What remains for us?
Md. Isharat Ali
FOR the second time through a triumphant election I won the confidence of my people. After serving for three terms as the Union Parishad Chairman my people were pleased enough to elect me as their Upazila Chairman for the first time in 1985 and a democratic ruling was awarded to my people during the then Martial law period through a strong local self government. Alas! Now I am an Upazila Chairman having no power bearing huge responsibilities. It is well known that functional and independent local government is indispensable for the development of Bangladesh. Upazila Parishad as the most important echelon of the state is well accepted to the people of Bangladesh. After a 20 years pause, election has taken place at the Upazila level, holding of which was an election pledge of the present government. The election conscious citizenry of the country expected much from this tier of local government. But this tier of local government is struggling to be the local self-government as envisaged in the constitution of Bangladesh.
Disenchantment first came out while the present government inserted the provision of mandatory advisory role of the MPs over the Parishad. The unease and mistrust that exists between Upazila Chairmen and MPs largely stem from the fact that both have been elected by the same electorate and on the basis of similar promises made to the electors. No doubt, both the MPs and Chairmen are elected representatives in the concerned Upazila. Even some Upazila Chairmen won equal public mandate with the MPs, since there are numbers of constituencies composed of only one Upazila. The Upazila Chairmen of those areas are more preferred to their people than the concerned MPs. The Chairmen maintain a stronger and direct relation with the common mass. The MPs are elected following their political party's mandate whereas the Chairmen are elected following their personal mandate. Of those, which mandate is the toughest one? It's obviously the personal one. However, the Chairmen never deny the involvement of the MPs in local development. Rather they prefer, even in a limited sphere, self-determination of the Parishad, which is being consistently flouted by most of the MPs by exercising their mandatory advisory role. In my first term as the Chairman from 1985-1990, a family bond was established between my MP and me. We had worked together for the welfare of our people and we never felt any resentment in doing such. We honoured each of our reasonable advice and vise-versa. There was no mandatory advisory role and there was no controversy. I feel the present provision of obligatory seeking of the MPs advisory opinion itself is the seed of controversy between the MPs and Chairmen. I have worked for my MP in last three national elections. So, a mutual understanding was expected. But this provision has sown a seed of conflict among us.
Recently, in one of the cabinet meetings, it is reported, some while criticizing the Upazila Chairmen's demand of writing Annual Confidential Report (ACR) for their staffs, commented most of the Chairmen are illiterate and do not understand ACR. We are frustrated! A large number of existing Chairmen have served once as the Member of Parliament. Even some existing as well as former ministers have once served as the Upazila Chairman. I myself have obtained in all of my public examination first division during Pakistan period. My Vice Chairman was a student of Dhaka University and his female counterpart is a graduate whereas there are many MPs who are alleged to have passed only Matriculation. This is but one instance out of all. Now in this digital Bangladesh, people's consciousness have radically changed and illiterates have rare access in such important tier of local government. Non-assignment of ACR power turned me a powerless head of the Parishad. I am a captain, I have a team, I have to control them but of have nothing to do if they are derailed. Is there any one who would address this team strong enough to implement the constitutional pledges in Articles 9, 11, 59 and 60?
Now, I am tempted to refer The Daily Star's Editorial on 21 April 2010, title of which reads, “Seed of another conflict sown in the important local government tier”. The same daily published alarming news like “UNOs to get more power”. The government on April 19 gave a proposal that would make the Upazila Nirbahi Officer the Parishad's principal executive officer vested with the power to look after financial matters. The editorial explains that “It is understood on good authority that the UNOs will continue providing secretarial assistance to the Upazila Parishad. But it appears that since they will look after financial matters and would issue check, the power of the purse will be held by them. This has given rise to an apprehension in the minds of Upazila Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen that in the power equation elected representatives are being put at a disadvantageous position in terms of implementing projects and policies. It is claimed by the proponents of the latest proposal that just as a secretary is to a minister so will now be a UNO to the Upazila Chairman. But the reality is while a minister has a policy making responsibility, the Upazila Chairman is denied of that role due to the obligatory advisory meddling by the Members of Parliament”.
Moreover, as soon as the election was held government by a notification empowered the UNOs to be the Chairman of Law & Order Committee for concerned Upazila. Question may arise who knows better the law & order situation in an Upazila? Chairman or UNO? It's obviously the Chairman who has a continuous, close and stronger relation with each of the villages of his/her Upazila.
Article 9 of the Constitution of Bangladesh provides “the state shall encourage local government institutions composed of representatives of the areas concerned.” Article 11 corroborating the former states “the Republic shall be a democracy in which effective participation by people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured. Article 59 empowers the local government to functions relating to administration and the work of public officer; the maintenance of public order; the preparation and implementation of plans relating to public services and economic development. These powers are to be exercised subject to the Constitution and any other law. Therefore, any law may put reasonable restriction upon these powers but cannot completely assign it to a non-elected body. The latest proposal has also grabbed the Parishad's financial powers as envisaged in Article 60 of the Constitution.
Like the decorative principles as enshrined in Articles 9 and 11, Upazila Parishad has now turned into a decorative tier of local government. It should not be unknown to the present policy makers of the government that out of 481 Upazila Chairman about 400 belong to the ruling party's political philosophy, as the last election result suggests. It was a rare opportunity for them to build up the country since they obtained an absolute majority in the Parliament as well as in the Upazila election. But it seems they are reluctant to use this opportunity. Negation of the Chairmen elected through a democratic process may entail evil consequences in future. The government presumably with the assistance of bureaucrats, establishing first “dual rule” and lastly “triangle rule” weakened the most expected angle, the Parishad, and tormented the will of the people and the spirit of democracy. Even no clear dichotomy of functions have yet been provided by the government for least functioning of the Parishad that left a power crisis linger on among the three angles. My question- where is the fairness of the ruling party to handover the power to their own root level leaders? Therefore, nothing remains for us!
The writer is Chairman of Upazila Parishad, Atghoria, Pabna.