Decentralisation of power at the local level is an essential component of democratisation, good governance and citizen engagement. The devolution of real power to localities is considered as one of the powerful mechanisms to enhance political participation of the people.
Since the majority of the population lives at the local level, scope for their involvement with the local government bodies is higher than central government. If the process continues, it would promote political stability through the exercise of democratic values. Likewise, decentralisation provides the opportunity for citizens to hold debate and decide upon those local issues, which matter most to them, thus promoting political education. Moreover, local politics could be considered as a training-ground for local leaders, who could in the long run become national leaders. From the very beginning of its inception several successive governments adopted decentralisation as a policy to establish a strong local government system in Bangladesh. But it is deplorable to state that the local government bodies have not yet reached to a desired level where people could spontaneously participate in the decision making process. Thus, a debate is still going on, whether the government is willing to establish a strong local democracy in the country or not.
At present, the country has a three tier local government system. Among these tiers, we find Union Parishad (UP) to function for a long time. Upazila Parishad (UZP) introduced in the early 1982 and functioned till 1991. It has started functioning again since 2009. Although, the Zila Parishad (ZP) remained on paper for a long time, an election was held in 2016 in pursuant of the Zila Parishad (Amendment) Bill 2016 which was passed by the AL government.
If we aim at analysing initiatives of the present government towards strengthening local democracy, it would be apparent that a number of positive steps have been taken by the government so far. When it concerns the ZP, at least elections have taken place for the first time in the history of ZP although there has been debate about the modalities of the election. Despite having some criticisms, it can be claimed that the institution which remained inactive for a long time has started functioning. Over the period of time, through trials and errors, the apex body of the local government would reach to a desired destination.
In the context of UZP, the AL government has reintroduced the system in 2009 after an interval of 18 years. A number of positive initiatives in this regard are the creation of the provision of the post of two vice-chairmen, among which one is male and the other is the female. Legal provision has been created to transfer 17 government departments into the UZP although these departments are still following the instruction of their line departments. Provision for the formation of 17 committees has been made by the government in order to ensure accountability and transparency of the activities of the UZP. Despite having a number of positive initiatives one negative issue is that the government has incorporated the section 25 in the Upazila Parishad (Amendment) Act of 2009 that has made the advisory role of the MPs obligatory for the UZP. Such decision of the government has not only created annoyance among the elected UZP Chairmen, but also encouraged them to get involved in conflict with the MPs. As a consequence of such conflict, the bureaucrats have become more powerful since they are quite capable of exploiting such situation. Another important issue that deserves immediate attention of the government is the non-implementation of the provision of transfer of activities of 17 government department in the UZP.
On the other hand, if we analyse the situation at the UP level, it will be evident that the government has done a remarkable job by enacting ‘the Local Government (Union Parishad) Act, 2009’. After a long time, the lowest tier of the local government body has received a comprehensive law. There are some provisions in the law which can make a good contribution towards establishing responsible, transparent and accountable local democracy in the country. Most notable provisions are: wardshava, open budget meeting, right to information and citizen charters. Application of these provisions could certainly help establishment of pro-poor local democracy in the country. Of course, we should appreciate the contribution of different donor agencies in this regard who have practised these issues in their LGSP projects and become successful. And the government deserves appreciation for extracting success stories of the private sector. Provision of the law does not guarantee its application. Application of these provisions depends on the willingness of the government and those who remain involved with the processes. Thus, it can be said that building capacity of the people’s representatives as well as the demand side actors is an utmost necessity for establishing a successful local democracy. People at all levels should be made knowledgeable about different provisions of the law and the representatives should be given an understanding about their roles and responsibilities. Only then a strong local government will be established.
Now a pertinent question is: what steps are required to make the local government bodies strong and effective? First, most importantly, sincere will of the government is needed for making local government bodies a focal point of development. Second, the government should form a permanent local government commission for overseeing issues relating to local governance. They should be given the power and authority to suggest changes from time to time. And the government should adopt those suggestions whole heartedly. Third, the government should take an initiative to bring the bureaucracy under the control of the people’s representatives at the UZP and ZP level. It has been established that the Bangladeshi bureaucracy, due to their power and status, has established themselves as the master of the people instead of serving them. Through the establishment of the strong local government at each level, they can be brought under the control of the people’s representatives. Only then, strong local democracy will be institutionalised for playing a significant role in the overall development of the country.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh