Islamabad local government bill protects bureaucracy status quo


An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Dec 31, 2013.

Islamabad – Here in the federal capital, where governments are formed and dissolved, where political deals are made, alliances broken, laws passed, and the fate of the nation decided in luxurious assembly halls, here the residents have long been bereft of a local government that could help provide for their basic needs.

Despite having six representatives in the 2013 Parliament (two elected Members of the National Assembly and four Senators), the residents of Islamabad remain at the mercy of bureaucratic agencies, which are notorious for their mismanagement and inefficieny.

As Pakistan’s provinces geared up for local government elections in 2013 with some push from the Supreme Court, the federal government too inched towards providing a legislative basis for similar elections to be held in the capital this year.

But the basic document, the Islamabad Capital Territory Local Government Bill 2013, which could lead to the possibility of a local government in Islamabad, is so flawed that it might only end up maintaining status quo in the capital at best, according to speakers who discussed the bill at a consultation on Monday.

The consultation on the bill was organised at a local hotel by the Centre for Civic Education, with support from the United Nations Development Programme Pakistan. The bill was introduced to the National Assembly (NA) on December 9, after its draft had been approved by the Cabinet Division. A National Assembly standing committee will now send the bill back to the house with its recommendations. As per the bill, the Islamabad local government would consist of union councils for the rural areas and a metropolitan corporation.

But members of the civil society, Islamabad residents and representatives of political parties at the consultation did not hold back as they criticised the bill’s contents. The bill, participants said, had numerous problematic clauses which would defeat the purpose of having a local government and allow the federal government and the bureaucracy to maintain its hold over the capital’s affairs.

The consultation’s participants unanimously called for the bill’s draft to be completely rewritten.

“I have never seen a piece of proposed legislation with so many structural flaws,” said Aftab Alam, the Executive Director of Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA). “This bill, in its current form, should not be taken forth at all.”

Alam pointed out that the bill does not quantify the representation of women, youth and peasants. He said according to the bill, the local government’s budget would have to be approved by the federal government, which could also remove elected local government representatives.

Other controversial issues include a clause that allows the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to retain its esponsibility for collecting property tax, which is considered one of the most important revenue streams for a city, for Islamabad. According to the bill’s draft, the Federal Government would then divide the collected property taxes among the metropolitan corporation and the CDA as it wished.

Another clause of the bill that drew the ire of the participants suggests that candidates running for local government elections would be disqualified if they use the flags or symbols of a political party in their campaign, implying that the Islamabad local government elections would be conducted on a non-party basis.

Participants mentioned that an earlier draft of the bill was so poorly copy-pasted from the Punjab government’s local government bill that references to Punjab were not even changed before the draft was sent to the Cabinet Division. They claimed this exposed the federal government’s intent of running Islamabad like Punjab.

The urban-rural disparity of Islamabad was also scrutinised at the consultation.

“Some of the rural areas of Islamabad are worse in terms of basic facilities than the villages in my hometown in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” said Senator Saeeda Iqbal, of the Pakistan Peoples Party. She said the bill should ensure the provision of equal facilities to rural and urban areas of Islamabad.

Iqbal said she would consult with her party’s Parliamentary Leader Senator Raza Rabbani to highlight the problems with the bill on the Senate’s floor through call-t0-attention notices. However, she said even if Senate rejects the bill, it can only stall the bill for three months, after which the bill would become an Act provided the President of Pakistan signs off on it.

Other participants said a poorly established local government structure would ultimately hurt democracy.

“A mock local government will shrink the democratic space in the country,” said Naseer Memon, the Chief Executive of Strengthening Participatory Organisation, an NGO that works on democratic governance and social justice. “A weak local government is counterproductive for democracy.”

Memon said citizens have certain minimum expectations from a democratic dispensation and it would not be wrong if the responsibility of providing primary healthcare and primary education services is given to local governments.

Participants suggested the bill should ensure at least 33 per cent women seats, at least five per cent youth representation and elections to be held on party-basis. It should allow local government to collect the General Sales Tax on services generated in Islamabad, they said.

“We request the government to consult with residents and come up with a new draft bill that presents a strong idea of local government, is suitable for a country’s capital and reflects the needs of the residents,” said Zafarullah Khan, the Executive Director of CCE.

The year 2013 began for Islamabad with protests — the Shia Hazara community’s sit-in to protest sectarian violence in Quetta drew support from locals in January and soon after, Tahirul Qadri’s mind-boggling antics kept Jinnah Avenue busy.

But as cold December approaches its end, 2013 seems to have ended with an isolated protest by the civil society about the future of governance in the city. Meanwhile, things do not seem to have changed much for the residents.

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