PRIOR to the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the provinces had been demanding autonomy from a powerful federation that had monopolised legislative, executive and financial powers. The amendment not only abolished the concurrent legislative list and devolved substantial powers to the provinces, it also inserted Article 140-A that made devolution of political, administrative and financial responsibilities and authority to the local governments (LG) mandatory.
Now the local governments want autonomy and resources from the provincial governments. But while Part V of the Constitution lays down an elaborate framework for the distribution of legislative, administrative and financial powers between the federation and provinces, the Constitution leaves it to the provincial legislatures to regulate relations with the LGs.
Interestingly, recognising the significance of the LGs and anticipating the possible friction between them and the state on matters related to the distribution of powers, the Indian constitution provides a detailed scheme on LG-state relations in Part IX and Part IX-A. But here, LGs haven’t received such significance. In fact, before the 18th Amendment, LGs were not mandatory, only desirable. Article 32 that only ‘encouraged’ the establishment of local government institutions was not even justiciable, being part of the ‘Principles of Policy’.
Moreover, the civilian governments perceived local governments as a ploy that military rulers used to acquire a political base and representative character.
The existing LG laws haven’t passed muster.
But now, the LGs have constitutionally assumed the status of the ‘third tier’ of government. Provincial legislatures can no more avoid a new and workable configuration of powers to accommodate and enable LGs to perform their statutory functions and enjoy their constitutional mandate.
But unfortunately, the existing provincial LG laws haven’t passed muster, particularly in Sindh and Punjab. The laws are considered to be skewed in favour of the provincial governments. Luckily, the ruling party in Punjab may tide over the opposition on the strength of its majority representation in the federal, provincial and local legislatures. But in Sindh, the SLGA 2013 may face a tough opposition, if not outright rejection, at the hands of the MQM that has swept the LG polls in the urban areas.
In fact, acrimony, if not bad blood, is already simmering on the political landscape of Karachi where the MQM is demanding more powers for its mayor. Obviously, the MQM aims at reclaiming the same untrammelled powers for its mayor as it enjoyed during the Musharraf-era local governments. But the PPP government may not cede power to that extent for many reasons.
One, in 2012 the previous PPP government had also passed an LG law as a result of a power-sharing agreement with the MQM, giving the latter equal say in the urban areas. But it had to be withdrawn when a broad-based opposition alliance, led by Pir Pagara, launched a movement in Sindh. Two, during the Musharraf government, the powerful nazims, particularly in Sindh, utterly failed to deliver in terms of good governance or transparency.
Three, Karachi’s fast-changing demographic and political landscape requires a unified but decentralised LG system. True, the city flourished under powerful mayors — Niamatullah of the Jamaat-i-Islami and Mustafa Kamal of MQM — but then some of its areas, particularly Lyari and Malir, were visibly neglected allegedly on political grounds. Finally, there is a view that the Musharraf-era ‘one-party rule’ in Karachi intensified ethnic tensions and the socio-political divide, producing turf wars and the militarisation of political parties.
The proponents of a powerful mayor (or, for that matter, of powerful LG institutions) argue that Karachi needs an ‘effective’ mayor who could play a pivotal role in planning, execution, coordination and supervision. They contend that if the mayor is not as powerful as that of New York or London, then he shouldn’t be a figurehead like the mayor of Mumbai either.
Both views carry weight. True, the provincial government stands at a higher pedestal in federation, and hence, is saddled with many rights and responsibilities. But LGs are also vital “to promote good governance, effective delivery of services and transparent decision-making, through institutionalised participation of the people at the local level”. But how to break the tie?
Recently, on a question as to why the framers of constitution entrusted the provincial legislatures with the task of devolving powers to LGs, the Supreme Court observed: “Because they [framers of constitution] were conscious that political processes are evolutionary in nature. Institutions take root over time. They draw strength from a continuous constitutional dialogue between the people and their elected representatives”.
What is required is a constitutional dialogue between the provincial and local governments to forge a composite system that should enable both to act in tandem, rather than at cross
purposes. Just as the provinces engaged the federation in a constitutional dialogue and finally succeeded in receiving considerable autonomy, LGs should do the same.