Closer to the People
Everywhere around the world most challenges people face are local. Therefore, the best way to solve them is through local initiatives and local leadership by awakening and mobilising people. Authorities closest to the citizen or rather citizens themselves by getting directly involved can greatly contribute in solving public problems. This is where decentralisation of power or the term local government comes into shape. Local government brings decision-making closer to the people. A strong local government system can ensure good governance through transparency, accountability, effective participation and equal opportunities for all. Most importantly, this system can ensure development at the grassroots level.
The Constitution of Bangladesh framed and approved in 1972, within a year of the country's Independence, firmly emphasises the need for establishing local government with a representative character (Chapter 3, Article 59). Article 59 mandates the creation of elected local bodies at each administrative unit- District, Upazila and Union. To put it simply, these bodies are for "the management of local affairs by locally elected persons." Local government, by definition, is democratic self-governance and so accountable to the people.
There are two types of Local Government settings in Bangladesh, rural and urban. At the rural level the existing system provides a four-tier structure, which is Zila Parishad, Upazila Parishad, Gram Sarkar and Union Parishad. Among these bodies only UP is of a representative character and most operative. At the urban level the six largest cities have City Corporation status, while the rest are known as Pourashavas or Municipalities.
These bodies are entrusted with a large number of functions and responsibilities relating to civic and community welfare as well as local development. The Union Parishad is responsible for executing 48 duties. Among them 38 are optional and 10 mandatory. These responsibilities are divided into four categories. These are civic duties (building roads, bridges etc), tax collection, maintaining law and order, and lastly development work. In spite of the importance and potential of local government institutions, they remain weak in Bangladesh. The past few years show they have become even weakes.
Only two local bodies are now functioning in the country - Paurashava/City Corporation in the urban setting and Union Parishad in the rural setting. While the Paurashavas enjoy a certain amount of operational freedom, the Union Parishad are seriously handicapped in terms of funds, resources and self-governance. They continue their function very much at the mercy of the bureaucracy and are now increasingly being controlled by the Members of Parliament.
Local bodies in Bangladesh face a constant shortage of funds. The sources of their own income are generally taxes, rates, fees and charges levied by the local bodies as well as rents and profits accruing from properties and sums received through their services. The sum collected from these sources is very meagre. Moreover, their sources of generating funds locally are being curtailed.
Union Parishad receives a major portion of the funds from the Annual Development Programme (ADP). This funding system is full of loopholes creating serious setbacks in development activities. Funding by ADP is paid in instalments, which are called block grants. This block grant does not flow to the UP directly; rather it is channelled through the Upazila. At the Upazila level interference from the administration usually slows down the flow and hampers the development plan. The criteria for allocation include on population, size of an area and the level of backwardness. As the administration controls the distribution process, it tends to be biased.
The allocation is also prone to political interference. The interference by MPs in the UP affairs, particularly in development activities, has weakened the UPs' independence. The MPs often dictate the development activities to be undertaken, most of the times without consulting with the local elected representatives or assessing actual needs. Ruling party MPs tend to intrude more in the UPs' development planning. Even if there is no ruling party MP in the area the local leaders of the ruling party meddle in the process.
Moreover, the UP authorities usually have no idea how much money they are about to receive, which makes planning for future development work impractical. The development projects get stalled if the instalments do not arrive on time, which is often the case. Most UPs receive the instalments when the fiscal year is about to end.
ADP allocation to UP is less than 2 per cent of the annual budget. For development activities, this amount is considered inadequate. The maximum amount in implementing a development project is only Tk 50,000 which is also insufficient. Furthermore, this fund is not released unless bribes are paid.
The Union Parishad, mandated by the constitution, is responsible for preparing and implementing development plans. Their plan is also subject to the approval or recommendation from the administration. This is contradictory to their autonomy.
Because of these bottlenecks the local government bodies fail to serve the people properly and gradually citizens' confidence in local leadership is declining.
Surveys (Citizen's Perception of Local Government in Bangladesh, May 2003, ARD-LGI) show that around 88 percent people in rural areas personally know the UP chairman. Being directly involved with the local system, people in the rural area expect results from local leaders or local bodies. Studies have also shown that local citizens cast votes not only to the party identity, they search for someone who has knowledge of local problems and would be on their side when disaster strikes. They expect results in development activities.
However, local government leadership and representation is now only equated with getting elected, with no meaningful mechanisms of representation or functionality, thereafter. As mentioned above, the local government bodies have virtually no power to plan and execute development actions or to formulate their budgets independently. The UP chair and members who are accountable to the voters soon realise the fact that they have practically no power to serve the people and work for local development. Vital services like education, health, and social welfare are centralised at the Upazila level. The leaders have almost no management role in these matters, rather the administration at the Upazila level control these services.
Apart from the lack of power of the local leaders, corruption also resells in loss of confidence in local government among the people. Funds for projects like Food for Work or disaster relief are all too often misused by local leaders; even VGF (Vulnerable Group Feeding) cards go to their relatives and friends rather than those who really need it.
People's participation in local government is crucial to the development process and also in decision-making.
The Constitution of Bangladesh implies direct participation of the people in forming the local bodies and in managing the affairs of such bodies. There are different levels of participation, participation in decision-making, participation in implementation, participation in benefits, and participation in evaluation. But in reality, the spirit of people's participation in local bodies has not always been adequately maintained.
Frequent changes in the local government structures are partly responsible for this. The extent and quality of people's participation have also been variable. The most direct participation is the opportunity of casting votes during the election to local bodies. But elections are not held at regular intervals. Since Independence in 1971, successive governments have tried to use the local government system for their own political interests. The party or regime in power wanted to make the local government representatives their power base and manipulated the system to this end.
Experiences in other parts of the world show that the closer the authorities and resources are to the people, the greater the benefits they bring for society. In Bangladesh, local government structures remain weak, posing as a major obstacle in achieving the goal of poverty alleviation programmes. Local government as a political institution to ensure development and public participation in development activities is far from being an efficient tool of governance in Bangladesh.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005