Capacity Building of Young People

A case for Local Bodies System in AJ&K

16th October 2020 | Ahmad Saleem
The interpretation of Rousseau’s concept of the social contract has been tremendously distorted and disfigured in its arduous journey from the plains of Western Europe to the mountains of Kashmir. Pakistan witnessed its first appearance of Local Governments (LGs) through the ideals of Ayub Khan, who had setup the Basic Democracies (BD) system to serve as the Electoral College. This system was readily exported and enforced in AJ&K under the Kashmir Basic Democracies Act 1960 where the power to elect the President was transferred from All Jammu Kashmir Muslim Conference to a 2,200 member Electoral College.

However, this BD system, plagued by its notorious genesis and under-representation, could not stand the test of time and got replicated by a new local governance apparatus in 1979, propagated by the Zia regime. In this endeavor, around 3,290 candidates contested the elections for a total of 1297 seats in AJ&K and surprisingly, these elections were able to bring forward young, educated and motivated individuals to the spearhead in public service delivery.

Nevertheless, to the detriment of masses, these elections in 1979 marked the beginning of a long hiatus as the expected results could not trickle down to the grassroots level in AJ&K, despite the introduction of a new program for the Devolution of Power in Pakistan by Musharraf and the subsequent Provincial Local Government Act of 2013. It was only after the recent 13th Amendment to the Constitution of AJ&K that the term “Local Government”, in its true essence, appeared in a substantial legal document beyond the Local Government & Rural Development (LG&RD) department, dictating that “the state shall encourage local government institutions composed of elected representatives”. However, this too had no mention of the structure, function, duration or an expected time regarding the holding of the LG elections.

The never-ending void that has been created by the absence of such a ground level political outlet in the politically charged and aware youth of AJ&K has led to a sense of frustration and helplessness. The multi-faceted impacts of the absence of this outlet have been truly gauged by a recent report by Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms (CPDR) titled, “The Local Government System in Azad Jammu & Kashmir” that has probed in to various dimensions of this topic from the perspective of the youth of AJ&K. The findings of this endeavor paint a stark dismal picture of the grass roots where a clear majority of people consider the “political parties” responsible for not holding LG Elections, claiming that the non-existence of LGs had brewed a “leadership vacuum” and the primary need for LGs exists in order to bring forward “new leadership”. These facts give us a crisp understanding of the trust deficit and agitation that exists among the masses due to non-restoring of the LGs in AJ&K.

Moreover, the report also dwells in identifying the primary challenges associated with the restoration of local bodies, including the lack of political will in political actors like the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) themselves. The fundamental reason for MLAs to resist such devolution of power is the parallel flow of monetary and fiscal functions of the State that are part and parcel of this system; such an occurrence would strip them off their discretion upon development funds that they are used to employ as a political tool with impunity.

Furthermore, the rise in clan-based politics and biradrism in AJ&K, closely associated with dirty money and party factionalism, has muddied the spirit of true representative participation even at the grass roots level. In addition, the vested interests of the bureaucracy, particularly in the AJ&K Administrative and Police Services at the district level and even at the helm of affairs in the LG&RD Department, make it harder to promote a LG system, which will devolve true financial and administrative power to the people in Tehsils and Union Councils.

To augment the merits of this system, and to build upon the culture of participation and democratic ethos it breeds in the society; it is imperative to consider the valued recommendations of this report that include the reduction of voter age from 21 to 18 years. Also, for the curtailment of development works being carried out on the whims of MLAs, allocating 25 percent quota for youth and women, fixing a tenure for the LG bodies similar to that of the Legislative Assembly, the establishment of a LG Academy for capacity building of the elected representatives and trickling down of finances are among many other key recommendations put forward in the report, without which sustainable local governance is a mere dream.

However, these efforts to promote public awareness regarding LGs would remain incomplete and inconsequential if they are not supplemented by an advocacy campaign to amend and upgrade AJ&K’s Local Government Act of 1990 that is the bed rock of the structure to be laid down in case these elections take place. Moreover, this amelioration process should be one that is inclusive of all stakeholders and is principled upon modern yet environmentally similar best practices like the Kerala Model of local self-government where development functions, along with their allied components like planning, financing and auditing, all are executed by the local individuals trained by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration.

A conflict and disaster stricken region like AJ&K, home to around 4.05 Million people with a considerably high literacy rate, would be the most appropriate and ideal place to put such a progressive and sustainable local governance model in to action that would also help strengthen Pakistan’s case and struggle to secure the Indian Occupied Kashmir’s right to self-determination.

A final push that such an ideal direly seeks now is the political will that can be achieved through a unified public resolve and an advocacy campaign strengthened by civil society and organizations like CPDR.

Ahmad Saleem

The writer is a policy analyst and a development practitioner and has also worked with United Nations Pakistan. He demonstrates keen interest in governance, policy and humanitarian issues in Pakistan and beyond. He can be reach at ahmadsaleem47@yahoo.com

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