Upazila parishads must not be sidelined
LET there be no mistaking facts here. The upazila system is in a state of emasculation. Where it was thought that upazilas would serve as a strong foundation of the local government structure, it is now clear that the Awami League-led government is in little mood to have such a system take root. This of course runs contrary to the pledge the AL made in its election manifesto about a strengthening of local government bodies, with upazila parishads being a pivotal factor in such a plan. Since taking office, however, and particularly since the upazila elections in January this year, the government has backtracked on its commitment obviously in order to satisfy lawmakers. That has been done through empowering MPs to play a supervisory role in the functioning of the upazilas, so much so that upazila chairmen can only have projects implemented if and when they are approved by local lawmakers. That negates the overall concept of devolution the upazilas were supposed to be an embodiment of. What has now happened is a dilution of the authority local bodies should have had under a properly functioning upazila system.
All development work in the upazilas is now being done by local MPs and upazila nirbahi officers. In other words, upazila chairmen and members have to all intents and purposes been elbowed aside, with the result that many of them have already begun to feel redundant. Obviously, such a condition contradicts the provisions of the Upazila Parishad Act, which notes clearly that all administrative and political measures as well as maintenance of law and order will be the prerogative of the upazilas. Those provisions are being pushed aside, raising questions about the future of the upazila system itself. If it were merely a question of an overlapping of responsibilities, one would take a kinder view of things. But what is happening here is a deliberate undermining of public representatives elected to office by popular mandate. Worse is the allegation that in their supervision of upazila development activities, lawmakers have been engaging their party men to implement projects. To compound matters, upazila nirbahi officers have expressed their reluctance to work under the upazila chairmen! Some weeks ago, it was even suggested that deputy commissioners be given the power to dismiss upazila parishads if they felt the local bodies were not working to their satisfaction. The upazilas, then, are in a state of siege today, to our collective embarrassment.
The situation calls for a serious and efficacious approach. The government must realise that any move to dilute the upazila authorities will in the end prove counter-productive. One can well argue that many of the problems the country has faced in the past thirty-eight years may not have been there had decentralization served as the core of national politics. There is yet time to correct the situation. An MP-centric upazila system will defeat the entire purpose of democratic, welfare-oriented politics. If the government is serious about change, it must demonstrate that seriousness by ensuring that local government is fully empowered as part of the political process. Failure to do that will only make our problems worse.