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Unfinished journey of devolution in Pakistan’s democratic landscape

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Amidst the bustle of a bustling market square, a weary shopkeeper gazes at the political posters adorning the walls. With a sigh, he reflects on the promises made by leaders over the years—promises of better healthcare, quality education, and improved infrastructure. Yet, the reality he faces is one of crumbling roads, dilapidated schools, and a healthcare system that seems distant and unattainable. His disillusionment is mirrored in countless corners of Pakistan, where the incomplete devolution of power has cast a shadow over the aspirations of citizens. This scene echos a reality that has echoed through Pakistan’s democratic journey. A journey marred by incomplete devolution of power, a journey where the promise of local governance remains a distant ideal. As Pakistan marks its 76th year of independence, it’s a time to reflect on the power dynamics that have shaped its democracy and the urgent need to rethink the trajectory towards a truly empowered nation.

Pakistan’s tumultuous democratic journey has been characterized by numerous milestones and challenges, none more critical than the devolution of power. The decentralization of authority to Local Government (LG) has far-reaching implications for effective governance, equitable representation, and citizen-centric decision-making. This article delves into the historical context and compelling evidence surrounding Pakistan’s struggle with incomplete devolution of power, unraveling its profound impact on democratic governance.

Following Pakistan’s birth in 1947, power remained largely centralized, stifling regional autonomy. It wasn’t until 2001, during the Musharraf regime, that the LG Ordinance was introduced, marking a significant move towards devolution. However, this pivotal initiative faced formidable challenges, leaving devolution incomplete and hampering the establishment of robust local governance structures.

Historical Evidence

The introduction of the LG Ordinance in 2001 was a significant step towards devolution. However, resistance from powerful stakeholders diluted its transformative potential, illustrating the uphill battle faced in reshaping power dynamics.

In the Constitution of Pakistan, there remains an organized structure of LG under the 18th amendment, But unfortunately, the on-ground realities completely differ from the on-paper realities. The funds and power that are necessary to be transferred to LGs for effective governance remains inaccessible.

Global experiences offer invaluable lessons. India’s Panchayati Raj system empowers local communities, leading to improved service delivery. Similarly, Indonesia’s decentralized governance model exhibits how local involvement can drive efficient governance and inclusive development.

Impact on Effective Governance

The incomplete devolution of power manifests acutely in the realm of effective governance. Service delivery becomes a casualty, with essential sectors like healthcare, education, and sanitation suffering from bureaucratic hurdles. These obstacles breed disillusionment among citizens, eroding trust in democratic institutions.

LGs struggled to fulfill responsibilities, facing resource shortages and capacity gaps. This contributed to subpar service delivery, further underscoring the importance of complete devolution for efficient governance.

Equitable Representation and Policy Relevance

Incomplete devolution poses a severe threat to equitable representation and policy relevance. Local communities, with their nuanced understanding of needs, are denied the power to influence policies. This disconnection between governance and ground realities leads to policy inertia, inhibiting comprehensive progress.

Musharraf’s efforts to decentralize power highlighted the significance of local decision-making. However, incomplete devolution hindered transformative policy formulation, thwarting potential advancements in education, health, and infrastructure.

Empowerment and Inclusivity

Empowerment, a cornerstone of democracy, finds itself compromised due to incomplete devolution. The absence of localized decision-making curtails opportunities for marginalized segments, particularly women. To ensure effective governance at all political levels and to address the issues of all gender and classes, effective and empowering LG structure is a must for the government to incorporate.

Moreover, the rights of minorities find themselves marginalized within an incomplete devolution framework. Their voices, critical for a diverse society, often remain unheard. Sindh’s devolution story serves as a reminder, as incomplete devolution there thwarted effective representation of minority communities, hindering inclusive democratic growth.

Addressing Challenges

Overcoming challenges posed by incomplete devolution requires a multi-pronged approach. Administrative capacity must be strengthened at the local level to ensure effective implementation. Bangladesh’s experience highlights how capacity-building initiatives fostered successful devolution, facilitating efficient decision-making and resource management.

Bureaucratic resistance and political interference have hindered the effective implementation of devolution. Strengthening administrative capacity and ensuring autonomy from political pressures are vital to overcoming these challenges.

Political will is also one of the deciding factors to incorporate the third tier of government, the LG, along with the federal and provincial government. To empower the LG with all the funds and powers provided by the constitution, the will of political parties is must. The recent example of Imran Khan can best explain how a leader with centralized mindset can hinder the local level progress and development of a state. Because of such centralized attitude of many politicians, Pakistan has always faced hinderance in incorporating an effective LG structure.

Without the decentralization of basic human needs such as health, education, transport, etc., these facilities can’t be effectively transferred to all areas of a state. One needs local stakeholders with governance powers to ensure the application of government policies. Uganda’s decentralization of power to LG marks as a step towards progress of the state.

Furthermore, raising public awareness is pivotal. Communities must recognize the benefits of devolution and their potential for transformative change. Uganda’s endeavors to inform and educate citizens about decentralization stand as a blueprint for fostering support and understanding.

Conclusion

As Pakistan celebrates its 76th Independence Day, the journey towards effective democratic governance remains a complex one. The incomplete devolution of power serves as a formidable barrier to equitable representation, efficient governance, and inclusivity. Historical evidence, both local and global, underscores the transformative potential of devolution. By addressing challenges through administrative reforms, capacity-building, and public awareness, Pakistan can pave the way for a robust democratic framework. Complete devolution is not just a political initiative; it is a testament to the country’s commitment to empowering its citizens and fostering a vibrant democracy that truly reflects the aspirations of its people.

Muhammad Shahbaz Rajper
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The author is an undergraduate student of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad. He is also a freelance columnist. He tweets @Msrajper786

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