Local govt bodies limp | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 02, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 02, 2010

Local govt bodies limp

Constitutional obligation to promote the system ignored; people's participation in all administrative tiers remains a far cry

Despite constitutional backing, local government bodies have made little progress in around four decades since independence.
While political governments ignored the constitutional obligation to promote local governance, military rulers abused the system to gain power base at the grassroots level.
And all these years, the bureaucracy has been controlling almost everything regarding management of local affairs.
The present state of local government institutions shows how the country has failed to be a democratic state as espoused in the original constitution, which took effect on December 16, 1972.
One of the fundamental principles of state policy in 1972's constitution said Bangladesh shall be a democracy with people participating in administration at all levels through elected representatives.
How to implement that principle was outlined in articles 59 and 60.
But in 1975, the fourth amendment to the constitution introduced one-party rule under Baksal (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League) and deleted the provisions on local government.
It also had the traditional local government system supplanted by party machinery.
As per the amended charter, the government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formed district administrative councils with representatives from Baksal and front organisations.
Similar councils had been planned for thana level. But before they could be formed, Bangabandhu was assassinated on August 15, 1975, and a military rule ensued.
Till 1990, the military strongmen ran the country either directly or indirectly. They used the local government system to gain political base at the grassroots level.
After restoration of democracy in 1991, the twelfth amendment revived the provisions on local government that had been deleted in 1975.
It also brought back articles 59 and 60. Article 59 says, “Local government in every administrative unit of the republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with law.”
Besides, it adds, parliament shall prescribe the functions of the local government bodies.
Those functions may cover administration and work of public offices, maintenance of public order and preparation and implementation of development plans.
The provisions on local government mark out Bangladesh's constitution from those in other countries. No constitution contains such definitive provisions on local government, Justice Mustafa Kamal observed in Kudrat-e-Elahi and others vs Bangladesh case in 1992.
Justice Kamal, who later became chief justice, also said local government is part of the constitutional system; it is not mere adornment. So, articles 59 and 60 cannot be left to lie dead.
In a landmark verdict on the case of Kudrat-e-Elahi and others vs Bangladesh, the then chief justice Shahabuddin Ahmed said local government is an integral part of the democratic polity.
“The system of local government institutions may be altered, re-organised or re-structured, and their powers and functions may be enlarged or curtailed by act of parliament, but the system as a whole cannot be abolished,” he asserted.
About the significance of the local government provisions, former attorney general Mahmudul Islam in his book “Constitutional Law of Bangladesh” said the idea is that the central government should deal with matters concerning the nation as a whole. Administration at district and lower levels should mostly be left to the local government bodies.
The reality, however, is quite the opposite. The government has all local administrative tasks done by bureaucrats and in some cases lawmakers.
Successive governments since independence had moved to reform the local government system. But as most of those reforms were politically motivated, they failed to strengthen the local government bodies.
“So, despite a long historical existence, local government institutions in Bangladesh could not really take root,” observed a study by Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development, an autonomous institution for training, research and experiment on rural development.
After revisions of its structure by different governments, the local government system now has three tiers--union parishad, upazila parishad and zila parishad.
Besides, there are municipalities and city corporations for urban areas. All are considered administrative units in line with the constitutional provisions.
In 1976, General Ziaur Rahman promulgated a local government ordinance providing for zila parishad in each district.
Though the ordinance said the parishads shall be composed of elected representatives for a five-year term, no elections have yet been held.
Instead, deputy commissioners were appointed ex-officio chairmen of the parishads.
Two years after promulgation of the ordinance, the country's first military ruler amended the constitution through a martial law proclamation to bring back the provision requiring the government to promote local government institutions.
Grabbing state power in 1982, General HM Ershad introduced upazila parishads.
During his rule, he promulgated an ordinance and five acts including the zila parishad act of 1988. Each thana was upgraded to upazila and designated as focal point of administration with responsibility for all local development activities.
The central government retained the authority to oversee regulatory functions and major development activities of national and regional importance.
Ershad regime held two upazila elections--one in 1985 and the other in 1990.
Zila parishads constituted under the act of 1988 worked up to 1990.
With the downfall of Ershad, the zila parishad chairmen, most of whom were MPs from Ershad's Jatiya Party, were removed and DCs returned as ex-officio chairmen.
The BNP-led government also abolished the upazila system shortly after coming to power in 1991.
Things did not improve even after reintroduction of the constitutional provisions on local government in 1991. The zila parishads continued functioning under the act of 1988 during the BNP rule between 1991 and 1996.
In 2000, the AL-led government repealed the zila parishad act of 1988 and framed a new law providing for direct election to the parishads. But up till now, no election has been held, allowing the bureaucrats to run the parishads.
In 1998, the AL-led government reinstated the upazila system. But over 12 more years were needed to hold elections.
Upazila polls were finally held in January last year, but the elected representatives have not yet been able to do much due to opposition from local administration and interference from the lawmakers who are advisers to the parishads.
“We are kind of left to rot. We have little to do since UNOs are doing most of the work with the help of the MPs,” Ataur Rahman Ata, chairman of Manikganj sadar upazila, told The Daily Star recently.
Though elections to union parishads, the lowest tier of local government, were held almost regularly since independence, no major reforms have been made to strengthen them.
Union parishad elections were held in 1973, 1977, 1983, 1988, 1992, 1997 and 2003.
The present union parishads are facing a legitimacy crisis, as two years have passed since expiry of their tenure.
The last union parishad elections were held between January 25 and March 16 in 2003. The next elections were supposed to be held in early 2008, but that could not happen as the country was under a state of emergency and there was no union parishad act.

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