While speaking in the Parliament on March 23, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina disclosed that the government would appoint chairmen of all Zila Parishads (District Councils) to strengthen the local government system, adding that a Zila Parishad (ZP) comprising twenty-one members would include one chairman and twenty members, of which five would be female members against the five reserved seats for women, and the tenure of a ZP would be of five years.
The history of local governments in Bangladesh, particularly the local government at the district level, has not been very pleasant. Actually, the democratic character of the three-tier local government system -- a District Board at each district, a Local Board at each sub-division and a Union Committee for a group of villages -- introduced during the British rule through the Local-Self Government Act 1885 was lost with the imposition of martial law by Ayub Khan in 1958, which suspended all local bodies. The Basic Democracies Order of 1959 not only changed the name of the District Board to District Council but also led to the appointment of the deputy commissioner as its ex-officio chairman in place of the elected chairman.
Immediately after independence, the then AL government dissolved all the existing local government bodies and appointed committees to administer these defunct bodies. The deputy commissioner was made the administrator of the district committee.
The three-tier local government system -- Zila Parishad, Thana Parishad and Union Parishad -- introduced by the government of General Ziaur Rahman through the Local Government Ordinance 1976 provided for a ZP that was to consist of elected, official and nominated women members, including a chairman and a vice-chairman to be elected by them from amongst themselves.
In 1988, the Jatiya Party government of President Ershad enacted the Zila Parishad Act, which provided for a government appointed chairman in each ZP. Although his appointment was for a period of three years from the date of taking up work, he could be removed by the government at any time without showing any reason.
The members of a ZP consisted of (a) representative members, (b) nominated members, and (c) official members.
The MPs of the zila, the chairmen of the UZPs and the Paurashabhas (Municipalities) were the representative members. The nominated members including women members were to be nominated by the government from amongst the men and women living in the zila, and their total number was not to exceed the total number of the representative members in the ZP. The ex-officio official members included the deputy commissioner and other district level officers specified by the government.
The act was made inoperative after the fall of Ershad government in December 1990. The above narrative is given to show how the local governments, starting their journey in a democratic environment, subsequently suffered due to undemocratic actions of the central government.
Now let us come back to our original discussion. The PM's disclosure about constituting a non-elected local government body at each zila has come as a surprise to many for more than one reason.
One, Article 59 of the Constitution provides that local government in every administrative unit of the republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with law. While defining administrative unit, Article 152(1) of the Constitution says that administrative unit means a district or other area designated by law for the purpose of Article 59. This means that no designation by law is necessary in case of a district as Article 152 (1) itself designates districts as administrative units, but designation by law is necessary in case of areas other than district to qualify as "administrative unit" within the meaning of Article 59.
In his book Constitutional Law of Bangladesh, Mahmudul Islam, a former attorney-general, writes: "Parliament may or may not set up a local government body in an administrative unit, but if a local government body is set up two conditions must be fulfilled -- (1) it is constituted in an administrative unit, and (2) it is composed of elected persons." So, constituting a non-elected local government body at the district will thus be contradictory to the spirit of Article 59 of the Constitution.
Two, how can an elected government go for constituting a non-elected local government body in the most important administrative unit of the republic? Will it not be tantamount to showing disrespect to the people who overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party for its election pledge to ensure effective participation by the people through their representatives at all levels in administration?
Three, the PM's disclosure about the structure and formation of the proposed ZP largely means replication of the ZP introduced by H.M. Ershad government through the Local Government (Zila Parishad) Act 1988, which was undemocratic in nature.
Critics say that political consideration has influenced the ruling AL to go for non-elected ZPs. If not all, more than two-thirds of the appointed chairmen of the ZPs will be AL men and they will help consolidate the party further to face the next general election. The results of the recently held paurasabha elections have also influenced the ruling AL to shun the idea of elected ZPs.
In its editorial of March 25, The Daily Star wrote: "We would like to point out that a non-elected local government body runs the risk of being tinkered by the bureaucracy or the party in power. We also know from previous experience, how these local government bodies became ineffectual as well as a tool to serve the purpose of the executives of the state. Though elected local government bodies can also be tampered with as far as its autonomy goes, there is still little room for accountability in an elected body.
If the government is earnest about strengthening the Zila Parishad, as the prime minister has given out at the JS, it would do well to have a rethink of its present stance and thereby live up to the spirit of the constitution."
In its editorial of March 25, Bangladesh Today urged the government to revise its decision and "go for elections to the Zila Parishads instead of appointing the chairmen in the interest of the smooth running of the local government body."
To conclude, people sincerely hope that the government will give a second thought to its decision and decide in favour of elected ZPs. Who knows whether AL will not be benefited from the elected ZPs in future?
The writer is a former Secretary. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org