Vol. 4 Num 251 Tue. February 10, 2004  

How costly is a 450-seat parliament and its ‘decorations’?

At least 40 million have been added to what was the population in 1971 when Bangladesh got its place under the Sun. The number of members in the parliament, however, remained static at 300 elected for general seats and 30 women to reserved seats in the house voted by the elected members. The life of 30 women members were held on life-support machine for time to time for survival but expired during the seventh parliament in 1996-2001. The then ruling Awami League lacked two-third majority to sustain their longevity. Opposition BNP refused to come to the parliament to infuse artificial respiration to the endangered species with a pledge to bestow them with matured life through direct elections. Keeping an eye on the long standing demand for women's direct representation, BNP kept its promise in ink in the glossy manifesto for 2001general elections to elect 64 women members -- one from each district.

With more than two-third majority for BNP led alliance in the eighth parliament task of creating necessary constitutional provision for women's direct representation became simple. But the senior most cabinet minister in charge of state purse cast shadow on the prospect on ground of economy while the loudest member threw cold water stating that manifesto was not written in holy script that it was bound to be respected. During the two and a half years of BNP-led alliance rule, spirit of women activists so much has been dampened that they have given up hope that BNP would ever live up to its manifesto. Voters also forgot another related promise of BNP -- to expand to a staggering number of 500 in the parliament as it was absolutely a non-issue for this country.

But after spending a pleasantly unproductive two and a half years of parliamentary life in December 2003 BNP leadership announced out of the blue to go ahead for 450-member parliament including 50 nominated women members! The rationale offered was as incontrovertible as it was rest on solid rock, "more population calls for more representation." It was as if some one arose from deep slumber in the legendary Persian koh kahab to say something new to the nation.

No body can miss the impact of over 130 million population on a land mass of 55,127 square miles of which 30 per cent is under water and hills. Percentage of land under rapacious grabbers is unaccounted for. Roads, lanes, streets, footpaths are overflowing with ever swelling population and transports of all denominations. Under the impact of over-population, public health services have completely fallen apart. Patients consider lucky enough to get a space on the floor or premise of public hospitals. Environmental degradation has reached to such an extent that cities and towns have turned into veritable slums. In the absence of virtually non-existent public toilets, floating millions ease themselves up at any place of their choosing, be it day or night. Even for enrolment in elementary classes students' face fierce competition for seat in the schools and parents suffer from nightmare. An estimated 60 million live below poverty line. Every year rank of ( now 13 million) unemployed is swelling.

It is an undeniable fact that law and order is the worst casualty of the exceedingly over population. Apart from wide-spread police-politico-godfather nexus blame for sharp decline in the security of life and property, man-police ratio is just not tenable in the state. Due to population pressure utility services are simply crumbling down. Too many opportunists are after political patronage, to illegally grab scarce resources of the state under benign shadow of guardian-angels, while the country hits hattrick for corruption in the international rating.

People demanded under democratic society an end to unbridled corruption, end to extortion from all quarters, an independent anti-corruption commission, independent human rights commission, assured law and order, separation of judiciary from executive branch, abolition of special powers act, freer government media and vibrant parliament, transparent and accountable government. All these popular demands were eloquently magnified in the BNP manifesto during election campaign in 2001.

Sadly the experience of first half term of the government has been a sorry state of affairs to put it mildly. Manifesto was twisted and trounced at will. What is offered now is not solution to the burning issues of the day but a 450-member House! It would just add more misery to an unbearable objective condition in the country. But then what prompted the BNP to come out with proposed legislation for expanded parliament and enlarged number of handpicked women legislators? If two duty- free luxury transports and other perks and extraordinary privileges extended to existing 300 members failed to ensure quorum in the House, the enhanced members will only add up to the extravagant cost to the hard pressed exchequer. The maximum seat capacity of the House for the MPs is 354.

Equally relevant question comes to mind if both the leaders of the House and the Opposition despite being ladies won in more than one seat in every general election then why their kind should be deprived from empowerment? It was also proved that a number of women contested and came out with flying colours in the successive general elections as well in local bodies. If money is the crunch in the way of women empowerment development partners will be too happy to foot the bill. In that event there's no need to put '50 diamond sets' to decorate the parliament. What is needed is the demonstration of political will in loud and clear voice to empower the women through direct elections to their seats.

Chess players advance pawns to watch move of the counterpart and prepare for next move. The card players keep the trump card close to the chest. Politicians play the game of brinkmanship and ploy strategy to outwit the opponent. One, therefore, must not take such creative people by face value. The leader of the opposition in the parliament and Awami League chief claimed that to divert people's attention from their 15-point demand, BNP came up with this unwanted agenda. Such a statement probably could only be made without doing homework. The memory of the people is not so short as to forget acrimony within the BNP during distribution of nominations in 2001 while it had to sacrifice 50 hopefuls from its rank to accommodate three alliances. BNP conceded 40 constituencies including one from its freedom fighter stalwart Col. Oli Ahmed to Jamaat-e-Islami and 10 to other Islamic parties, a splinter group of Ershad's Jatiya Party and to a number of super rich who took last moment berth on the winning side.

Col. Oli's revolt was pacified by returning his constituency but the annoyed bosses saw to it that he was defeated from that seat.

For re-election BNP can ill-afford such a repeat performance in 2006. It needs to accommodate all aspirants in 300 plus seats to turn tide lest the deprived and the dejected join rank with Dr. Badruduzza Chowdhury. Further, steep rise of Tarequr Rahman to party hierarchy over the shoulder of the BNP senior lots needed to be compensated with more ministerial ride and more membership in the parliament. To ensure much-promised 20 years in power, BNP also perhaps needs to further strengthen Jamaat-i-Islami and other Islamic parties as powerful alliance. They need to be built as counter weight to secular forces. Islamic parties can be allocated a generous number of constituencies in an enlarged 400 seat parliament with adequate representation in the cabinet. Once the BNP alliance is re-elected with majority it would bag almost all 50 women's nominated seats. Therefore, direct election to women seats goes to back burner for ever. Since the ruling alliance would redraw new boundaries of 450 constituencies gerrymandering will be in full play to ensure re-election of the coalition in subsequent elections.

The enormous cost involved for electing 450 members, in their accommodation, transports, perks, allowances and privileges, as well as in running and maintenance of the majestic parliament building need to be projected for public information. If the exercise is done in a transparent manner, the amount in all probability would far exceed the feeding expense of proverbial white elephant for this impoverished nation and leader of LDC.

But in today's politics transparency and accountability is the last thing in the line. This culture has degenerated into gimmick and comic without which politicians seem to have no other alternative to amuse the nation.

M.Shafiullah is a former Ambassador.