The upcoming local government elections could provide an opportunity to address issues of governance in Karachi, provided the local governance system is strengthened to compensate for the division of the province into rural and urban segments.
A discussion on these issues is normally framed in terms of the political parties involved. Unless some structural issues are addressed, a change in political parties would only be a change on the margins.
One of the problems with Sindh is that it is the only province in Pakistan where a distinction has been made between urban and rural areas. An unintended consequence of this is that no matter how urban votes are cast, the management of urban Sindh will always lie with representatives of rural areas, since the rural area seats in the provincial assembly are more than those for the urban area.
The people of urban Sindh have genuine needs that relate to delivery of services across different sectors. They also have issues related to the law and order situation, which are more urban Sindh-specific.
The real solution is that the local governance system be modified so that political representatives of the people are made responsible for all areas that affect the lives of those living there.
This will be possible only if we devolve responsibility and resources to a third tier of the government and implement a strong local governance system. We see that when responsibility was actually devolved to this level, as was done during General Musharraf’s time, urban Sindh and Karachi witnessed tremendous progress.
On the other hand, we see that without this further delegation of resources and responsibility downwards, the previous tenures of mayors from the same political parties were not as effective.
The upcoming local government elections can provide the necessary opening provided that, firstly, the remit of the local governments in urban Sindh are strengthened to include all areas related to service delivery, and law and order that affect the lives of the citizens. The enhanced scope of local government responsibilities in Sindh is necessary to accommodate the aberration of the rural-urban divide that exists in the province. Secondly, elected representatives, not bureaucrats, are made responsible for these areas. Thirdly, resources allocated within the provincial budget for these areas are divided in proportion of the populations of rural and urban Sindh so that this distribution is even-handed; and finally, ensuring that measures are incorporated into the system of disbursement of funds so that amounts allocated for the third tier would be automatically released by the provincial government.
In the past, attempts to devolve responsibility to the local government have been resisted by the party in power at the provincial level. Unfortunately, the Sindh provincial assembly voted again in favour of a bill that limits the scope of the local government and vests the responsibility with bureaucrats instead of political appointees. This is counter to all democratic principles and international practice regarding local government.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2013.