Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Working democracy: A stocktaking

Dr. Kamal Hossain

Elections held in December 2008 promised to bring about change. Citizens looked forward to the regeneration of healthy politics, which would begin to give citizens a sense of participation in governance. A properly functioning Parliament, it was hoped, would reflect the people's priorities through implementing promised reforms. These were intended to rescue people from a corrupt and arbitrary mode of governance, marked by abuse of state power, extending patronage to party loyalists and institutionalising the winner-takes-all approach. This inevitably had given rise to a confrontational political culture, as the opposition suffered from wholesale exclusion. The resulting deprivation and discrimination found expression in disruptive agitation, which showed little respect for the norms of parliamentary democracy.

It is now 24 months since a government elected with an overwhelming majority has been in power. Some positive steps taken are to be welcomed -- enactment of the Right to Information Act and the re-constitution of the Human Rights Commission and the Law Reform Commission -- are steps in the right direction. But adequate resources must be provided if these are to perform their mandated functions effectively. Return to the rule of law is imperative in order for democracy to work. In this context the decision to hold those accountable for the atrocities perpetrated during the war of liberation as well as those responsible for trans-shipment of illegal arms across the territory of Bangladesh are positive steps. An end to impunity could be welcomed, but scrupulous respect for fairness and impartiality must be ensured.

A fundamental pillar of democracy is the rule of law and access to justice. The key element which demands urgent attention at every level of governance is the constitutional mandate of equality before the law and equal protection of the law. No one can be above the law. No one can claim or enjoy impunity if s/he transgresses the law. There must not be any party political interference in the impartial and effective implementation of the law. The nightmares of the past must be buried when powerful "godfathers" could interfere with the police in major investigations giving impunity to those charged with war crimes, murder and rape, major corruption and extortion at every level. It is time that people are rescued from continued persecution of extortion by organised groups.

People expect to see a change in the mindsets of those in power and the opposition and the strengthening of democratic institutions so that these could begin to function effectively. They expect informative debates on policies in critical areas such as industry, agriculture, education, health and environment. This would reassure people that policies are being adopted with due deliberation and consultation with all those concerned. Parliamentary Committees could be more active, by using their constitutional power to hold hearings in order to ensure that the executive branch and the administration remain responsive to public needs and national priorities. Such hearings could be telecast to promote transparency. This may also encourage the opposition to participate more positively in Parliament. It would be a giant step forward if the opposition, in addition to pointing out deficiencies in official policies or actions of the government, would itself put forward well thought out alternatives. Effective local government and decentralisation are recognised as essential to ensure efficient delivery of services and to enable people to participate in taking decisions about matters which affect them. A disturbing tendency is seen to empower Members of Parliament and non-elected functionaries to intervene in local government and undermine the authority of elected members.

There is a legitimate expectation that appointment and promotion in the public service would be on the basis of merit and competence, through a transparent process, and not arbitrarily on the basis of party loyalty. The administration, manned by public servants, is expected to discharge their functions strictly in accordance with law and in the public interest and not to suffer from harassment and persecution on partisan considerations.

The most critical sphere in which information must be made available is in relation to the awarding of major projects, in sectors such as power, telecommunication, oil and gas, and major infrastructure. Procurement guidelines must not exist only on paper but must be respected and effectively implemented by all those who are to apply them.

The educational sector has rightly been accorded the highest national priority to ensure meaningful change and over-all progress. The educational system must be rescued from being an arena of unhealthy power politics. It is a legitimate expectation of the people that educational institutions are made terror-free, that armed cadres which had operated there must be demobilised and campuses made free from their predatory activities. This particular malaise has undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the major public universities and important educational institutions. Universities must regain their reputation of excellence in academic standards. Not only must the set time targets for making education available to all be met but the quality of education must be raised across the system.

The mind-set which perpetrated colonial approaches to law enforcement must be replaced by an approach where police is seen as the protector of the rights of citizens and the community where they are posted.

Electronic media -- radio and television -- must an autonomous institution. The voices of people must be heard more freely and widely over BTV and state-owned radio. An Independent Broadcasting Trust, led by trustees who enjoy public confidence and respect could significantly contribute to the process of strengthening democracy. The muted voices of the silent majority could then be heard throughout the country so as to reach their public representatives and expect them respond to their needs and priorities.

The pledges made in the Constitution, need to be strongly reaffirmed in the goals set by the

government, because it has been given a generous mandate. A great deal of time has been lost, the time-worn alibi for delay and inaction, namely "you can't have change overnight", therefore, cannot be invoked. If the strategic goals set for 2021 are to succeed meaningful change has to begin now - in our institutions and our political behaviour. The magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead has been focused in a recent DFID study, thus:

"It is predicted that the population (of Bangladesh) by 2030 will be nearly 200 million with 40% under the age of 15. An additional 6-8% of Bangladesh will be permanently under water; flood-prone areas will increase (from 25% to 40% of the country by 2050). Three-quarters of the Himalayan glaciers may have vanished with disastrous consequences for areas dependent on the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Environmental refugees from rural areas will be flocking to the cities where flood defences will be concentrated and over 80 million people will live in urban slums; Dhaka will be one of the world's largest cities with 30 million people. In rural areas, this urban migration could mean that the countryside is abandoned to the elderly, women-headed households and the very poorest of the poor. Arsenic could remain a massive health threat, reducing crop productivity and contributing to food shortages".

Time targeted-goals are called for. There are indeed goals which will require 5, 10 or 15 years. The announced 2021 plan itself recognizes that it will be implemented in successive stages, but the process must commence now. The past has to be put behind us. The need to work together applies to all without exception. Barriers to change have been identified which need to be overcome. We must overcome the legacy of dysfunctional institutions, a run-down educational system and a social environment afflicted by violence and terrorism, and major deficiencies in infrastructure. Let there be no more alibis, no more excuses, no more blame game.

The writer is and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and an International Jurist.