Local autonomy needs
GOVERNMENTS throughout history have come into being in several ways. In a few instances, persons living in close proximity to one another got together, formed themselves into a civil society and set up by mutual consent institutions of governance to take care of their common concerns.
The more common way, especially in the old days, used to be that a man at the head of a band of armed men entered a land, vanquished its ruler and became its new king. The people at large took little notice of this regime change, for their local overlord and arrangements for resolving disputes remained essentially unchanged.
Communication and transportation being slow, the ruler found that he could not personally and directly govern distant places, and that he must leave much of their day-to-day administration to provincial governors and local notables. He understood also that they had to be left alone for the most part, because sitting in the capital he could not control their actions in any detail. Thus, the governors, and to a degree even the tax collectors and other officials (judges and sheriffs), became virtually autonomous. This was local autonomy born of necessity; it did not issue from any doctrine of the people`s rights.
In one case events took a different turn. Instead of declaring themselves independent or otherwise breaking up the realm, the local chieftains (the feudal lords) in England got hold of their king and made him sign a covenant (Magna Carta, 1215) in which he pledged not to transgress their established privileges and prerogatives, or the governance in their respective domains. Nowhere else in the medieval ages did nobles take this kind of initiative. Rebellion was their more common course of action, which succeeded or failed depending on the balance of forces on the field of battle.
As our modern age dawned another development began to surface. Political thinkers and publicists (John Locke in England and later Tom Payne and Thomas Jefferson in America) proclaimed the individual`s entitlement to autonomy and his primacy over society and state. The American Declaration of Independence made this claim sound divine when it asserted that all men had been endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including the one to govern themselves, form governments to serve their convenience and dismiss them if they did not perform well.
In this train of reasoning the people, having the right to govern themselves, may set up agencies to serve their needs at various levels. In a village or a small town they may establish a direct democracy in which all come to a town meeting to settle their collective concerns. In larger jurisdictions they will elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf, keeping in view their needs and wishes. Note that in this interpretation the people are the principal and governments are their agents. It follows also that local government exists as an expression of the people`s sovereign will, and it cannot be abolished or suppressed except as their own doing.
This is how units of local government came into being in parts of America, notably the northern states of New England (New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine). But this is not the way it happened in most other countries. As feudalism and local autonomy associated
with it receded, and as the modern state emerged, ruling authority was consolidated at the centre. It spoke for the sovereign state, and created (or recognised) arrangements of governance at lower levels, and determined their jurisdictions, largely to suit its political and administrative convenience.
Even here, with the passage of time, a degree of local self-government was embedded in the political culture of certain nations. Strictly in law and theory, the British parliament may abolish the City of London as a body corporate and dissolve its government. But it would invite ridicule and intense opposition if it was found to be even contemplating such a move.
Things have been different in our own subcontinent. Here the central authority has always been supreme over all others. Even the provinces, not to speak of municipalities, exist at its pleasure. It may abolish some of them, divide one to create new provinces, take the territory of one and join it with another. The provincial governments in turn can do the same with the localities and their governments. The latter used to be the provincial government`s vassals, indeed creation. That remains the case in India. The relationship between the locality and the higher levels of government has recently undergone some change in Pakistan.
The exercise in devolution of governmental power and authority, initiated by Gen Pervez Musharraf, would seem to have had the purpose of further strengthening the central government at the expense of the provinces. It was advertised as a measure to bring government closer to the people. Closeness has been considered desirable because it will enable the people to tell the government what they want and it will then do the needful.
Closeness was instituted not out of Gen Musharraf`s generosity of spirit. The assumption underlying the devolution plan had to be that the people had the right to require the public authority to meet their needs. That this authority was to be elected by them could be interpreted to imply recognition of their right to be governed by their chosen representatives at the local as well as the higher levels of government.
Municipalities have traditionally carried the responsibility for water supply, sanitation, street cleaning and maintenance, education up to high school and control of infectious diseases. The guiding principle here should be that functions best performed at the local level are left there and those relating to larger jurisdiction are handled by the provinces and the centre.
If local functions are expanded so as to include, let us say, maintenance of a police force, courts dealing with small causes and minor violations of the law, clinics and small hospitals, voter registration and conduct of local elections, local governments cannot be kept dependent on provincial and central grants. They must have adequate revenue-raising authority of their own. They should be able to levy and collect property tax and be entitled to designated percentages of sales tax, excise duties, individual and corporate income tax collected by the provincial and central governments within their respective territorial limits. The collecting agency should promptly transmit their share of these taxes to the local governments concerned.
The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is currently a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.