Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Pakistan: Local government law sparks unrest, violence in Sindh Province

Photo: Ashraf Khan/IRIN. Waiting for better municipal government – garbage piles up in western Karachi

Source: IRIN

KARACHI, 4 December 2012 (IRIN) - A new local government law is causing tension, protests and fresh violence in Pakistan’s mega-city of Karachi and elsewhere in Sindh Province.

Passed in five minutes by the Sindh Provincial Assembly, the Sindh Peoples Local Bodies Ordinance (SPLGO) envisages a reorganization of local government, and has led to violent protests that have put local government work on hold: rubbish is piling up on the sweltering streets of Karachi, and overflowing sewage pipes are not being repaired.

Protests by different Sindh nationalists under the umbrella of Sindh Bachao Tehreek (Protect Sindh Movement), which began in September, have seen strikes outside the main cities.

Vehicles have been smashed; trucks, buses and tyres have been burned; and several protests have let to violent clashes.

In the worst incident in October, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rally in Khairpur in support of the law, killing seven people.

IRIN has recently reported on sectarian killings in Karachi, a fragile water supply system and educational woes, and now looks at why the new act is making waves.

Who is opposed to the law?

Opposition politicians, mainly from Sindh nationalist parties, say SPLGO is an attempt to undermine the sovereignty of the Sindh provincial authorities.

Some 60 percent of the province’s population is estimated to be Sindhi, with the rest mainly Urdu-speakers.

“We believe that whoever is the supporter of the [SPLGO] law, he or she is the traitor of Sindh,” Ayaz Palejo, chief of Awami Tehreek, told IRIN. Palejo heads the Sindhi Nationalist Party, and leads an alliance of nationalist parties.

“This is a conspiracy to divide Sindh,” he said. “We will not sit idle unless it [the law] is reverted.”

What’s the purpose of the law?

Those in favour of the law, say it will create more accountable local government councils leading to better services for ordinary people.

“Even getting a birth certificate we have to run pillar to post, as officialdom is so corrupt and inefficient,” said Zahoor Ahmed, a street hawker who sells vegetables in a middle class neighbourhood of Karachi.

“But it is easier for us to push an elected councillor… and he is easily accessible to us,” Ahmed, 50, told IRIN.

Currently, local government is struggling to provide even basic health and sanitation services.

An acrid stench has been emanating from piles of rubbish beside Karachi’s famous Urdu Bazar for weeks now, as the municipal authorities have not had sufficient funds to buy fuel for the trucks which normally collect garbage.

“We’ve offered bribes to an official in the area but he turned down our offer and we have to endure this for weeks,” a local shopkeeper told IRIN.

But Sindhi nationalist parties say the real purpose of the act is political - to help out the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM - currently the fourth largest party and a key ally of PPP), which draws its support from urban Sindh.

A committee comprising elected representatives from PPP and MQM in the regional parliament aims to transfer resources and power from the provincial government to lower levels of authority.

“This concept in not unique in Pakistan; decentralization is a global phenomenon that ensures more effective and efficient service delivery,” said Mustafa Kamal, who served as Karachi’s mayor from 2005 to 2010.

SPLGO transfers almost all services - including education, health, water, roads, sewerage and sanitation, fire services, parks and playgrounds, culture and sports, and street services to the city, district, town or even `tehsil’ (smaller than town) authorities - from the provincial, to lower levels.

The law creates new “metropolitan corporations” in Karachi, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Larkana, Mirpurkhas, and Khairpur. (Previously only Karachi and Hyderabad had such status). The remaining areas of Sindh come under 25 district councils.

Why are Sindh nationalists worried?

The major concern of Sindh nationalists is that the system of metropolitan corporations and district councils effectively divides the province in two.

The move is seen as a PPP concession to MQM; the two parties are presumed to be planning to fight the 2013 general election (no date fixed yet) together, and are likely to control the metropolitan corporations, allowing them to effectively control urban parts of the province.

The newly-allied 18-member opposition in the 167-member provincial assembly is concerned that the law will divide the province’s Sindh- and Urdu-speaking residents.

The Sindhi nationalists distrust the new law: “We are not able to understand the criteria of declaring a city as metropolitan,” said Qadir Magsi, a doctor who heads Jeaye Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party (STPP), one of the leading Sindh nationalist parties.

“It is not clear whether the level of urbanization or the size of population were the basis,” said Magsi, who also queried the new status of Khairpur, the home town of chief minister Qaim Ali Shah.

Other nationalists question the redrawing of Karachi’s city boundaries, which they believe would benefit MQM, the urban rival of the rural-based nationalist parties.

“The division of Karachi reflects bigotry and it is designed to outnumber the Sindh and Balochi population in the electoral constituency,” said Zamir Ghumro, who is leading an alliance of Sindh nationalist parties called the Sindh Dost Rabbita Council.

“So this is a clear plot to divide urban and rural Sindh which we would not tolerate,” Ghumro said.

However, one of the conceivers of the original law in the Musharraf era disagrees. “The municipal system throughout the province is almost the same and uniform, and there is no duality I see in the new law,” said Daniyal Aziz, a technocrat who served as chairman of the National Reconstruction Bureau in the Musharraf regime, and a staunch supporter of local government.