The importance of local governance even as a discourse is immense in the political philosophy. That is why, the existence of government at the national and sub-national level has been acknowledged by the theory of liberal democracy.
Considering the importance of having strong local governance, most of the democratic governments in the world have adopted democratic decentralisation as a strategy to strengthen local governance. Like those of other countries of the world, the government of Bangladesh adopted different policies to strengthen its local government system.
Since after 2009, there has been a remarkable change in the character of local government bodies in the country. Experts, scholars and development practitioners were advocating for creating scope for inclusion of common people in the decision making process of different local governments for a long time. Along with advocacies, success stories of local government support project in Sirajganj led the government to think positive as regards to ensuring inclusiveness in the local government bodies. Finally, in 2009, the government through the enactment of the Local Government (Union Parishad) Act created scope for direct engagement of people in the decision making process of the Union Parishad (UP). This was the most comprehensive act in the history of local government in Bangladesh as special provisions were incorporated in the act with an aim to create scope for the common people’s participation in the decision making process. Four distinguishing features of this act are - ward shava, open budget meeting, citizen charter and rights to information. The first two provisions have created scope for establishing public forums where people have easy access to participate. On the other hand, the latter two provisions have empowered people to hold their people’s representatives accountable and transparent in their activities.
Another significant development in the field of local government was made through the reintroduction of the Upazila Parishad (UZP) in 2009. A couple of distinguishing features of the reintroduced UZP are the provision of elected vice-chairperson (one male and one female) and women members in reserved seats (to be indirectly elected from among the women members of UPs and women councillors of Pourashavas within the territory of the UZP. The most significant development in the context of UZP is the transfer of activities of 17 government departments in the UZP. By doing this, the government has shown their intention of strengthening representative democracy at the local level by putting the government officials under the people’s representatives. However, the provision that relates to compulsory advisory role of the Member of Parliament (MP) in the UZP has been impeding the process of effective operation of the UZP. Moreover, there is hardly any opportunity for the common people to take part in the decision making process of the existing UZP, excepting the provision that allows the UZP to include a number of common people in different committees.
Reactivation and election to Zilla Parishad (ZP) was another significant development in the context of the local government in Bangladesh in the recent past. Despite having a constitutional obligation to have elected bodies at all administrative units below the central government to be directed and manned by elected people’s representative (in accordance with the article 59 of the Constitution of Bangladesh), the people of the country did not experience the management of the ZP through elected people’s representatives, although we have been having this tier at the top of our local government structure for more than 130 years. None of the government in pre- and post-independent Bangladesh put their serious efforts to elect democratic leadership at the ZP excepting an attempt that was made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when he nominated “District Governor” in each district. Thus, ZP election has a great significance in the context of our local government system.
As we all know that the provision of having local government under directly elected people’s representatives was enshrined in the Constitution to establish a responsible government at the local level by bringing the bureaucracy under people’s representatives. This is also related to the transparency and accountability of the activities of different administrative bodies below the central government. Thus, the election in ZP has created an opportunity for the elected ZP representatives to work in ensuring transparency and accountability of all development activities within the district.
The above discussion suggests that we have a strong institutional arrangement for the local government bodies in Bangladesh. Now, a pertinent question is: to what extent people participate in the decision making process of different local government bodies. Another question is: to what extent these bodies have been functioning independently in the light of the constitutional provisions. Our experience suggests that among three different tiers of local government, people have direct access to participate in the activities of UPs only. On the other hand, they have very limited access to other two bodies. Despite having scope for direct engagement, the state of people’s participation in the ward shava and open budget meeting is not quite satisfactory at the UP level.
Of course, UPs are required to hold these meetings for complying with the provisions of the act. In these cases, people’s participation is ornamental instead of spontaneous. It does not necessarily mean that the same situation prevails throughout the country. People have active participation in those UPs where there are interventions from the government, donor and NGOs. As a matter of fact, people’s participation in different activities of these bodies depends to a great extent on the agency building initiatives of different government bodies and NGOs. Most importantly, NGOs have played a vital role in the last couple of decades in building agencies of men and women by enlightening them about their rights and responsibilities in different local government bodies. However, more initiatives are required in this regard if we really want to attain our desired goal which is to establish participatory and pro-poor local governance in the country.
Another issue is that these bodies lack autonomy, which is one of the pre-requisites for establishing an effective local government in a country. As a matter of fact, the government provides limited autonomy to these bodies, keeping control in their hands. Thus, these bodies have transformed into extended arms of the central government stationed at the local level. Along with autonomy, these bodies seriously suffer from lack of resources that compel them to depend on the central government grants for maintaining their expenditures. In addition, there are controls from the parliament members and central bureaucracy, lack of clarity in laws, and also lack of capacity of the people’s representatives. All these have made these bodies ineffective.
In order to make local government bodies as the focal point of all of our development, a holistic approach needs to be taken by the government, donors and all other involved actors. We should not forget the fact that charity beings at home. Since local government bodies remain closer to the common people, these bodies could be considered as the real grounds for producing quality leaders who would lead the country in the years to come. Thus, we all should work together to strengthening our local government system in order to facilitate bottom-up and sustainable development.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh