Bridging Gap Between People and Local Government in Bangladesh

Paradigm Shift is Must

Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam

September 30, 2020

15 MIN READ

Bridging Gap Between People and Local Government in Bangladesh
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Decentralization is often linked to the concept of active participation in the decision-making process augmenting democratic values.

Indeed, local representative authorities with actual discretionary powers are the basis of decentralization that can lead to local efficiency, equity and development.

Effective local institutions can formulate and implement policies in line with the citizen aspirations that can improve the quality of public services, and thereby promoting local development. 

Bangladesh is a unitary system of state with the constitutional provision for local government bodies to provide all amenities that people need.

The Bangladesh constitution has specifically made provisions for decentralization.

For instance, article 59 stipulates that local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with law and act of parliament shall lay down the functions of the local government bodies which may include administration and the work of public officers, the maintenance of public order and the preparation and implementation of plans pertaining to public services and economic development. 

Since decentralization is still more rhetoric than reality, one may raise the question of frank intentions of different regimes behind such initiatives.

Bangladesh inherited the colonial pattern of local government as a consequence of British rule over us for around two hundred years.

With the partition of Bengal and India in August 1947, when the region became East Pakistan as a part of the newly formed State of Pakistan following the Radcliffe Line.

British and Pakistani periods, different changes were made to the local government structure. Even after independence, several structural of local government bodies we have discerned under different regimes.

Since decentralization is still more rhetoric than reality, one may raise the question of frank intentions of different regimes behind such initiatives.

Even local government is not empowered with capacity building and transfer of resources as expected due to the highly centralized character of the governance of the country. 

Local government (LG) leaders in Bangladesh are not fully empowered to carry out their work. Management systems are typically weak, and broad-based while community participation in local government decision making is usually limited.

Local government is one of the most important but sensitive items in the policy and budget making arena in Bangladesh.

Most of Bangladesh’s local governments are highly dependent on a historically centralized national government system.

Local government bodies suffer from inadequate financial resources. By taking this into consideration, the LG regulations have given the LG bodies the power to mobilize funding from local resources through levying taxes, ‘hat-bazaar’ lease, etc.

Interestingly, less than one percent of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (or GDP) funds 85 percent of LG development expenditures.

Undeniably, LG bodies are heavily dependent on direct grants from the central government and shared tax revenue with the land department.

Even, there is no financial indication or directives for local government bodies in the Sixth Five-Year plan. No financial distribution policy has been in place for them to deliver services. 

Frequent changes in the decentralization policy are politically motivated. Popularly changes made by the government with an objective in mind to create political loyalty, and to build a strong political base at the local level by putting party men in various positions.

Furthermore, the decentralization initiative has so far been taken does not solicit public opinion beforehand. The only task of the LG is to select kinds of projects and sites for its implementation.

Approval of these projects is rest with Upazilla Nirbahi Officer who consults with the Upazilla Engineer and Project Implementation Officer for endorsement. Local government suffers from susceptibility to the political and administrative whims of the Government.

The government also exercises its control over the LG by issuing circulars from different ministries, which is contradictory to the original legal framework.

Such a provision endorses enormous power to the district administration to manhandle the local government. 

The colonial pattern of administration in LG has been categorized as elitist and alienated nature.

Administrative officials working at the union Parishad level are bureaucratic and alienated from the people, and therefore, people cannot properly take part in different activities of LG.

The weakness of its socio-economic base remains a key obstacle in the way of democratic education through LG.

The unequal economic structure trends to influence the local bodies by pro-partied class. They often tend to suit their class interest and purposes.

As a result, LG cannot render proper services to the people at the local level. Besides, the presence of the local elite dissuades the general public from participating in the LG, which results in a less effective local government.

In reality, the volume of violence, the complaints related to nominations as well as corruption in the electoral system has been terrible. 

In rural Bangladesh, this remains a major impediment to popular participation in local level elections. 

Local government bodies suffer from inadequate financial resources. By taking this into consideration, the LG regulations have given the LG bodies the power to mobilize funding from local resources through levying taxes, ‘hat-bazaar’ lease, etc.

Although the UP generates funds from different sources, it does not receive its total share.

The majority of the chairmen and members do not have adequate knowledge and understanding of the operational procedures and functions of these bodies.

They also lack the proper knowledge that is required to deal with the complicated rules of budgeting, planning, and managing resources.

In order to ensure people’s participation in the decision-making process of LG, and to ensure accountability and transparency of their activities, the Local Government (Union Parishad) Act, 2009 provisioned the concept of ward meeting.

It is consisting of all the voters entered in the electoral roll. The elected member of the ward shall act as the Shava Ward Chairman, while the elected female member shall act as an adviser.

The Act provides that at least two meetings of the Shava Ward shall be held per year. It is the responsibility of the Shava Ward Chairman to present the annual report before the members, and also to let them know about the implementation status of the development projects.

Besides, this act also provides that each UP shall publish the “Citizen’s Charter” through which all citizens shall be notified of what services they are entitled to receive from the UP and of the conditions associated with the service provision in the definite period of time. 

The political problems that Bangladesh is suffering are not rooted in the constitution but in the political culture. It has hurt democratization and decentralization efforts within the local government structure of Bangladesh as well.

A paradigm shift in the political system took place in Bangladesh on October 12, 2015, to hold local polls on a partisan basis.

The century-old practice of non-party poll of local bodies has been changed to a first-ever partisan poll that brought major challenges for political parties of Bangladesh.

The government claims that the local government elections will be more participatory by the introduction of party-based elections.

One important way of guaranteeing meaningful participation in the local development process without weakening the executive is to make maximum use of the standing committee.

Ideally, it has opened up an opportunity for the local people to be mindful of selecting their local leaders as well as engaging in the development process at the grassroots level.

The central political party in power an implement their agenda at the local level with maximum backing of UP elected representatives.

In reality, the volume of violence, the complaints related to nominations as well as corruption in the electoral system has been terrible. 

As stipulated in the Upazila Parishad Act 2009, MP’s role as adviser to the local government bodies is not ideally conflicting as long as MP is watchful for accelerating the wellbeing of the people in his/her constituency.

However, the reality suggests that the ‘advice’ of MPs turns into an ‘executive order’, letting them override and control the development planning and actions by the elected representatives at the Upazila Parishad.

Advisory role of MP signposts where does the decision-making power lie and literally triumph for political representatives to interfere decision-making process for rural development activities without asking the locally elected representatives.

Worry of losing MPs supremacy in their respective constituencies stops them to cooperate instead of interfering at last.

The success of the Upazila scheme largely depends on how best the local leadership, MP, and the people interact in an environment of cooperation and partnership. 

Decentralization comes in effect with the delegation of judicial authority to the grassroots organization.

To bridge the gap between informal and formal dispute resolution, Bangladesh redesigned Shalish through the 2006 Village Courts Act.

The village courts aimed to combine the best of Shalish on the one hand (accessibility and effectiveness), and of the formal judicial system on the other (procedural justice).

The 2006 act provided for the establishment of a village court in every Union Parishad (UP). To enable access for the most vulnerable groups, fees and other associated costs for submitting a case are very low.

Unfortunately, they have their own flaws and require further reform. in the presence of powerful influential people, the victim does not dare to speak the truth: village courts cannot achieve anything because they are biased due to administrative connections, undue influence of ruling political parties, muscle power, and corruption

Local government plays an influential role in grassroots level development through responding to local needs.

Effective decentralization through inclusive and sensitive inter-governmental transfers as well as sensible resource sharing is a key to strengthening democratic local government bodies and promoting services to the citizens.

It gives the structural framework for women’s participation in political decision-making and provided an opportunity to bring women to the center of local development and develop new grassroots level leadership.

Those who are elected as chairperson or general members are often ignored during decision-making only because they are women.

Though this participation is in some cases to some extent barred, it provides for maintaining the mosaic of interests in a pluralistic society resulting in social integration. 

One important way of guaranteeing meaningful participation in the local development process without weakening the executive is to make maximum use of the standing committee.

The standing committee allows the members to perform numerous functions that otherwise might not be conducted at all.

By and large, the standing committee is a small group of representatives who are assigned, on either a temporary or a permanent basis, to examine matters more closely than could the institution.

The standing committee allows the representatives to perform simultaneously numerous important functions that otherwise might not be conducted at all.

The Local Government Act 2009 has created an opportunity to ensure greater participation of the people in the process of development planning and implementation provisioning standing committee at rural local government bodies. 

Since the participation of members has not been made obligatory by the law, most of the members of the standing committee show their reluctance to attend standing committee meetings.

Moreover, the issue of functioning of the standing committee has not yet received enough prominence among different actors of the Union and Upazila of non-intervention areas that could motivate members to actively participate in this process.

In an attempt to make the development really meaningful, empowering and sustainable, the ‘bottom-up’ approach of development that involves people directly in the making and implementation of decisions of local government bodies is the need of the hour.

Due to the excessive workload of departmental officials and lack of notification by their line ministries, the member secretaries of the respective standing committee do not show enthusiasm to expedite the process of functioning of the standing committee. 

While decentralization is a significant catalyst for sustainable development in rural Bangladesh, the relationships between MPs and bureaucrats and local elected representatives should be made trustworthy based on mutual understanding in the decision-making process.

MPs must bear in mind they are elected by the people of their constituencies to look after common interests of them.

Citizen engagement should be increased through an effective committee system.

Effective decentralization through inclusive and sensitive inter-governmental transfers as well as sensible resource sharing is a key to strengthening democratic local government bodies and promoting services to the citizens.

To help achieve the overarching national ‘Vision 2021’, relevant stakeholders under the auspicious of the leadership of the government must act together.

In an attempt to make the development really meaningful, empowering and sustainable, the ‘bottom-up’ approach of development that involves people directly in the making and implementation of decisions of local government bodies is the need of the hour.

Let the present government take the lessons from the problems and overcome them for the greater interest of the nation.

What we perceive, at last, there is a need for a paradigm shift in government side, from imposing development into facilitating rural development through delegation of authority, from teaching the local people to learning together with them.

(Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an Associate Professor of the Department of Government and Politics at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh. He is the Visiting Scholar of Oxford and Cambridge. Prior to joining the university, Dr. Islam was serving the United Nations for a period of seven years)

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