The concept of devolution of powers to the grass-roots was floated under the Musharraf regime in late 1999. The framework for the devolution plan was placed before sections of the intelligentsia at the initiative of the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), a body made up of the President-General’s hand picked appointees. Consultations with various influential constituencies of society — politicians, media and civil society — commenced soon thereafter. At the end of this process, the Local Government Ordinance 2001 was promulgated, which contemplated community participation mechanisms through multistage elections to multi-tiered local bodies. The new administrative reforms lead to the creation of three levels of local government: unions, tehsils and districts, a chain of new offices created mainly to facilitate “transparency” to and “participation” of the general public.
It is quite evident that the new system has not delivered what it promised. There are many reasons for the inefficient delivery of public service under this decentralised mechanism. The most important among these is the ambiguous rules of procedure that have been put in place. The local government system has created a fragile and weak relationship between the provincial and the district tiers. Responsibilities and functions are not clearly assigned though it attempts to administratively detach the district from the provincial government. By involving the central government in district administration, the plan ironically hits provincial autonomy by ensuring a constant tension between the federal and the provincial governments. The latter keeps complaining of shortfall of ‘effective’ powers of government while the former grumbles that their autonomy under the devolution plan is ‘ineffective’, thanks to their respective upper tiers. An example is the tension between Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government and the district authorities, which was so serious that President Musharraf had to intervene personally to save the system from a possible collapse. Although, in letter, the devolution plan says that local governments shall work within the provincial framework, yet provinces feel that devolution has further reduced the already meagre level of autonomy that they were enjoying.
Functionally, persons exercising authority at the district-level now are unwilling to allow public participation in the decision-making. Differences of this kind — between elected representatives and executive officials — only add to the confusion. All decisions are being taken by the district, tehsil/town/union nazims, who are bypassing the elected councils, which are supposed to take up all important issues under the Local Government Ordinance. Due to the imprecise nature of the rules, tensions periodically crop up in the relations between the district nazims and District Coordination Officers (DCOs) and between nazims and District Police Officers (DPOs). Highhandedness on the part of the police also continues unabated, and the nazims feel helpless to help alleviate the police-related problems of the people. The elected councillors, on the other hand, have been complaining that their proposals or even suggestions in most matters, including the process of budget-making, which is undertaken by another part of the bureaucracy at the district-level, are not given any importance. In most districts, the system has come to a standstill. It would not be an exaggeration to say that things are running on an ad hoc basis.
Even the ‘democratic’ component of these arrangements is suspect. The elections are to be held in a ‘party less’ atmosphere, with only vetted and “morally sound” candidates being allowed to contest, while those with declared party affiliations are debarred. This paternalistic formula is mired in controversy. Further, though it is believed that the devolution process has reduced the absolute powers that the civil bureaucracy enjoyed under the previous system, the tensions between nazims and the district officers looking after various departments, has increased. This is due to the fact that the latter are recruited by provincial governments and the districts have no say in their hiring and firing. The fact that some officials with chronic ‘bad’ reputation are still serving in the district governments only adds to the tension. If the reform was motivated by the need to introduce system-level changes, to overcome systemic inefficiencies and inadequacies, the process has been neutralised by the inability to foster ‘responsible’ behaviour among officiating individuals. Will a change in the administrative apparatus make any difference if the people at the helms of affairs are not sincere enough to make things happen? The NRB has failed to bring about a change in the attitude of the persons involved in the provision of services to the people under the new system.
The devolution plan also includes the creation of Community Citizen Boards (CCBs), designed as voluntary organisations with official recognition through registration, to activate citizen participation and community empowerment. The spirit behind CCBs was to mobilise resources at the local level, make the local governments more responsive to citizens’ priorities and cater to governance issues. The strategy is proposed to be implemented through the Devolution Trust for Community Empowerment (DTCE). The CCBs were envisaged to present community development projects for local council cost sharing. They were expected to mobilise one-fifth of the budgetary costs for improvement of service delivery towards public facilities or for the management of new development initiatives and the remaining four-fifth was to be matched by the local government.
These twin roles of the CCBs–as development partners and simultaneously watchdogs of the administrative process–involves an inherent conflict. The twenty-to-eighty ratio in partnerships could actually intensify power struggles as there is a genuine fear of the local elite securing an administrative stranglehold. The other problem is that in many areas such boards have not actually been constituted, and hence the money allocated to CCBs cannot be spent as there is no provision to let local governments use these unspent funds. There are procedural difficulties too, as existing civil society organisations are compelled to get themselves registered afresh under new names as CCBs. Such organisations are of the view that they should be granted the status of CCBs without being forced to go through such procedural rituals.
Fiscal decentralisation is another thorny issue that affects relations between the provincial and district governments. There is no uniformity in pattern, as different systems prevail in the different provinces. For example, in the Punjab province, district allocations are one-line items in the provincial budget and not many tiers are involved in fiscal transfers. On the other hand, in Sindh, not only is the Accountant General’s office involved in disbursing the payments allocated by the provincial government, but also, the allocations come under specified heads of accounts which make it difficult for the districts to utilise funds. In neither case is the district raising resources locally, leaving the newly formed district governments heavily dependent upon federal transfers. This arrangement is also a source of tension as districts complain of delays in payments due to procedural bottlenecks. There is no denying that in the interest of more effective governance district governments should have more local tax handles available to them. One possibility is that a portion from the General Sales Tax (GST) revenue being handed over to district authorities. This option will guarantee some degree of fiscal autonomy for local governments.
Under the devolution programme, local governments have also been vested with the responsibility for developmental work. Functioning democracies expect parliamentarians to be engaged in legislation as well as to play the role of genuine stakeholders in the development process. Some parliamentarians are of the view that with the devolution of this responsibility they may not be able retain their seats in the assembly as, five years down the line, they will not have tangible achievements on the basis of which to persuade their constituents to vote for them again. This obviously presents a dilemma. One way out is to allocate direct discretionary grants to parliamentarians. But this may have the counter-productive effect of ruining the devolution programme and rendering local governments redundant. Clearly, some way will have to be found to tackle this knotty situation. Ideally, since the Local Government Ordinance provides for CCBs and other district development committees, parliamentarians could be included in these bodies so that they do not feel excluded from the process.
There is also an ‘international’ facet to this devolution plan. It would appear that the donors present in the country have a lot of interest in the process of devolution. The UNDP supported the devolution process at its inception and is still involved in providing technical support to the NRB. With the theme of its forthcoming World Development Report “Making Services Work for Poor People”, the World Bank is also interested in supporting the devolution process with financial and technical assistance. Other donor agencies too have shown a similar interest in the devolution of power to the grass-root level. If donors are genuinely eager and committed to support devolution, they should negotiate grants to the government that have the approval of concerned parliamentary sub-committees as part of the democratic process. At present, donors strike deals directly with individual departments. One instance of this is the Asian Development Bank negotiating a technical assistance (TA) loan for the forestry sector in the North West Frontier Province. More widespread consultations with and approval of a wider set of representative institutions is necessary because loans and grants have long-term obligations and repercussions and this sort of dialogue at the parliamentary level will give broader ownership to the process.
If the devolution plan is to work well, there has to be an effective regulatory mechanism. The National Reconstruction Bureau could evolve as a local government regulatory authority, since its primary function is to oversee the devolution programme. There are, in any case, sector-specific regulatory authorities, such as the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), to impose ‘checks and balances’ and look after the interests of consumers. In a similar fashion, a reconfigured NRB could look after the interest of the people, as local governments discharge the main civic services (health, education, water supply and sanitation) in the public domain. The functions of this authority could be such that it has a monitoring, research and evaluation department, based on participatory research methods. Since the devolution process is essentially concerned with social engineering, persons with appropriate academic qualification in the social sciences could be deputed to the proposed office. The local government regulatory body could be designed on the pattern of other sector-specific regulatory authorities with the capacity for necessary research. This body should also have a provision for public hearings, as in the case of the NEPRA, which will give the people the opportunity to hold local governments accountable.
The proposed local government regulatory authority should engage in rigorous research on the devolution process, establish service delivery benchmarks for which no data are currently available and ensure mechanisms for assessing the performance of local governments. Had there been benchmarks available, it would have been possible to comment on the performance of the local governments regarding the difference they have made in service delivery in various fields. The research department could also learn from other countries which are experimenting with innovative ideas. At present the devolution process has not gone all the way, having stopped at the district level. Powers of local government have not been devolved to the tehsil and union council tiers. If the government is serious about devolving power, it should go to the lowest tier, that is, the village level, where there can be greater participation and involvement of the public.