WE have two new mayors of Dhaka following an election after a gap of 13 years. The long gap reveals the level of commitment of our leaders to the concept of local government.
Perhaps politics was behind the DCC as a whole, going without the elected head for such a long time, and perhaps it was politics too, that pushed the elections to be held so abruptly.
But politics or not, the question that occurs automatically, after the Dhakabashis were made to lump an engineered election is, what now. The 'combined show' in the three city corporations have marred the victory of some of the candidates who would have won even without the joint efforts of the EC, the administration and the police.
But be that as it may, we have a bagful of promises and commitments made by the mayors which they have neither the authority nor the capacity to fulfill under the present arrangement.
Dhaka city has come a long way since 1864 when the municipal government of Dhaka was established. The town was then a small urban conurbation with an area of approximately 20.72 square kilometres, running south to north and with a population of about 52,000. The Dhaka Municipality was entrusted to provide civic services which included maintenance of roads, conservancy, health services and education, and for which it was authorised to levy rates and taxes and it received government grants occasionally.
Dhaka is the focus now, being the capital of an independent country, and where everything has gravitated. Since the time it became a municipality and now as a city corporation, the Corporations' responsibilities have changed and the list has grown much longer. One is not sure how the municipality used to function then. However, as any resident of Dhaka would say, its performance could be much better. But if it has not delivered then the fault is not entirely the Corporations'.
Before now, we have had two elected mayors since 1991 whose tenure had straddled the regimes of the AL and BNP. Late Mayor Hanif was elected during the term of the BNP and no one better than he could have recounted the great adversity a mayor not belonging to the party in power faces. Even after the AL came to power in 1996, the mayor's task did not become any easier. Sadeque Hossain Khoka is alive to give his views but his experience under the BNP tenure was not much different either than Hanif's under AL, except for the fact that Sadeque was given a ministerial rank.
The mayors have very little authority to deliver on the thirteen tasks that the City Corporation Act 2009, as amended in 2011, stipulates. Unless devolution of authority and, more importantly, the bureaucratic tangle is removed, the local government institutions, particularly, the city corporations, will remain basically a garbage clearing organisation. Even that is fraught with danger because the dumping grounds belong to RAJUK on which the Corporations' writ does not run.
Unfortunately, the local government institutions have been given the short shrift and there is an inherent propensity both of the bureaucrats and politicians against strengthening local government institutions. The idea of making city corporations more effective by setting up city governments has been floated by some quarters. Although the idea deserves consideration, it appears that the government is sensitive to the word 'government' fearing that a parallel entity would emerge if the idea were to be implemented. Clearly, we are mixing up the terms city 'governance' and city 'government'. While city government may not be a bad idea, what we are interested in at this time is good governance of the city where the basic service delivery process can run without impediments. And that is certainly not possible in a situation where 18 ministries and 56 government departments carry out development activities in the city area without a lead coordinating authority.
Outlandish promises have been made by the mayoral aspirants without realising their limits. And it is their so called political clout that they are depending on to deliver. “I will try to get those done using my political influence,” said one elected mayor regarding his promises, while another said that he would try to, “coordinate with other organisations with prime minister's backing.” The reality is that the mayoral pledges are not owned by the party that backed them, and the party may not feel obligated to fulfil those.
It is a wobbly situation for mayors if they have to depend on 'political clout' or 'prime ministerial backing' because both could be transient. What happens when a situation develops that sees the end of both?
Our local government institutions need strengthening, particularly the city corporations and even more the two city corporations of the country's capital. And politics should not come in the way of things that have to do with the safety and wellbeing of nearly fifteen million people. Give the mayors adequate powers to ensure that they become centre of all development activities of the capital. It is the system and not political clout or the prime minister's backing that they should have to depend on.
The writer is Editor, Oped and Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.