Why Punjab government is reluctant to restore the local governments in Punjab?

 Supreme Court of Pakistan declared the dissolution of LG system in Punjab unconstitutional and ordered their restoration 

The Supreme Court of Pakistan two weeks ago ordered restoration of the local government institutions in Punjab, declaring their dissolution as unconstitutional. The court declared Section 3 of the Punjab Local Government Act (PLGA)-2019 ultra vires to the Constitution.

The Punjab government hasn’t issued notification for the restoration of local government institutions in Punjab and to hand over of the control back to elected representatives of the people at local level.

The concerned officials of Punjab government are saying that they are waiting for the detailed judgement of the Apex court to see under which law the local government will function after restoration.

The Punjab government repealed the PLGA 2013 in 2019 and promulgated the PLGA 2019 to hold the fresh elections of LGs in the province.  But fresh elections were delayed for 22 months. No elections were held under the new law.  

Since the local governments created under PLGA-2013 have their legal term till Dec 31 this year, the Local Government and Community Development (LG&CD) seems confounded as it is now supposed to undo all the structural changes in the local governments introduced under PLGA-2019 – and then restore them to the current position within a few months.

The restoration will not be simple exercise. There is hardly any chance that Punjab government will restore the LGs before the decision on review petition.

One needs to understand that why Punjab government dissolved the local governments in Punjab. The decision to dissolve the LGs was politically motivated. PTI government in Punjab was not ready to work with PML-N dominated local governments. The government was not interested to hand over funds to elected officials belonging to PML-N.

PTI government wants strengthen its political position in Punjab so it decided to dissolve the local governments at all level. The bureaucrats were appointed as administrators and promise was made to hold elections in within six months. But it never happens. The bureaucrats continue to run the local government institutions for nearly 22 months.

This Supreme Court decision to restore the local government system elected under PLGA 2013 has upset the Punjab Government’s political strategy. SC decision is a political setback for PTI in Punjab. If restored, LGs will get funds in the upcoming budget. This budget will be in the hands of the PML-N loyalists for at least six months.

It is unfortunate that we have failed to develop a sustainable model of local governments in Pakistan. We still continue to experiments with grass root democracy. The democracy will not flourish at local level without a well-functioning, independent and strong representative local government system. 

Independent LGs are considered the building blocks of a functional democracy the world over. No governance, financial and administrative reform can be successfully implemented in the absence of a strong, powerful and steady LG system.

It is unfortunate that our political parties and leaders have never felt comfortable with grassroots democracy because they do not want to share powers with locally elected representatives of the people in spite of the crucial role of LGs in service delivery. Hence, we repeatedly find them introducing new LG systems to suit their political interests and wind up existing ones on coming to power.

The present government is no exception. What it did in Punjab, and the tactics it has employed to delay local elections since May 2019 when a new law was introduced only reflects the prevailing mindset across political parties.

 If the PTI government is serious about consolidating local democracy as it claims, it is time it started working on strengthening the weak constitutional cover given under Articles 32 and 140-A to LG institutions to ensure their continuity, and financial and administrative empowerment by building on the court’s decision.

The Punjab Local Government and Community Development (LG&CD) Department is in a fix over the implementation of a recent Supreme Court short order restoring the local government institutions, as it sees massive administrative and financial complexities ahead.

Under the PLGA 2019, the Punjab government had carved out nine metropolitan corporations, instead of one, besides 17 municipal corporations, instead of the 11 mentioned in the 2013 act. Similarly, the government slashed the number of municipal committees from 182 to 133 and created 11 more tehsil committees.

The 35 district councils that existed in the 2013 act were also abolished and the 2019 act had created 136 tehsil councils.

The summary pointed out that under the new act, the Punjab government had established new offices, increased employees’ base, opened bank accounts, transferred huge funds, and awarded contracts for execution of development works and schemes with respect to service infrastructure in the changed boundaries of the local institutions. The funds in most cases have now been consumed.

In the next financial year, it would again be a mess to transfer funds to local governments under the PLGA-2013, and as the dust of the whole exercise would settle, the term of the restored local governments would be over. “Hence, restoration of local governments constituted under the PLGA-2013 has created many anomalies and much has to be done to remove the said anomalies keeping in view that the PLGA-2013 stands already repealed vide section 312 (1) of PLGA- 2019,” the department says in the summary.”

The summary stated the LG&CD department was of the view that the Supreme Court had declared only section 3 of the PLGA-2019 ultra vires to the Constitution and the remaining provisions of the law were still in force, insisting that the government had not been stopped from implementing its provisions relating to the delimitation of village councils and Neighbourhood councils under section 15A of the PLGA-2019 by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

                                                           Khalid Bhatti

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