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There is a mixed response from various section of the population

From Shamim Ahmed Rizvi, Islamabad
Apr 24 - 30, 2000

The proposals for the District Government announced by the Chief Executive in his address to the nation on Pakistan Day (March 23) is being hotly debated in the National Press as well as other public forums. The Chief Executive who had thrown the plan open for public debate and discussion had announced that the final plan of action will be announced on Aug. 14 in the light of suggestions received from public and consensus evolved after about 4/5 months of public debate on the issue.

The district government scheme has evoked considerable interest in the legal, political and journalistic circles. Social scientists, retired bureaucrats, intellectuals and politicians are participating in the seminars besides contributing thought provoking articles to the national Press. The plan has evoked a very mixed response from various sections of the population. While some like Imran Khan has praised the idea enthusiastically describing it as a first step toward genuine democracy and empowerment of the common man, most political leaders and parties have strongly opposed the idea without giving any reasons or arguments for their outright rejection of the plan. They consider it as a devious ploy to evade restoration of the democratic process and prolonging military rule in the country.

Independent experts, analysts and commentators, however, while welcoming the basic approach, consider the plan as "too good to succeed". They consider the plan as impracticable it its present form for various reasons both political and financial. According to some of them the implementation of idea of district governments will bring a turmoil in the existing social, political and administrative set up which the country cannot afford in the prevailing conditions. They are of the view that in the extremely dangerous situation we are faced with today, it is vitally important for us to avoid domestic turmoil at any cost. All controversial issues must be relegated to the back burner and no major decisions rammed through by force. Keeping in view the strong opposition of political parties and the general environment of dissension and distrust, it may perhaps be appropriate to postpone consideration of the district government plan to a more propitious time in the future.

The system announced by the Chief Executive envisages a three-tiered local government structure based on non-party elections and comprising union council, tehsil, and district levels with the following salient features:

There would be direct elections at the union council and district levels but indirect elections for the tehsil councils. Each union council (UC) would consist of 26 members elected through direct adult franchise; its chairman would be directly elected and would also be automatically a member of the district assembly. Each tehsil council (TC) would have 34 members selected indirectly by all the members of the UCs and it would be headed by a mayor elected by the members of the TC. Each district assembly would consist of 66 directly elected members and a directly elected chief mayor and deputy chief may or (contesting on joint ticket).

Thus, there would be almost two hundred thousand new local politicos who will come up through the system. Apart from the heavy additional costs involved in setting up such an extensive network and the difficulty of finding so large a number of "Clean" candidates of appropriate caliber, this would perhaps be for too huge and unmanageable a political crowd to function efficiently and harmoniously in the interest of public service.

Running so many district governments with the proposed elaborate three-tiered structure is going to be a very expensive affair and most districts, being quite poor, will need very considerable financial assistance for survival through the Provincial Finance Commission (PFC) Award even after levying fairly heavy local taxes. But most of the provincial governments themselves are bankrupt and keep complaining that the NFC award is grossly unjust and has financially done them in. This may lead to new problems and fresh tensions.

By giving power to the Chief Mayor in District administration to generate their own financing and giving power to the district administrator / District Police Office (who would be his appointees), we will be introducing total autocracy at grass-roots level. In our present social setup, the feudal lords or Sardars or their cronies would always grab the positions of Mayors and Deputy Mayors. With their power of money, they would be in a position to manipulate the District Administrator and District Police officer and this will create a very powerful exploitative nexus at grass-roots level.

The role of provincial government has not been clearly defined though the vastly increased powers and functions of the local bodies tier, coupled with an overly powerful centre, would obviously diminish it considerably thereby reducing them to "toothless" entities. This could spell serious trouble as it will be perceived as paving the way for eliminating the provinces altogether and reviving the much hated one unit set-up before too long.

The financial fulcrum of the local bodies has not been defined. After abolition of municipal and district taxes like zila tax and octroi by the previous government the proposed local bodies will be left with negligible financial backing. To avoid duplication and arbitrary taxation for generation of funds for the efficacious running of the district governments the central government has to suggest and scrutinize the means of revenue for them.

During the ensuing national debate on the proposal of district government (in which the sector of population which is going to be directly affected is nowhere in sight) these and many other nagging questions have surfaced which merit full attention. The CE, during his TV broadcast said that "on many undefined and crucial aspects of would be democratic order. Decisions will be taken after consensus evolved through a national debate". This is a frather freakish statement. The mechanics of a national debate, except for press statements, essays by intellectuals and seminars and symposia by government and non-government organizations, are not enough. Instead the government should rely on extensive research and analysis by concerned experts in the government, for arriving at the micro details of democracy.