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Empowering local governments

Nothing can bring the state closer to citizens than local governments

Despite all odds, Pakistan can now boast of having a local government system. Nothing can bring the state closer to citizens than local governments. But the question is, can local governments deliver while operating under the existing legal and political framework? What does it really take for local governments to deliver? The obvious response is resources, capacity and the will of the local governments to deliver. But wait, let’s not forget the elephant in the room here — the discretionary funds at the disposal of the prime minister and the chief ministers. Unless the practice of allocating discretionary funds to provincial and federal legislators does not stop, we can’t evolve a strong local government system in Pakistan.

The Supreme Court in its verdict on the constitutional petition number 20 of 2013 clearly stated: “The Constitution does not permit the use/allocation of funds to MNAs/MPAs/Notables at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister … No bulk grant can be made in the budget without giving detailed estimates under each grant divided into items and that every item has to be specified … The amounts as approved in the budget passed by the National Assembly have to be utilised for the purpose specified in the budget statement. Any re-appropriation of funds or their utilisation for some other purpose, though within the permissible limits of the budget, are not justified.”

Despite these clear instructions, the process of allocating discretionary funds has continued since the General Ziaul Haq era. Allocating funds in this manner is common in the federal and provincial budgets. The details of expenditures under discretionary funds in 2014-15 in four departments of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), obtained by the Centre for Governance and Public Accountability, through the use of K-P’s Right to Information law are revealing. Rs8.5 billion have been doled out for the constituencies of some government MPAs as well as for the chief minister’s constituency. The districts that have elected MPAs from the opposition parties continue to suffer as they can’t access discretionary funds. This has caused serious geographical inequalities in development. Given the dominant role that discretionary funds play, the K-P Annual Development Programme (ADP) — which should ideally have a prominent contribution in regional development — ends up being used for purposes other than fostering development. For 2015-16, Rs1.3 billion have been released under the K-P ADP as of December 4, 2015, but not a single penny was approved for regional development. This is the practice at the federal level as well as in all other provinces.

Discretionary funds violate the basic principle of the separation of the legislative and executive powers. They are used as a bargaining chip in order to garner political support. The use of discretionary funds has shifted the focus of debates in general elections from national policies and party manifestoes to municipal services. Before every general election, candidates for parliamentary seats harp on promises related to the construction of pavements, bridges and roads instead of focus on issues of national importance. The interest of most legislators in budget debates is restricted to their share of development funds.

The job of legislators is to legislate and provide executive oversight. These are their sole responsibilities as per the Constitution. Instead what we see is that since the 2013 elections, many of the K-P Assembly’s standing committees have not even held their first meetings. This also includes the Standing Committee on Planning and Development. In addition, the K-P government has increased the role of MPAs in local governments by strengthening the District Development Advisory Committees (DDAC). All MPAs are members of these committees, with the Nazims of districts/tehsils/municipal committees being their non-voting, co-opted members. The K-P chief minister appoints the chairpersons of the DDACs and all NGOs and donors are required to route funds through them. There is no justification whatsoever for the continued presence of the DDACs since local government elections have been held.

Truly empowering local governments requires a paradigm shift. The focus of our legislators is currently on playing the political game at the local government level, which has affected their performance hugely. Political parties should take the lead in educating citizens on distinctions in responsibilities of legislators and local government representatives. Our legislators need to focus on their law-making role and leave local governments to perform the task assigned to them. If this doesn’t happen, local governments will never be truly empowered.