Local and Lame
The recently passed Upazila Parishad Bill led to many heated debates around the country; unfortunately none of those debates took place in the arena that mattered most, our parliament. It would be wrong to say there was an air of apathy over the issue. On the contrary, members of parliament (MPs) around the country took the issue seriously and when it came time to vote on the Bill, uncharacteristically they all voted in favour of the motion. This is the country where the opposition has often spent most of its time outside parliament, where they have routinely abstained from voting and often vote against Bill's issued by the government simply as a way of life. Why then did they all come together to vote for this Bill, why did political lines suddenly disappear for this Bill? An optimist would say that finally democracy was moving forward in Bangladesh, that MPs were looking beyond party lines and for the overall betterment of the nation. Reality paints a different picture, as the government and opposition came together to secure their power over the lower forms of government, such as upazila parishads. Their act of togetherness was not a step in the right direction and will not herald a new dawn for the democratic functioning of parliament. Lifelong foes turned into friends for day in a bid to protect and enhance their power, strange bedfellows to say the least.
The problems with the new Upazila Parishad Act have been known for some time, yet only one elected MP actually took the bull by the horns and tried to secure the independence of local government. AKM Mozammel Haque an Awami League lawmaker submitted a written proposal to the parliament secretariat seeking to overturn the provisions of the bill, which gave MPs authority over upazila parishad Chairmen. His stance was not well received by treasury and opposition lawmakers as they sought to retain power over upazila parishads. At the end of the day his suggestions were thrown out the window as almost every other MP sought to pass the bill that would make them the supreme leaders. Aside from the members of parliament, people around the country were livid that such an outrageous bill would even be tabled in parliament, let alone passed. The bill has been called everything from unconstitutional to undemocratic, yet the common argument against the bill is that it not only belittles and diminishes the role and power of the uapzila parishad chairmen, but it gives local MPs almost supreme power over all activities within their constituencies.
The constitution of Bangladesh calls for a clear separation of power between national and local government. The basis for that separation is that elected MPs are essentially lawmakers and should have no hand in development activities within their constituencies, that work is to be carried out by a lower from of government, which in Bangladesh is known as the upazila parishad. It is essential for any working democracy to have a local government system that is self governed and yet accountable to a higher authority. The only problem in Bangladesh is that the MPs do not believe in decentralising power in a way which gives people below them authority to monitor and control their constituencies. This is one of the very few areas where the government and the opposition see eye to eye, they will seemingly overlook the constitution and the very spirit of democracy simply to add to their already considerable power.
Many a parliamentarian has said that the problem in Bangladesh is that the examples people cite as comparisons to Bangladeshi MPs powers and control often come from countries with centuries old democracies. The classic example that is always at hand is that of England, where an MP is only a lawmaker and nothing else. Many in the government here believe the Westminster style of democracy is not suited to Bangladesh, where people look to their MPs as more than just lawmakers, but development partners. There is a simple argument to counter that logic and that is, if one believes the Westminister styled democracy is not suited to Bangladesh then all one has to do is amend the constitution so that the role of the MP is defined anew. When it comes to voting in favour of quasi-draconian Bills that shackle local governance and make MPs the last word in local government, everyone votes in favour of that, even if it flagrantly opposes the constitution. Yet when it comes to amending the constitution so as to justify their actions, not a whimper is heard. The reason being that they believe tampering with the constitution is nothing short of sacrilegious (which it is) and that they would much rather bend the laws than actually rewrite them.
Another common complaint from the MPs is that they are elected on the basis of their electoral pledges which always include development work. If they do not oversee the development work themselves then they would flagrantly be acting against their promises. This is perhaps the weakest argument put forward by our local MPs, they should realise if all the parts of a democracy are working properly then they do not need to physically oversee the development work within their constituency, that is a job for the upazila Chairmen. Their insecurities come from a history of power struggles not only between themselves but also with local government officials. They seem more as problems rather than solutions. But the point that needs to be stressed is that in the history of Bangladesh we have never really had an independent local government. Only after they are given their independence will be able to judge is they will succeed or not. What the MPs have done is essentially make them for failure even before they have been given any power or authority. If the MPs really believe in the spirit of democracy then they should believe in their skills of diplomacy to try and convince local government officials that their electoral promises will do real good for their locality if they are carried out. It need not be a battle, but a conversation and a litmus test to see the real validity of their promises.
Interestingly when it comes to electoral promises the ruling party also needs to take an introspective look into its activities to see if its national electoral agenda has actually been achieved. In their electoral manifesto the Awami League said “Local governments of districts and upazilas will be made self-reliant and autonomous and they will play pivotal roles in local development." They are breaking one promise to realise another, the only problem is the promise that they are breaking is one they have no right to break. The independence of local government and its importance is enshrined in article 59 of our constitution and the Upazila Parishad Bill 2009 is therefore in direct opposition to the highest law of the land. Essentially local has become lame.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009