Local decay (on Local Government) -DAWN

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RECENTLY, the Sindh chief minister said that his government will collect the fire and conservancy tax through electricity bills in Karachi. Increase in efficiency and bolstering the finances of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) were given as the main reasons for this. The opposition in Sindh says that such a move is the prerogative of an elected local government which neither exists nor appears to be in sight. The federal government is siding with its allies.

The Sindh government’s decision highlights the fault lines in local and provincial politics that are rooted in history. During Gen Zia’s regime, elected local governments were revived. KMC got its elected mayor in the person of Abdul Sattar Afghani.

Soon the KMC leadership and provincial government rowed over property and motor vehicle taxes. KMC wanted to control these and other local taxes while the government wanted the status quo maintained. Mayor Afghani and his comrades took to the streets. He was arrested and later dismissed.

Similarly, the erstwhile City District Government Karachi imposed an infrastructure levy referred to as ‘public utility charges’ in February 2009. It met with strong opposition from different quarters. It was felt that the economic situation could not take the burden of a new levy. Besides, people were contending with regular power shutdowns and poor water and sanitation services. Another financial burden was unjustified. With no process of consultation and no presentation of proper facts and maintainable arguments. the levy was relegated to the back-burner.

The set-up in Sindh exercises total control over LG functions.

For Sindh, the 18th Amendment is its mainstay. But while it is quick to demand more from the centre, it is wary about sharing its fruits with local government institutions. It demands a smooth electoral process for the national and provincial assemblies but stops short of guaranteeing the same for local governments.

Provincial autonomy is boosted by the 18th Amendment, but the creation of local governments is held hostage by the Sindh administration. The provincial government has expanded its control and jurisdiction, and municipal functions have been placed under provincial control. Water supply, sewerage, solid waste management, policing, land for housing, building control, zoning and urban planning, health, education, social welfare, urban public transportation, etc are all controlled by the provincial authorities.

The local government law and other statutes have been remodelled so that the provincial government exercises total control over finances, administration and daily local government functions. Even if local elections are held, the tutelage of the provincial administration will leave little room for local government institutions to perform.

The government’s financial functioning is full of distortions. Budget books, accounts and realities hardly seem to be in sync. The availability of funds, expenditure and prices vis-à-vis services and commodities shows a complete mismatch.

At government offices, one loses count of how many green-plated luxury cars come in. Similarly, many government departments have opened offices after renting out expensive bungalows and properties in posh localities in Karachi and other locations. Often, actual work on projects and programmes begins much after the acquisition of accommodation, vehicles, lower staff etc. There are rules of businesses available for such procurements. One wonders whether they have been followed.

Similarly, it is common to see gun-toting official guards and motorcades for even mid-level government functionaries. Meanwhile, costs are not transparent. The safe city proj­ect for Karachi costs around Rs30 billion. Transparency Inter­na­t­ional Pakistan believes the cost should be much less.

It is not that all is well with the KMC. Its capacity to deliver has been severely eroded. It suffers from overstaffing, the absence of operational and financial discipline, an inability to set its own working targets and safeguard and document its land and property assets and chalk out proper strategies for its current and future working. Being under the province’s control, it acts more as a department than an autonomous organisation.

Political wheeling and dealing under the garb of democracy has rightly been perceived as the root cause for the financial drain on local government institutions and other government bodies. With no financial discipline, the overall sustainability of such bodies has been jeopardised. Reform is needed for both KMC and other municipal institutions. The public should keep themselves informed about the state of affairs and make rational choices when, and if, local elections are held. The metropolitan and municipal corporations must be exposed to greater public scrutiny by the media. Civil society institutions can push for the reform process to begin.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.