Local governments are the mainstay of any country’s overall progress, owing to the fact that they are the third tier of government; those in Pakistan do not only have the responsibility to ensure the implementation of policies undertaken by the federal government but also have the responsibility to help it in the actualization of its international commitments for achieving sustainable development.
What is saddening, in the case of Pakistan, is that no civilian government has been able to introduce a coherent local government system, for which military governments took the onus of introducing local government systems but they proved to be flawed. This resulted in the political subjugation of resources in the hands of a handful of bickering, conflicting political parties. Thus, sustainable development remained a chimaera.
Incomplete Devolution of Powers
Moreover, the current state of local governments in Pakistan is compromising because of many reasons. First, the devolution of powers to local governments under article 140A of the Constitution of Pakistan has not yet materialized in true letter and spirit. Provincial governments keep strict control over resources/funds, and those funds do not flow downwards due to which governance issues are faced at the grassroots level.
Local governments struggle to promote municipal services to the citizens in order to avoid public disapproval. Notwithstanding these efforts, service delivery is still an issue, and local governments have missed the target of achieving sustainable development. Second, local governments do not take responsibility for working out the zoning laws due to which there is less information about the zones, for which development is essential.
Inadequate Zoning Laws
Zoning precisely defines regulations for land use, in order to utilize the land for residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural purposes. However, ill zoning laws in different cities of Pakistan provide specious information about the nature and jurisdiction of zones. Due to a lack of information about the different zones, equitable development becomes a dream in urban centers and the banes of urbanization are witnessed in the form of urban sprawl, slums and concentric poverty zones.
Unsatisfactory Tax Collection System
On top of it, in rural areas, unrestrained growth of smaller towns devours agricultural zones and puts the burden on the country that is already food insecure. Third, the local governments have an unsatisfactory system of tax collection. Local government officials provide fake trade licenses to traders against a sum of money. These practices allow businesses to operate without being registered, owing to which tax evasion becomes a norm.
Additionally, the taxation departments of local governments collect insufficient local taxes and rely heavily on provincial governments. Further, meagre tax collections are one of the causes of fiscal deficit, and fiscal deficit is the main driver of inflation. Development constraints are also there because of insufficient revenue collection which further consolidates the dependence of local governments on provincial governments for funds.
Disbursement of Funds
Fourth, the salaries of the officials and the employees of local governments as well as the funds for development are not disbursed by the provincial treasuries. In almost every province, funds for town committees are disbursed in a manner that developmental funds and salaries are put in a single pool, at the ultimate disposal of the chairmen of town committees.
In order to fund development works, salaries of employees are delayed for almost a couple of months owing to which they resort to a deviant course. Last, the role of the Local Audit Fund in local governments is substandard. Even though local audit screens financial bills through pre-audit, the development schemes are below par because they cease to provide the services for which they were designed.
Since the internal accountability mechanism in local governments is weak, the quality of development works is low-grade, and corruption is rampant. Also, there is an issue of fake appointments since there is a lack of scrutiny of records for audit. By large, the quality of life is at stake owing to the low quality of municipal services. All these internal problems of local governments have compounding effects on sustainable development.
According to Sustainable Development Report 2021, an annual publication of Sustainable Development Solutions Network, published by the Cambridge University Press, Pakistan stood at 2nd last position, outperforming Afghanistan, in the South Asian Region by securing an index score of 57.3 on the scale of (0) worst and (100) best. This dismal performance can be improved by addressing core problems prevalent in the local government systems.
Devolution of powers to local governments can be achieved through the inclusion of a sub-clause in Article 140A of the Constitution of Pakistan that calls for a stipulated tenure of local bodies and binds provinces to conduct regular local government elections, just after the completion of the tenure of local bodies.
Regular elections will make the system efficient and allow direct progress in meeting SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities), SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production), and SDG 5 (Gender Equality). Also, indirect progress in accomplishing SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) will be secured.
Moreover, through carefully working out zoning laws, direct advancement in clinching SDG 11, SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG 10, SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and indirect growth in securing SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth), SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) etcetera will be ensured. Improvements in the taxation system at the local level through proper registration of businesses as well as setting targets for annual tax collection at the local level, particularly at the town committees’ level, will increase revenues exponentially.
States that set annual targets for local tax collection have improved service delivery mechanisms. These measures are the linchpin of securing direct progression in SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG 3 (Good health and well-being), and SDG 10 as well as indirect progression in SDG 8, SDG 9, SDG 4 (Quality education) and SDG 11.
Furthermore, salaries of employees and officials of local governments should not only be put in a separate pool but also be disbursed by provincial treasuries. Multi-pronged benefits are achieved through these steps. First, it will address the issue of fake appointments prevalent in the local government systems in the country. Second, it will provide detailed information about the funds available for the development works.
Ameliorating the role of the Local Audit Fund through extra-ordinary screening of financial bills by provincial treasuries will address the issue of substandard development works. Besides, the menace of corruption will be curbed. Through these efforts, progress in meeting targets of SDG 6, SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG 9, SDG 10, SDG 11 and SDG 12 will be realized.
In a nutshell, coherent local government systems are the need of the hour for improving the quality and security of life. For the realization of growth-centric aims, it is high time to take concrete measures for introducing pragmatic local government systems, as it has been testified by many that growth follows a bottom-up trajectory.
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