The LG election today is as important as the 2013 general election; let us not waste this chance
Today several parts of Punjab and Sindh are voting for their local bodies. While for the political parties this is just another election, for the people this should be a very critical one. These elections are important since they are at the local level where most critical social services should ideally be taken care of. In Pakistan, the norm has been to centralise power. So if there is a hole in the road in Lahore, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is blamed for it, if there is land encroachment, the prime minister is bad-mouthed. In fact, both these gentlemen should have nothing to do with both these matters — these issues are for the local, municipal or city governments to deal with.
If one reads the Punjab Local Government Act of 2013, as amended, the powers of local government authorities are those which directly affect the life and wellbeing of most people. For example, a union council is responsible for, among other things, “public ways, public streets, public open spaces, graveyards, public gardens and play grounds … [the] registration of births, deaths, marriages and divorces … for libraries and reading rooms … [promotion] of local sports” and the general support of municipal functions as assigned. The powers of a metropolitan and municipal council are even greater and include powers to “approve spatial plans, master plans, zoning, land use plans … implement rules and by-laws governing land use, housing, markets, zoning, environment, roads, traffic, tax, infrastructure, and public utilities … approve proposals for public transport and mass transit systems, construction of express ways, fly overs, bridges, roads, under-passes and inter-town streets”.
Additionally, the metropolitan and municipal councils are entrusted with wide-ranging powers over water supply, sewage, local taxes, local cultural activities, and the setting up of civil aid organisations. The roles of the District Education Authority and the District Health Authority, both under the local government system, are also central to our life. Hence, if we have any problems with the way our normal life is run in our cities and districts, tomorrow’s election is crucial. The recent controversy over the proposed Orange Line train in Lahore and its seemingly devastating environmental and historical impact, can be dealt with if people make good choices tomorrow and elect those representative who will ensure that their city develops, but at a pace and in a manner which preserves its cultural heritage and environment — these are local government issues, and so the onus is on Lahoris tomorrow.
In Pakistan, we have never clearly understood the tiered system of government. The local, provincial and national levels all have their distinct and important roles and it is only in the preservation and promotion of their respective roles that real development can come to Pakistan. The faster we learn that all three tiers have a separate yet important role, the better we will be able to understand and make use of the system of government. In fact, the mixing of roles has prevented our members of provincial and national assemblies from focusing on their main role — legislation. The dismal level of our legislation is testament to the fact that an MP is more focused on trying to fix local issues than on devising sensible legislation which will provide a basis for sustainable growth and development.
Furthermore, while voting in the election today is critical, it is keeping the elected members accountable afterwards which is essential. A number of people voting tomorrow will forget this aspect the very next day and again focus on big politics. However, we must keep track of our local councillors, union councils and mayors, and put pressure on them to fulfil their election promises once they are in power. These councillors are supposed to be the local voice of the people and, therefore, people need to hold them accountable. Democracy is a process where both the elected and the people have certain responsibilities and it is only when both are fulfilled that the system can work.
A former US Congress speaker once said: “All Politics is Local.” The election today is as important as the 2013 general election; let us not waste this chance.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st, 2015.
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