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Tuesday, December 20, 2011
OP-ED

Headlines Behind The Headlines

The misgovernance syndrome

Photo: Lisa Zador

Misgovernance is no longer only about rule-breaking. A new syndrome spreading its tentacles over society, polity and the economy is partisan and self-serving rule-making, often with corrupt goals in mind. Whether it is in the manipulation of operational rules for the share market or eligibility criteria for new banks or changes in electoral rules to trade bodies or rule changes on appointments, corrupt rule-making has cast a blacker shadow than simple rule-breaking. This new syndrome poses a dilemma for the watchdogs and indeed for the democracy discourse itself because we are analytically unarmed against such misgovernance. What do you do when everything is being done according to "rules" but such rules are themselves the main problem because they have been framed with motivated and corrupt goals in mind? When have "rules" become divorced from "norms"?

The democratic discourse is thus gripped with a peculiar helplessness. The misgovernancewallahs are one step ahead of the good governance watchdogs. We cry ourselves hoarse for meaningful decentralisation and we get rules which produce precisely the opposite outcomes -- Union and Upazila Parishads under the thumb of the MP, fragmentation of Dhaka city, partisan administrators for Zila Parishads and so on. We call for saving our cities and we get the most brazen land-management regime possible where cutting hills, destroying wetlands, extreme inefficiency in land-use are more common-place than any semblance of sensible planning. DAPs are diluted or sent into cold storage.

The new twist in misgovernance is not a phenomenon for institutional spheres alone. Collusive rule-making within the sphere of economic policy is fueling a new rentier class while the entrepreneurs sweat and persevere. The spectre of crony capitalism, the favoured few showered with land assets, contracts and unfair market advantages, but all of these sanitised through "rules," is casting an ever larger shadow. There is no hide-and-seek about any of this, only a brusque dismissal of any civic opinions on the issues. Against such misgovernance, simplistic calls for good governance are being reduced to mere bhalochona, intentions and words adrift in a feel-good discourse capable only of producing toothless watchdogs.

Forty years after independence, there are many things we can be justly proud of. We have built solid economic foundations. The larger aspirations of 1971 -- of a humane, just and prosperous society -- have engendered a personality revolution amongst the common citizenry, urban and rural, young and old, literate and illiterate. But the misgovernance syndrome has not been far behind. And it is now mutating into a new brazenness that threatens our dreams. The departure of colonial rule was meant to transform us from subjects into citizens.

Forty years after independence, nothing could be more ironical than the fact that our elected leaders are trying to turn us back into prajas. The Sangsad grounds are already off-limits to the common citizen. Our architect friends tell us that our lawmakers are actively demanding a wall around the entire parliament complex for their "security." God forbid that this comes to pass but the symbolism will be lost on no one, least of all the countless martyrs of the independence struggle.

More than the economic ups and downs, more than the gaps in our social achievements, more than the unloveliness of our everyday landscape, the corrupting and the diminishing of our dreams is today's core existential crisis. The sense of freedom animating a society, one guaranteed by an institutional process and a political culture, is a resource far more precious than any resource balance-sheet compiled by the bureaucrat and the policy-maker. It is this resource that unleashes the latent potential within the people. It is this resource which has propelled societies to greatness. And it is for this resource, we need today to forge a new resolve and a new understanding.

The misgovernancewallahs may have pulled ahead but this is certainly not unalterable. For this, however, the democratic discourse has to break out of its feel-good cocoon. Ritualistic calls for transparency, accountability will not do. Corrupt rule-making has to be put on the spot as much as rule-breaking. This will require new analytical tools and new discourses. But the greater requirement will be for tenacity, political intelligence and social mobilisation.

(We are happy to announce that henceforth Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman will be a regular columnist for The Daily Star.)

The writer is Executive Chairman, Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), Dhaka and a former adviser to the caretaker government.

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