October 18, 2023
By Xari Jalil
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) recently released a policy paper on the issue of local government across the country and how this system could be strengthened through amendments made to Article 140-A.
The paper titled ‘Constitutional Cover for Local Governments’ has been written by Zafarullah Khan.
The importance of the local government (LG) system is clear: citizens consume it directly at a local level, and governments serve the citizens by being responsible for delivering integral services to them. Despite the demand of the citizens, though, the LG system has remained erratic and even non-existent. This is also despite a dozen court notices.
The policy paper also proposes amendments to Article 140-A of the Constitution so that local governments in Pakistan could be more effective, better represented, and well-resourced especially since they are an important aspect of a democracy.
An Erratic System At Best
Since 2010, the year devolution was institutionalized through the 18th amendment, local governments seemed to have lacked smooth functionality and continuity in Pakistan. LG laws have undergone repeated changes in all the federating units and in the federal capital.
The provinces face other issues.
In 2023, Punjab, and the federal capital, Islamabad, have no elected local governments, while local governments in Sindh, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan are powerless with a lack of resources. In fact there is little that proves that the State has adhered to any constitutional devolution of any kind, let alone those that are administrative or fiscal.
The paper says that it has been observed that even though political parties in principle are not averse to strengthening local
Governments, no matter which party has ruled the country, the LG system has not improved.
The erratic and weak implementation of the LG system has resulted in a more urgent need for more constitutional protection of the local government. There is a consensus that the existing provision, Article 140-A, is inadequate and must be reformed and strengthened. It is also pertinent to mention that, in December 2022, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) wrote to the federal government, urging it to amend Article 140-A and the Elections Act 2017.
Article 140-A reads as follows:
1. Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.
2. Elections to the local governments shall be held by the Election Commission of Pakistan.
The policy paper recommends that Article 140-A be replaced as follows:
a) Each province in its jurisdiction and the Federal Government in Islamabad Capital Territory and the Cantonments shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political and administrative powers with a local cadre of services and financial responsibility and authority through the Provincial Finance Commissions to elected representatives of the local governments.
b) Elections to local governments shall be held by the Election Commission of Pakistan.
c) Elections to local governments shall be held within 120 days upon completion of the term of local governments or in case of their early dissolution.
d) Local governments shall meet following the local elections day.
Other recommendations include
- there must be a conversation between provinces and civil society on ‘provincial constitutions’ to delineate the distribution of functions and powers between the provincial and local governments as well as to lay down multifactor formulae for resource distribution through the Provincial Finance Commissions.
- The possibility of holding local government elections simultaneously with national and provincial elections—to save costs and ensure greater political certainty—should be explored.
- Civil servants should not be appointed as stop-gap administrators of local governments: this goes against the spirit of the preamble to the Constitution and the Objectives Resolution, which call for sovereignty to be operationalized through people’s elected representatives.