Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq
One does not need much common sense to understand that in order to reduce poverty and economic depravity, everyone who is capable must be productively employed. This means that all households in the country should have at least one income earner if not more but the question is, how can it be determined? Does a centralized form of governance have the ability to reach out to every home unit in the entire length and breadth of the state and check out its income status? With all their mighty power, the main seats of administration located in the federal and provincial capitals are devoid of the competence to touch 32,205,111 households (not including Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir) as per the census held in 2017 proving the point that there is total disconnection between the people and the governments.
In the days of yore when societies were less complicated, the good rulers would disguise themselves and mix with ordinary folk to obtain feedbacks about their management skills thus improving their control, solving problems and making the public happy. Today, with the rapid increase in population and complex life amid a highly politicized world, remotely controlling administration related to the populace is becoming extremely tough. This issue has been ably addressed by some sensible countries that have resorted to devolution to bring governments to the doorstep of each household rather than forcing the helpless people to travel long distances for their petty issues.
Despite constitutional command vide Article 140A to devolve governance at the local level, successive regimes in Pakistan have failed to do the same. This failure alone has impeded economic growth and just because of lack of the much-needed empowerment the masses have been deprived of enriching their lives with the consequence that the country, instead of progressing, has taken a u-turn towards regression. Devolution also entails fiscal decentralization which means that resolution of problems at the grassroots level can be ensured. This envisages that whatever revenue is collected from the local community by the local government would be spent on the development and welfare of that group of people.
It appears that democracy (literally ‘rule by the people’ in contrast to monarchy or aristocracy) lost its meaning when it landed in Pakistan. Here it implies holding of general elections with a 33% voter turnout that displays its preference for a particular politician who, on once obtaining power falls under the impression that the voter has given him complete authority or mandate to do whatever he pleases with no accountability and no regard for his immediate needs. In other words, through a so-called democratic process there is a reversion to dictatorial and monarchical rule and that too with a few choosing someone to rule everyone.
True democracy demands that under the local government, a council elected by the residents, must enjoy the right to levy municipal taxes to be used for education, health care and social welfare services. It should also be responsible for matters related to the residents’ needs including recreation, housing, and the management and maintenance of their living environment (i.e. roads, streets, water supply and sewerage), as well as land-use planning and functional municipal structures. Small is beautiful!
Around the globe, all successful democratic models impose taxes at local base-level that is one of the cornerstones of self-governing community as with the guarantee that the council/municipalities can manage the functions that they have undertaken to execute, or those for which they are responsible for under the law. In social democratic countries e.g. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, the most important feature of fiscal management and delivery of social services is municipal tax. Local governments in Finland in 2018 raised revenues of €41.9 billion [US$ 47.7 billion] and total tax collection [€121 billion] was 44% of GDP. In Pakistan, total tax collection—both at federal and provincial level—in fiscal year 2017-18 was less than US$ 40 billion (merely 11% of GDP).
If a country of 5.5 million people (Finland) can achieve 44% tax-to-GDP level and through municipal taxation can provide free services of health and education, we a nation of 210 million can definitely do much more, provided there is political will. One could be apprehensive about the way a councilor might deliver but the plus point is that unlike the minister sitting in the federal and provincial capitals, he is easily accessible. Managing smaller units is more convenient that is the reason why a city like London comprises 33 administrative boroughs.
At present Pakistan too is divided into provinces and further sub-divided into divisions, districts, tehsils and lastly, union councils all under the command of the federal and provincial governments and totally dependent on them for funds. This dependency prevents them from attending to the needs of the people in their jurisdictions. Mere designation without financial power is just useless. In fact, these units do nothing more than waste the taxpayers’ money in the same manner as a nincompoop son plays havoc with the hard-earned income of his father while the people’s immediate problems remain unresolved, whether it pertains to their streets, waste management or housing, educational and medical needs.
An idle mind is a devil’s workshop and with rapidly growing idle minds, there would naturally be a substantive growth in crime and other notorious activities. It is about time that governments show some responsibility and devolve administrative and fiscal power to the people so that not only do they feel the strength of democracy but also enjoy access to their universal entitlements without having to run from pillar to post. There would be teething problems no doubt, but it would eventually prove to be a game changer for the country.
The writers, lawyers and partners in Huzaima, Ikram & Ijaz, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)