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Published Date: Apr 1, 2000

An Indicative Model for Power Devolution to the Grassroots Level (PB-10)

Shahrukh Rafi Khan, SDPI


Senior policy makers in Pakistan have indicated that power will be distributed across four tiers i.e. center, provinces, districts and a lower tier, perhaps villages or wards/town committees in urban areas.  Since most of the power is currently concentrated in the center, the devolution is to be to the provinces, districts and the lower tiers. Our view is that villages or wards are the appropriate last tier for power devolution, and so we will work with that premise in this policy brief.  This brief will also focus on the interaction between the last two tiers, since that is currently the focus of attention.  The premise is that more effective devolution and participatory democracy will result from starting to build from the grassroots level.  Other than the main objective of using devolution as a mechanism to build a participatory and hence a “real” democracy, the other expressed policy objectives includes the following:
·    To build an institutional structure that empowers the poor and hence gives them a vested interest to protect.
·    To ensure cost-effective service delivery via collective action
·    To ensure the delivery of speedy justice at the doorstep of the poor

All these are worthy objectives and we think more likely to be achieved, as will be elaborated on below, if the lowest tier is the village.

Power is a zero-sum game.  Achieving the empowerment of the poor at the grassroots level may mean disempowering other groups.  At the district and grassroots level, this would include the following groups:
·     Elites who derive their power from land or other sources of legal or illegal wealth
·     Local, provincial and national politicians who have a stake at all levels including the grassroots level
·    District administration
·     District local government
An ideal solution would be to take a long-term view of achieving the kind of far-reaching reform needed to effectively devolve power to the grassroots level.  Thus, it would require diffusion of power via land reform and electoral reforms to prevent capture of power at the grassroots level, far reaching public sector reform to eliminate redundancy and judicial and police reform reform at the district level to ensure effective dispensation of justice.  In practice, political compulsions require quick action and also constrain the nature of reforms that can be put into effect.  In this regard, we present a model for achieving the desired objective with the least possible demands for fundamental structural reform.  However, even so, there are some minimum conditions for power devolution and these will be specified. In addition, the issues of capacity building at the grassroots level will need to be addressed.  Given that such reforms result in social and political disruption at the local level, it may be wise to implement such reforms via a pilot process.

The two sections that follow contain a model for power devolution to the grassroots level and explore the mechanism of the interaction of local government with district government.