Local govt in ruling party grasp
Almost all the local government institutions are marred by systemic failure and irregularities. These institutions are influenced and controlled by ruling party MPs. They lack coordination with the administration and other organisations as they are run by separate laws and have limited powers to collect taxes.
These institutions do not have the authority to oversee all tasks and have to depend on the central government for budget and imposing tax in various sectors.
From the union parishad to the city corporation, there are about 67 thousand representatives of the local government.
According to the constitution, the elected local government body will coordinate several services and government allocations. It will also impose taxes for the services. It will draw up a budget based on its revenue and government allocations. However, local governments have to rely on the ministry for many matters including fund allocations.
Several planners and experts have said that the government has made all sorts of commitments to render the local government institutions strong and effective, but these commitments have remained restricted to rhetoric only.
The actual challenge for the government is to strengthen the local government by fulfilling these commitments, said the experts, adding that this was the only way to meet the United Nations’ sustainable development targets (SDGs) by 2030.
Former caretaker government advisor Hossain Zillur Rahman told Prothom Alo that the ruling parties do not want to empower the local government.
“It has become a new normal for the local government institutions to follow the orders imposed from above. Also, people’s involvement with the institutions has decreased,” he added.
Purbadhala upazila parishad elections were scheduled to be held on 10 March. The Election Commission (EC) ordered local MP Waresat Hussain to leave the area on charges of influencing the election campaign. The MP left the area, but returned a few days later. Finally, the EC suspended the election there.
Then again, there was no election for almost 16 years after the Zila Parishad Act was passed. In 2011, the government appointed Awami League leaders as administrators in 61 district councils across the country. The remaining three were the Hill District Councils. The first district council election was finally held in December 2016.
Local governments influenced by MPs
According to the 2009 Upazila Parishad Act, the local member of parliament (MP) is the advisor of the council. The council is to send a development plan to the government with his recommendations. The ministry will consequently take a decision after scrutinising the recommendations.
The MPs try to establish control over local government in many ways. There has been discontent between Natore’s Baraigram upazila chairman Siddiqur Rahman Patwari and local MP Abdul Kuddus. The chairman complained that the MP often interfered in the work of the upazila.
Siddiqur Rahman said, “The local government should be free from the influence of the MPs.”
“MPs have influence on various the planning and implementation of development projects. But these works are supposed to be done by the elected representatives of the local government,” he added.
The influence of MPs on the upazila parishad election has come to the limelight recently. Since the announcement of the schedule for first phase of upazila elections, local MPs participated in electioneering, violating the electoral code. Also, there were allegations that many MPs were fielding independent candidates of their choice against party candidates.
Lack of coordination and accountability
The local government lacks coordination with many government departments such as family planning, health, agriculture and education. The ministry makes plans by itself and implements them at a field level. Local representatives have no role in this planning.
The discontent between MPs and local administration is often visible. There are instances where the upazila and union parishad chairmen have even demanded removal of a certain upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO).
There are different laws for union parishad, upazila parishad, zila parishad, municipality and city corporations. These laws conflict with one another in many cases. It had been decided to create a uniform law in the seventh Five Year Plan of the government but the process has not started as yet.
There are provisions for ‘ward meetings’ twice a year under the Union Parishad Act. Voters will raise their views on various issues in this meeting. But the meetings are not regular. Also, the accountability of the public representatives is obligatory. Representatives say that the voters’ demands far outweigh the allocations. That is why they do not want to hold ward meetings.
In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the regional council is in charge of coordinating the administration, law and order, and development in the three hill districts. However, regional council chairman Gautam Kumar Chakma told Prothom Alo, the regional parishad has never been taken into consideration. The regional council has never been made effective due to political and bureaucratic reasons. No one wanted to see this council effective, he contended.
Women representatives ignored
Women are directly voted to the reserved seats of the local government. However, the function of the women representatives has not been clearly enunciated in the local government laws. They have no role in development planning or work. Of the 17 standing committees of the upazila parishads, 6 are headed by women vice chairmen. But as the standing committees are not active, these women vice chairmen have nothing to do.
Najmun Nahar is the vice chairman of Bamna upazila in Barguna and the general secretary of the upazila Mahila Awami League. She told Prothom Alo that the women vice chairmen are not given due importance. The chairmen hold all power. All the women have to do is attend a meeting once a month. She said the women vice chairmen should be given specific responsibilities and authority.
Income and abilities must be increased
During the 2018-19 fiscal, around 290 billion taka was allocated to run and develop the local government division. This amounted to 7 per cent of the national budget. Of this, of course, over 250 billion taka is the development budget. Local taxes are the only source of revenue for the local government. But under the the union parishad and upazila parishad laws, the councils are unable to collect adequate taxes. The local governments are thus in a dilemma.
Chairman of the Aranagar union parishad in Dhamirhat upazila of Naogaon, Shahajahan Ali, told Prothom Alo that the union has very little revenue and the allocations are inadequate. The local administration carries out development work through contractors and do not bother to even consult the union parishad. He said that the workforce and allocations both have to be increased and the council must be consulted about development work.
The law gives the local government responsibility for all sorts of work, such as maintaining law and order in the area, protecting the canals, rivers and water bodies, preventing violence against women or implementing the government’s development programmes. But in actuality, their functions are limited to some infrastructure construction, revenue collection, issuing certificates and some arbitration.
The government is not taking any measures to build up the financial and administrative abilities of the local government so that they may carry out these functions. And the government also hardly monitors the functioning of the local government institutions.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina visited the local government ministry after forming the government in 2014. She said that power should be decentralised and the local government strengthened. The local government tiers would be restructured and gradually given responsibility for health, education, law and order infrastructure development, social security and other development plans.
Awami League’s manifesto for the 11th parliamentary polls also gave importance to the local government. It was said that communications, drinking water, waste management, health, education, sanitation, power and energy supply would be given to the local government to handle. But that would mean a much larger role for the local government to play.
Secretary of SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance), Badiul Alam Majumdar, said that the constitution has already placed the responsibility on the shoulders of the local elected representatives to resolve all local problems. The government in power must understand that the local government is an autonomous body, free of government influence and also free of any control by the members of parliament.
*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat