Urban Chaos

If we are serious about managing our cities and towns better, perhaps we should start by bestowing more powers on local governments
Urban Chaos

Last week, at a conference about urban development hosted by World Bank, almost all the municipality mayors of Bangladesh were present to share their experiences with experts and mayors from different other countries. 

Speakers at the plenary sessions included, among others, the former mayors of Salt Lake City, Utah, the USA, and Calbayog, Philippines, as well as distinguished professors. 

After the end of each speech, there was a question-answer session for the audience. When the former Calbayog city mayor Mel Senen Sarmiento ended his speech, a Bangladeshi municipality mayor took the microphone. He was supposed to ask a question. Instead, he took the opportunity to complain about the many problems that a typical Bangladeshi mayor generally faces. 

While translating his "question" for the speaker, the anchor urged the next questioners to be brief with their question. That did not happen. After Ralph Becker, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, talked about his experience and the challenges that he had to face during his tenure as a Democrat mayor in a Republican-dominated state, a number of Bangladeshi mayors took the microphone to grumble about the low budget and little power they were equipped with. 

Selina Hayat Ivy, the mayor of Narayanganj City Corporation, finally intervened to clarify that the foreign speakers wouldn't be able to help them and that they should only ask relevant questions. Even after that, when Ivy's speech came to an end, an unpleasant incident occurred, as a group of mayors started shouting and demanded that their voices be heard. Some disgruntled mayors wondered aloud whether theirs was "a voice crying in the wilderness."

The fact that our municipality mayors have many, many grievances is well known. Their main complaint is that the government doesn't allocate sufficient funds to the municipalities. The government, in response, insists they have to finance their projects themselves by raising taxes from the residents and businesses. However, the reality is that there are not many areas where mayors are authorised to impose a tax, and in areas where they are, often the choice is between doing nothing and making unpopular choices—and the outcome is obvious.

However, Saidul Karim Mintu, the mayor of Jhenaidah municipality and one of the featured speakers at the two-day event, disagrees. He says if a mayor can give the voters a sense that their money is well-spent, there is nothing to worry about while raising the taxes.

Ralph Becker, the former Salt Lake City mayor, echoed the same sentiment in an interview with The Daily Star. If the local government is sensible about using the tax money and can make a strong case for what can be achieved with the money, the public will definitely help, he said. 

The fact is, our mayors badly need funds, because they have promises to keep. They are more interested in short-term measures rather than long-term projects because, firstly, they lack the necessary technical knowhow. Unable to determine what is best for the entire town or city, to prepare a concrete plan and translate that plan into reality, they simply seek money from aid agencies and the government for a variety of projects. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the next mayor would follow the path set by them in implementing a master plan.   

The meddling of the MPs in local affairs is another problem. In Bangladesh, the very concept of power is different from the West or even the Philippines in Asia. A Western politician may believe that genuine power lies in the ability to formulate an impactful legislation. To a typical Bangladeshi politician, on the other hand, with the exception of a few, power means the ability to control the police force for their own political interests, and collect funds for development (infrastructural, mainly) projects. 

Therefore, despite being a legislator, MPs are more interested in having a control over the local infrastructure projects that should be conducted by a local government authority.  

Such conceptual difference is holding our policymakers back from doing what Mayor Mel Senen's country did in the mid-80s: decentralising power by empowering local governments. In the Philippines, 40 percent of the national budget is allocated to the local government. In Bangladesh, the government spends most of its resources through the ministries, technocratic divisions, etc. Despite being elected officials, the mayors are so powerless that a mid-level technocrat at the LGRD ministry can fire them citing vague reasons. 

In big cities like Dhaka and Chittagong, there are multiple parallel authorities doing the same thing without coordinating with each other. The city corporations do not have the ability or authority to carry out long-term projects. 

In the absence of coordination among the related institutions, the cities are plunged into chaos. As a result, problems such as traffic congestion and waterlogging persist. There are, then, the powerful non-state actors who are actively participating in ruining the cities.

A report prepared by Dhaka district administration shows that powerful individuals, organisations and companies have occupied a number of canals of the city, making it impossible for water to flow when it rains. 

The Daily Star reported on November 4 that a labour union was occupying a canal in Basila. Two days earlier, the paper reported that during a public consultation on the Detailed Area Plan (DAP) of the capital, a high-ranking police officer, representing a police housing project, said that the city doesn't need wetlands, because they "breed mosquitoes!" According to the daily New Age, a police housing project has also nearly occupied a canal at Khilkhet. 

Dhaka is perhaps the best example of what happens when people with vested interests dictate the terms of city planning. Part of the solution lies in giving more powers and resources to the local government authorities so that they can work independently. The mayors—as Mel Senen Sarmiento has said, citing an example from his country—can do in three years what the central government can in decades, if provided with the necessary resources and authority.

Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

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