What are our expectations from the newly elected municipality councils?
Elections to the paurashava (municipality) councils are ongoing since December 2020 in phases, and are expected to be concluded by April 2021. The fifth phase of the elections were held on February 28. So far, elections in 230 paurashavas have been completed. As per the Local Government (Paurashava) Act, 2009 and Paurashava Election Rules, 2010, the urban local bodies elect new councils every five years through the popular vote.
The people of paurashavas have high expectations from the newly elected councils. The council with the mayor as its head bears huge responsibility to manage and make decisions that serve the interests of the voters, who have put their trust in the council for the next five years. Therefore, the paurashava councils should take their responsibilities very seriously and start to map out plans of action to serve the people in the best possible manner.
Many mayors and councillors who have been elected this time have served in previous terms and gathered experience. However, there are many who have been elected for the first time and thus need to be given an orientation as soon as possible so that they understand the laws, rules and procedures that guide municipal functionings. The mayor should ensure that the council members have the knowledge required to understand their roles, limitations and authority, so that they are able to carry out their functions smoothly.
The most important aspect that needs to be ensured is for the council to work as a team. The council is usually composed of members from different political parties and independent councillors, although 80 percent of the mayoral posts in the recent elections were won by the ruling Awami League candidates. The mayor has a vital role to play in keeping the council united to serve the interests of the people without any bias. The first thing people of the urban local bodies will notice is when there is dissension among the members of the council.
The paurashavas, as urban local bodies, have been created by law and they must follow a set of rules. The council makes decisions through several standing committees that affect the lives of the municipal population. These decisions are critical in delivering different services that people expect on a daily basis. The services are: supply of water and sanitation, roads and drainage, street lights, parks and playgrounds, garbage collection and disposal, public toilets, bus and truck terminals, etc.
There are 329 paurashavas in Bangladesh. The size and capacity, however, varies greatly and the challenges faced are not the same. Some mayors, councillors and paurashava staff, with strong initiatives, have been able to generate much higher local revenue compared to others. These paurashavas collected around Tk 3,500 per capita revenue in 2018-2019 while others generated between Tk 500 and Tk 1,500 per capita revenue during the same period. Those with better revenue generation capacity provide improved services and make regular salary payments to the municipal staff.
Most of the paurashavas lack adequate revenue and access to capital to support urban infrastructure development. The urban areas produce three-fourths of the GDP of the country. Despite the fact that property value and income from property are skyrocketing, the paurashavas have been unable to tap the potential revenue from property owners. In most paurashavas, property assessment and tax collection are weak, although property tax is the main source of revenue of the local bodies.
The other important source of local revenue is business and profession tax, but the rates of taxation for different types of business and profession are not high enough to yield the necessary resources. Various highly profitable commercial enterprises, industries, hospitals, private educational institutions and warehouses use paurashava infrastructure and services but pay very little taxes. These tax rates need to be re-examined in light of the benefits they enjoy within their areas, and raised accordingly.
It is a pity that about three-fourths of the paurashavas cannot pay the salaries and benefits of their staff on a regular basis. The Minister of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives has recently warned that the paurashavas which will not be paying the salaries of their employees will be dissolved and necessary amendments to the Local Government (Paurashava) Act, 2009 will be made in this respect.
There has been a high rate of urban population growth in Bangladesh during the last three decades, fuelled by rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which has grown at a rate averaging 6-7 percent per annum, reaching 8.1 percent in 2018-19. The country has now received the final recommendation to graduate from least developed country to a developing country. The Eighth Five Year Plan (2021-2025) envisages sustainable urban development for the country. Effective financing for rapid urban development is also an integral part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
All the above point to the need for improved paurashava governance. The government's policy is now to rely on more local resources and reduce inter-governmental transfers to the paurashavas. Local government strengthening should thus be a matter of high priority, in line with government policies. The Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021 duly recognises the critical role of local government institutions in establishing good governance and promoting local development, and envisions the devolution of power, functions, and fiscal authority.
Inadequate infrastructure and services are perennial challenges in urban areas. Without proper infrastructure facilities, the urban environment will deteriorate, affecting the productivity of the people of the paurashavas. The voters thus want their elected representatives to deliver improved services and infrastructure to the people.
The people expect that the mayors and the councillors will work with utmost sincerity and honesty. The Local Government (Paurashava) Act, 2009 strongly condemns all types of misconduct, including corruption. The paurashavas are supposed to collect at least 75 percent of annual defined taxes, rates, tolls and fees, by law. The paurashavas should therefore properly assess revenue sources, collect adequate local resources and provide better services to the urban population.
Dr Nawshad Ahmed is an economist and urban planner