Governance of urban areas By Syed Rizwan Mehboob - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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THE negative implications of accelerated and often unplanned urbanisation in many cities of Pakistan are unique in that they are fairly well known yet perilously little understood.
If one were to go by policy pronouncements and reiterations or frequently aborted initiatives to reform urban governance, many of these challenges should have disappeared years ago.
However, the persistence with which the malaise continues to haunt our cities is reflective of both the severity of the challenges as well as the inappropriateness of response.
Foremost in terms of wanting policy responses is perhaps a tacit reluctance to appreciate urban issues as a peculiar entity in the public-sector governance framework. In all likelihood, the historical orientation of local administrative structures with regard to assumptions about predominantly rural societies must have given rise to bias amongst administrators and policymakers.
A manifestation of this bias can be found in a series of local governance legislations which have been introduced in Pakistan from time to time. Prior to the introduction of the Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2001, all local government laws treated urban areas as peripheral to the overall municipal governance framework.
While a chapter or two of the relevant legislation would be dedicated to municipal committees or corporations, the peculiar requirements of urban areas were rarely addressed through such legislation. Whether it was development planning, financial management, taxation or its enforcement, massive urban areas including municipal corporations or committees were
conveniently clubbed together with rural local councils.
The traditional reluctance to address the peculiar requirements of urban areas and cities took yet another twist with the introduction of the Local Government Ordinance 2001. Notwithstanding some of its conceptual strengths, LGO 2001 struck an unprecedented blow to the cause of urban governance through the much-touted elimination of the urban-rural divide. In all likelihood, the so-called innovation was designed to introduce elements of equity and fair play in addressing resource requirements for urban and rural areas without discrimination.
However, the so-called notion of urban-rural parity introduced through LGO 2001 can best be called over-simplistic. What was conveniently ignored was the reality that the resource requirements for smooth municipal management in urban areas are substantially different from those for rural areas, both in terms of scope and magnitude. The level of technical sophistication, human resource capacities, management structures or even the regulatory framework requirements in urban areas are entirely different from those in the rural areas.
Clubbing together union councils that have a primarily urban character with those that contain rural features in tehsil municipal administrations invariably dealt a blow to the urban areas. It was not uncommon for development resources to be mechanically divided amongst all union councils within a tehsil, irrespective of the greater resource requirements of areas within cities. As a result, municipal service delivery in many of the smaller cities and peri-urban areas registered an alarming downward trend during the last decade.
The fate of municipal governance under LGO 2001 in city district governments has also been far from satisfactory. Between 2001 and 2008, issues of territorial and functional duplications between city district governments, development authorities and agencies continued unabated in many large cities. Several attempts to pilot modern ideas of urban management were made but rarely followed through with structured replication. With rare exceptions, long-term solutions in areas such as integrated solid waste management, land-use planning, commercialisation, public transport systems and resource mobilisation remained elusive.
With such a dismal history of urban governance, the urgency for immediate remedial measures cannot be over-emphasised.
The cost of not addressing the ‘urban challenge’ has the potential to lead to disturbing socio-economic consequences that can easily get out of hand. Rampant degradation of municipal service delivery systems can be a catalyst for social unrest and similarly disruptive developments in society. Also, unplanned urban sprawls can thwart the economic potential of major cities which may be globally seen as engines of growth and development.
A beginning in the direction of rejuvenating urban governance must include the collective appreciation of cities as separate and independent administrative and governance entities. Having fixed this historical anomaly, immediate progress on finalising and putting in place a separate mechanism for managing large and intermediate cities along professional lines is vital.
For the purposes of efficiency and focused progress, city governance systems may be developed independently of the larger local governance framework in the provinces. Regional and global experience of successfully implementing comprehensive city governance systems can be readily benefited from. Solutions for addressing service delivery and governance challenges in large cities need to be designed around long-term projections and potential.
Two areas of critical importance would need the immediate attention of our policymakers to reinvent urban governance systems for large cities. Any meaningful and sustainable improvement would be impossible without designing and putting into operation innovative financing and resource-mobilisation strategies. Similarly, any hopes of introducing lasting improvements in our large cities would be short-lived unless their management was manned for the most part by professionals.
A dedicated cadre of capable officials and sector experts would need to enrich the existing human resource pool which is typically available in the public sector. As a matter of fact, the pattern of running larger city governments like any other public-sector outfit needs to be immediately discarded in favour of a professional, marker-oriented and merit-based human resources regime.
With the future shape of local governance in Pakistan under active consideration by policymakers, the opportunity for fixing urban governance ailments, once and for all, needs to be fully availed of.
The writer is a governance expert.

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