstarted by PIDE’s current VC Dr Nadeem ul-Haq around the turn of the century, that led to the launch of PIDE’s programme on the subject in winter 2006. Soon after, however, the discussion on cities somewhat lost traction despite growing urbanization and the fact that the much-awaited first major step towards devolution was taken in 2010.

Although the next logical step towards an effective local government has not really been taken as local governments are practically dysfunctional in their current form, the discussion on cities has gradually picked up again in the last two to three years. Throughout all these years, there has been enough work on the identification of problems and solutions on the subject for it to be construed as an adequately documented reform agenda, even as city level datasets are difficult to be found, if maintained at all.

Adding to the literature is a recent study by Dr Naveed Iftikhar et al that tries to look at how can Pakistani cities be made more competitive. Titled, “Reimagining Pakistan’s cities: making cities more competitive”, the paper laments on the fact that colonial-styled administrative era that still exists in Pakistan, and “sole focus on engineering approaches…has undermined competitiveness of Pakistan’s cities”. Readers can relate to that approach with the obsession of successive governments with metros, underpasses, expressways and signal-free corridors in their cities, when in fact “cities are complex spaces that require interdisciplinary and inclusive management” beyond road and transport.

As an example of “hotchpotch form of government”, which “results in inefficient delivery of public services and hinders growth,” the authors point to the fact that Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, is regulated by three entities – Islamabad Capital Territory, Capital Development Authority and Municipal Corporation – which are simultaneously operating with overlapping jurisdictions and separate accountability structures.

This is not unique to Islamabad. A recent study by think tank Prime Institute, points to how both Punjab and Sindh have effectively by-passed respective local governments by creating separate authorities that work parallel to local governments on subjects like health, education and garbage collection, i.e. public services that are textbook domain of local governments.

Titled “Role of provincial finance commission in Pakistan’s municipal finance: is it too early to talk about it?”, Prime’s paper also points to the fact that provincial governments are not even maintaining socio-economic and functional data for each tier of local government, even though their respective laws demand that a secretariat for PFCs be set up that ensures availability of such datasets to provide actional intelligence, and policymaking.

In contrast, as Dr. Iftikhar’s paper highlights, “Seoul Municipal Government (SMG) has an in-house think tank, Seoul Institute, for policy advice”. The “SMG has established and financed the University of Seoul for teaching and research on urban issues. Lahore and Karachi are bigger cities than Seoul but do not have any such initiative to undertake informed urban policy decisions.” (See BR Research’s Karachi, Karachi, August 29, 2019)

With local government elections due in the country’s biggest provinces, Sindh and Punjab, political actors have already begun their spadework. But so far, aside from policy researchers, no one has raised din on the failure of provinces to improve local government system: neither the political parties, nor big businesses, nor the society at large. Which really begs the question: is identification of problems and solutions for cities in particular, and local government in general, really the big issue, or is lack of active awareness among citizens that leads to poor demand for bottom-up governance the bigger problem? (Read Wanted: drivers for cities as engines of growth, Oct 15, 2019)