THE key to practical democracy is the active involvement of people in every aspect of governance and hence budget as an imperative instrument of governance is no exception.
However, the budget-making process in Pakistan has been largely opaque. People have little opportunity to participate in the process that affects the quality of their lives directly. No major steps have been taken by any government or political party to make this process participatory or people-oriented.
A study was conducted by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), an Islamabad-based think-tank, to monitor the process of budget-making at the district level.
Its main aim was to collect research-based evidence whether district governments of Punjab are following the timelines and required procedures for the budget-making process.
The District Government Budget Rules 2003 lay a clear outline for different timelines and procedures to follow, including a clear requirement for people’s participation in the budget-making process.
The survey shows disturbing trends in budget formulation. Of 36 districts of Punjab, only two issued budget call letters before the stipulated date, i.e., September.
There was a very low level of people’s participation in the budget-making process. Citizens are required to be consulted before the issuance of budget call letters, and during the preparation of budget proposals.
The districts governments have a poor show in this area. Only three districts in Punjab consulted civil society representatives and citizens at some stage of the budget-making process.
The budget branches of the EDO/F are in depleted conditions. There is a vast gap between sanctioned and posted strength, and a number of posts are lying vacant.
Overall, of 489 sanctioned posts in the budget branch, only 219 were filled. There were only two districts where the budget branches were working to full strength.
Many of the procedures, as given in District Budget Rules 2003, were either bypassed or ignored. For example, in five districts, estimates of expenditures and receipts were prepared and submitted, though budget call letters were not issued.
Where it was issued, the budget call letter was not accompanied by some important components as mentioned in the budget rules.
By the time of survey, April 2013, 26 districts had issued budget call letters. Of these 26 districts, vision/mission of the district government was mentioned only in six budget call letters and only 19 budget call letters were sent with detailed budget calendar.
An important yardstick for information dissemination would have been a good interactive and updated website. The survey results show that only six districts have functional websites.
Local government elections are the only solution available to make the executive branch accountable and to increase people’s participation in the budget-making process.
The situation at district level, however, is not pleasing at all. Several steps of the budget-making process are bypassed, public participation is next to zero, there is no research staff posted in budget branches, district governments do not generally respect budget procedures and timelines.
The provinces have delayed the local government elections on different pretexts. This wait should end now. The top leadership of the PML-N is on record for holding local government elections within six months of the general elections.
The countdown has started.
ZAHRA LODHI Project Manager Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives