Whenever Abdul Gaffar visits Bagmara upazila headquarters in Bhabaniganj, he is greeted by piles of garbage strewn all over. The 55-year-old Rajshahi farmer has never had the opportunity to raise the issue.
On May 29, he got the chance when the upazila parishad (UP) organised an open budget meeting to inform residents about how authorities are earning from taxes and spending taxpayers’ money.
At the discussion in upazila auditorium, Gaffar learnt the parishad spent Tk 13 lakh for health and sanitation in 2018-19, and allocated Tk 15 lakh in upcoming fiscal.
“Where did the money for sanitation go?” he stood up and asked. “The town stinks of garbage. He suggested for a well-managed expenditure.
Like him, many Bagmara residents participated in the discussion. They alleged that the authorities were failing to generate income from some sectors and dragging on development activities, citing lack of funds.
Parvez Raihan, deputy director of Rajshahi Local Government Division, said, “We’re welcoming people’s opinions, even if they are criticising us.”
People’s participation in such meetings is making local government’s activities transparent and helping the institutions establish good governance, he said. As per law, it’s mandatory for UPs to propose a budget 60 days before beginning of a fiscal year, after ensuring locals’ participation.
With support from UNDP’s local governance project, the government is working in 240 unions and 16 upazilas of eight districts under eight divisions to strengthen local government’s management.
At the meeting, while proposing budget for 2019-20, worth Tk 25.80 crore, Upazila Nirbahi Officer Zakiul Islam said they expect a revenue of around Tk 2.10 crore. He said they would have to wait for government grants to achieve development goals.
Shubhodanga UP Chairman Abdul Hakim said the upazila has some 600 government waterbodies and over 50 markets. It can increase earnings by managing these resources well. “But most are either illegally occupied or leased out at lower rates,” he said.
In reply, UNO Zakiul said rural scenario is changing and they cannot increase revenue from markets. For example, he said, they leased out “Mochmoil haat” at Tk 80 lakh last year, and failed to find a single bidder this year. “People are not taking their products to markets, they are selling directly from home,” he said.
About ponds, he said, revenue from its lease goes directly to government exchequer.
In his budget speech, the UNO said the UP spent Tk 45 lakh for agriculture and irrigation sector in last fiscal and proposed Tk 50 lakh this time around.
On this, Upazila Agriculture Officer Rajibur Rahman said, “I don’t know how the money was spent.” He recommended a committee to monitor expenditure.
Hearing about Tk 10 lakh budget for sports, Nazma Khatun, headteacher of Chanpara High School, said her students have been to national level competitions, yet none received any of the allocated amount.
About Tk 8 lakh for cottage industry, local press club President Yusuf Ali said, “I’m not aware of any such industry in the upazila.”
For the first time, Bagmara upazila allocated Tk 10 lakh for development of small ethnic groups and Tk 5 lakh for third gender assistance. None of them attended the meeting.
Locals also spoke about various needs including graveyard for the poor, box culverts, increasing social safety net facilities, dredging waterbodies, funds for disaster management and awareness, and demanded budget allocation for them.
UNO Zakiul and UP Chairman Anil Kumar Sarker said they would take steps to fulfil people’s demands. The constitution mandates for a self-sufficient local government, but its institutions are in fund crunch, due to various issues and influences, they said.
At the end of meeting, farmer Abdul Gaffar told this correspondent, “I felt good about participating in it. Now I know how they are earning and spending money. I can hold them responsible if the expenditure doesn’t happen properly.”