Clarity brought about by devolution: a much-needed necessity

The devolution of power to local governments, as recognized in Article 140-A of the Constitution, is largely recognized as the most effective structure for enhancing government-citizen proximity.

 

However, since provincial lawmakers and administrations continue to put up roadblocks, the establishment of local governments with expanded authority still needs to be achieved. In addition, a significant portion of the conversation has a tendency to be very broad and generic, and details on a variety of interconnected topics need to be more present.

 

It is commonly believed that the goal is to devolve authority in such a way that people living in Sahiwal, Punjab, for example, would no longer be required to go to Lahore, the capital of the province, in order to have their complaints addressed. This paradigm presupposes that people living in Lahore have access to the government and may ask for help with these kinds of problems.

 

If we take this correct approach, we will end up with the same centralized, hierarchical structures and governance systems that are prevalent at the provincial level. This would result in the development of mini-provincial governments at the local level.

 

 

This article makes an effort to bring up concerns that need clarification on what would underlie a viable and sustainable structure, as well as the allied systems of governance and probable impediments to the realization of aspirations linked with devolution.

 

• What should the procedure for the creation of representative bodies, the guidelines for the establishment of local governments, and the chances for citizen groups to engage in decision-making be? And should controls on tenure and the securing of timely elections be written into Article 140-A, as they are in the cases of the federal and provincial governments?

 

Which tasks, monetary and administrative authorities, and procedures need to be delegated to subordinate entities?

 

• Which responsibilities, authorities, and procedures pertaining to finances, administration, and functions should be delegated? How much delegation, decentralization, and localization of duties need should there be? For instance, what does “localization” refer to strictly? They should, of course, have authority over allocations, with priorities that are based on the needs of the local community. Should it then be at the expense of national importance such as schooling and primary healthcare, or should the latter objective be incentivized through a matching grant criterion or built into the resource-flow standards from the provincial pool?

 

• Should devolution, for example, as a starting point (due to capacity concerns), be confined to fundamental social and economic services such as elementary school education, primary healthcare, water supply, sanitation, and the disposal of solid waste? Or should it also take on some of the functions that are now carried out by the local police department and the organization that is in charge of keeping local property records? But then, what exactly should the functions and authority be of lower organizations and levels (such as union councils, for example)?

 

• Is there a way to make a one-size-fits-all strategy attractive and rational? To give you an example, should they be constructed following the borders of districts that are defined administratively? But if that’s the case, shouldn’t significant cities be handled differently (like Karachi, which has seven sections and six cantonments)? Would it be politically feasible to propose that Karachi, with the majority of its non-Sindhi population, be made a vibrant, independent, and autonomous city government, fully empowered, well-resourced, and with the relevant skill mix to be more actively involved in the provision of services beyond their essential category to include, for example, some curative health facilities and, more importantly, management of agencies like the development and water and sanitation agencies? If so, this would be an exciting proposition to consider. In the instance of Quetta, which is home to a Pakhtun majority population, a similar problem might emerge.

 

• Additionally, should the army continue to be responsible for administering cantonments? Or should they be included in the organizational framework of the local government instead? The response that makes the most sense, both logically and intuitively, is clear. As a result, there is a need for clarification of the characteristics that will define the limits of the city in both the static and dynamic senses.

 

• Additionally, which level of government should have “ownership rights” over “government-owned” property, such as gas wells in the region, etc.?

 

• How should the staff recruiting process, the identification of skill sets, and the requirements for performance evaluation be structured? If these organizations try to replicate the talent mix, the salary structure, and the retirement benefits of the provincial government without rationalizing the administrative system from the viewpoints of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, they will hasten their path to bankruptcy. Or should these governments adopt the practice that is common at the federal and provincial levels, in which elected legislators serve in executive positions?

 

• Despite the fact that Pakistan is theoretically a federation, the country really has a highly centralized structure. This is characterized by the constitutional assignment of authorities as well as the political, administrative, and budgetary systems of government. The United States Constitution grants the federal government the power to impose taxes on non-agricultural earnings, imports, excise charges, and sales taxes on products. These are the types of taxes that generate the most significant revenue. The provinces have the authority to charge an income tax on agriculture, a sales tax on services, levies on property transactions, and a property tax (the proceeds from the property tax are split with the local governments in each province). The revenue obtained from these taxes is subsequently distributed (in accordance with the PFC Award) to the various provincial and municipal governments in accordance with specified portions to ensure the consistency of financial transfers.

 

The majority of the monies that are earmarked for local governments are expected to originate from the provincial pool if the current legislative structure is followed. This raises the question of how local governments can be shielded from the adverse effects of any fiscal irresponsibility on the part of a provincial administration. Or might they be given the authority to raise some taxes directly, such as agricultural income tax, property tax, and levies on property transfers, which would then be augmented by conditional subsidies for local action on provincial priorities?

 

• Next, we will discuss whether or not they should be permitted to borrow money from domestic lenders based on the strength of their cash flows. And should these obligations be met by assurances from the province or the central government? Or, during the formative years, should they be able to give assets as collateral?

 

• Finally, since part of the tasks would be transferred to local governments, the size of the provincial government would need to be reduced in order to prevent duplication. This would be similar to the scenario that exists now at the federal level as a result of the 18th Amendment.

 

It is not apparent how a predatory state with its bloated size and culture of entitlement, particularly in the constrained environment of a sluggishly growing economy, would willingly share these extractive powers with other power centers in light of the centripetal features of our structures and systems of governance. However, in light of these features, it is essential to note that our networks and systems of power have centripetal features.

 

The author has prior experience serving as governor of the State Bank.

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