Mayoral Election hype and fact
FOR understandable reasons the ensuing mayoral election in the national capital and the commercial capital of the country has generated much excitement, especially after a painfully protracted period of confrontational political postures and action. Worried citizens may justifiably feel relieved. Only time will tell if the mayoral election will prove to be a significant development affecting the polity.
The reality is that despite not very strong disclaimers from the two main political parties, the mayoral election is, in effect, being contested on a political party basis. In fact, senior political leaders have opined in favour of politically supported and influenced local body election. One only hopes that heightened political passions as evidenced in the recent past will not inflame a long due mayoral election in the cities.
The question is, are local bodies elections very important in as far as it impacts governance and socio-economic development? Alternately, can we really achieve substantive democratic governance without adequately empowering the local elected institutions?
Public administration in our environment takes place in a setting where political power struggles blur the vision of administrators. Born out of colonial traditions and trying to respond to the demands of changed circumstances and times, administrative systems encounter tremendous pressures. The system has been used to further narrow interests of the rulers and privileged groups and as a result the public is alienated from the administration.
There is no denying that our cities are bursting at the seams. There is decay and deterioration in disturbing proportions. Efforts for up-gradation and renewal are few while urban centres lack elementary hygiene. Sanitation is conspicuously missing. Drains are choked and sewage at places is overflowing into the streets. Half of Dhaka metropolitan area, if not more, does not have any disposal system anyway.
Basic municipal functions like conservancy, scavenging, collection and disposal of solid waste and garbage are not attended to. The situation becomes more intriguing when we claim to be an organised society. The reality is we cannot effectively manage our cities. It is a pity that we cannot even collect and dispose of our garbage in a scientific and sustainable manner.
Efforts to identify the major factor for the paradox would point to the absence of effective local government on a regular basis. Some would say that a mismanaged city is the direct consequence of there being no responsible local self-government. National governments come and go but local government continues to work in stable societies. In such an atmosphere, the citizens are assured of the basic amenities of life and do not have to bother about political shenanigans.
It is an interesting fact of our national life that democratically-elected governments have always been averse to the concept of local government. On the other hand, the military dictator that was afraid of an elected parliament and the urban elite loved grassroots institutions and politicized them irretrievably. As a result, we have an upside down power structure, quite unlike stable democratic societies.
Orderly social change and development of grassroots institutions have, admittedly, a longer gestation period but there is no shorter route to durable socio-economic development. There has to be a chance to learn.
Our public servants and politicians have not been able to produce alternative models of governance at the local level. Master plans have been made but not implemented. Interestingly, no one talks loudly about the concept of "city government," nor did any interest group lobby for it seriously. Our politicians see hyper-urbanisation as a problem but have very little clue about its true impact. In an age of professionalism we can perform and deliver by developing expertise in different fields and for that to happen our conventional bureaucracy has to adapt accordingly.
The writer is a columnist of the The Daily Star.