LAHORE   -  An unwarranted provincial oversight over the local governments as envisaged in the Punjab Local Government Act, 2019, has the potential to frustrate the very idea of devolution of powers at the gross-root level.

It is for the first time in country’s history that heads of local bodies (Lord Mayor, Mayors and Deputy Mayors) are going to be elected directly by the people in a party-based election. Consequently, the new local governments would be headed by politicians belonging to different political parties.

The new law governing the affairs of local governments gives unrestricted powers to the provincial government in the name of foresight, accountability, financial discipline and checks and balances. For most of the time, the provincial authorities would be seen checking up on the local governments to see what they are doing and how.

In this context, no local government can function well unless it has the full backing of the provincial government. In such a scenario, there is greater likelihood of a conflict between the provincial government and heads of local governments belonging to the opposition parties. Political rivalries among the political parties are very well known. Punjab has been the main battleground between the PTI and the PML-N in the last general elections.

Given the present political scenario, the PTI government is most likely to rule the province for the next four years, but it may clash with many rival local governments headed by the opposition parties given the unrestricted powers of interference into their affairs.

It is quite evident that the architects of the new system have totally ignored the political implications of an undue provincial oversight over the local governments.

At least three sections (202, 232 and 233) of Local Government Act threaten the very existence of a Lord Mayor, Mayor and other heads. A hanging sword of removal or suspension can fall on them any time in their four-year term.

Section-232 of the Local Government Act empowers the provincial government to suspend or remove a head (Lord Mayor, Mayor, Deputy Mayor), convener or a councillor after affording him an opportunity of show cause, if, in its opinion, he/she is involved in corruption, misuse of authority moral turpitude etc.). In doing so, the government will follow a process by making a reference to the Local Government Commission dominated by the provincial authorities. The government may, however, also reinstate the head later on if he is not found involved in any of derelictions.

Similarly, a succeeding section (233) of the said Act, authorises the  provincial government to suspend or dissolve a local government along with its head if it is of the opinion that the local government is not performing its functions as per requirements of the law. Here, again, the government will fulfill the formality of making a reference to the Local Government Commission for inquiry before suspension or dissolution of a local government.

In such a situation, all powers, duties and functions of the dissolved local government shall be exercised and performed by the provincial authorities. And, where, at the time of dissolution, the remaining term in office of the council is in excess of 120 days, the government shall immediately order fresh elections.

This provision in the LG Act reminds one of the notorious 18th Amendment (now repealed) which empowered the president to dissolve the national and provincial assemblies on allegations of corruption.

Likewise, section 202 of the said Act empowers the council to remove a directly elected Lord Mayor, Mayor or a deputy Mayor by three-fourth majority of the councillors on the grounds of misconduct, or if, in their opinion, his removal is necessary for effective performance of the functions of the local government. Interestingly, the council shall also stand dissolved immediately after removal of its head and fresh elections shall be called.

Under this section, the council shall not move a resolution before expiry of first 12 months of the tenure or if 12 months are remaining in completion of its full term.

The matter does not end here. The entire Local Government Act is full of legal provisions to tighten provincial control over the local governments. There are so many restrictions on their working that they hardly enjoy the independence to do things on their own.

Section-6 of the said Act reads, “the Government may require a local government to take such measures, or not to act or do anything, or to run its affairs, or to incur expenditure in a manner as is likely to further the objectives of section 5 of this Act”. Under section- 23, the provincial government may, from time to time, give policy directions and fix objectives for the “effective, transparent and efficient” undertaking of functions by a local government.

Also, various chapters of the Local Government Act are full of warnings for the local governments as they have been advised to perform functions “in such a manner and to such extent as may be directed by the Government”.

Appointment of an undertaker by the provincial government under section-27 is just another case in point. Under this arrangement, the government may appoint any of its agencies to undertake one or more functions or one or more public serves originally assigned to a local government. The government will be doing all this “in the interest of economy of efforts and effectiveness”.

The law also contains certain provisions which are against the principle of financial autonomy. The provincial government can review the budgets passed by the local governments and it may also direct them to amend the estimates of revenue within a prescribed period. And, if the local government fails to comply, the provincial government will amend the budget and it shall be deemed to be an approved budget for the relevant financial year.

The all powerful Finance Commission may ask the local governments to review local taxes which in its opinion are unfair. Consequently, the government may suspend the levy of such taxes if the local government does not comply with the decision of the finance commission.

Under section-228, the provincial government will also have the power to suspend certain resolutions, actions or orders of the local governments; if in its opinion, they are not in accordance with the law and may lead to wasteful expenditure, breach of peace or cause annoyance to the public.

Apart from this, the provincial government will keep a strong check on the local governments through “Inspectorate of Local Governments and “Local Government Commission”. These bodies will keep an eye on the performance of the local governments.

This undue provincial control is most likely to neutralize the impact of some radical changes introduced in the local bodies system for the first time in country’s history.

It would be for the first time that heads of local governments would be directly elected by the people with powers to select a small cabinet to advise them on local government issues.

For a Metropolitan Corporation or Municipal Corporation, the heads’ cabinet shall comprise of two councillors and four to six professionals. For the two councillors, it is mandatory to have completed not less than 16 years of education from a recognised institution. In case of Tehsil Council, heads’ cabinet shall comprise two councillors with fourteen years of education and two to four professionals.

Likewise, the head of a municipal committee can keep one councilor with fourteen years of education and two professionals. The cabinet of a Town Committee head shall comprise one councilor and one professional with no education bar.

It is also for the first time that a conflict of interest clause has been introduced in the said Act in respect of award of contracts by the heads of various local governments. They would not award any contract if they are direct or indirect beneficiary of the contract.

Also, for the first time, right of the public to attend meetings of councils has been recognised. However, the Convener may exclude public from certain meetings if majority of council members think that public information of the proceedings shall be prejudicial to public interest by reason of confidential nature of business to be transacted at the meeting.

Election of councilors through proportional representation is also a welcome step. Under this system, if a political party nominates two or more candidates for election for one seat, they shall be supposed to contesting jointly. They will be elected on the basis of votes obtained by a political party or group who shall indicate the ranking order in which they should be elected.

Development agencies like LDA and WASA have also been placed under the local governments. Had there not been an excessive provincial dominance, it would have been an effective and powerful system.