What ails our local governments?
The unfortunate fact of our times is that all reports on Bangladesh's socio-economic progression almost invariably point to the lack of good governance as a significant deficit in our developmental strides. I am not talking about macroeconomic stabilisation or the lack thereof. The point in question is: Do we see signs of deterioration in many sectors of public life, ranging from provision of civic services to the maintenance of law and order, where we can compare the present scenario to the state of affairs of the pre-Liberation years?
Let's begin with the condition of urban Bangladesh, where our cities doubtlessly present a dismal look. They are bursting at the seams, with manifest decay and deterioration all around. We do not see durable efforts for renewal and upgradation either. The construction of skyscrapers and a large number of residential buildings has actually turned our cities into concrete jungles. The most disconcerting aspect is that many of these urban centres are without basic hygiene facilities, with clogged drains and streets overflowing with sewage. A majority of city areas do not have proper disposal systems.
In cities and towns, potholed, uneven roads and streets without sufficient lighting are a major bane of the residents' lives. Open spaces that, in the not-too-distant past, provided leisure have almost disappeared. Basic municipal functions like collection, disposal and recycling of waste no longer seem to be a priority for those who run the cities. To further compound matters, air and sound pollution has reached horrendous levels. The irony is that, while we may have a national conservation strategy, we cannot manage our cities using scientific and sustainable methods. Do these unpleasant experiences not indicate a lack of good governance?
As for the provision of civic services in the Dhaka metropolitan city, one cannot help but cite the never-ending mosquito menace which assumes an unbearably aggravated dimension during the winter months. This winter has been no exception, as even in the so-called "posh" areas people had to take cover behind the mosquito net from early evening. Senior citizens fondly recollect the total banishment of mosquitoes in Dhaka city in the 1950s—a feat that was possible primarily due to the energetic efforts of a public-spirited politician. If that was possible then, why is it not now, with all the modern tools and strategies we have at our disposal? Who is to blame for such governance deficits?
It would appear that, while we are making earnest efforts to reach the status of a middle-income country, we cannot effectively manage our cities. If one had to identify the main factor behind this paradox, it would most likely be the continuous absence of effective local governance. In fact, the sad spectacle of our cities is the direct consequence of there being no responsible local self-government. And there is no denying that the presence of a strong local government would ensure timely and smooth provision of basic amenities for ordinary citizens.
It is quite intriguing to see that, while during the British colonial period the local government institutions worked reasonably well, during our independent existence we have neglected and ignored this vital link in the hierarchy of the government and stifled its potential, never allowing it to grow. Our preoccupation has always been with making the national government more powerful—perhaps because, historically, we have always believed in a strong centre and valued charismatic personalities. Consequently, the size of the national government has increased manifold and expanded in many directions, assuming functions which are local by nature in the process.
We have, at the bottom of the administrative structure, a local government which is supposed to tackle problems that people face in their daily lives. Unfortunately, this tier was never allowed to take root or develop organically. It is also intriguing that democratically elected governments have always been averse to the concept of a strong local government. There have been eloquent deliberations on the "devolution of power" and the so-called "new social contract", but no practical empowerment of the institution of local government. Curiously, long-ruling military dictators did take in grassroots institutions, which they politicised irretrievably.
One has to remember that institutions of local self-government introduced by the British were working very efficiently till 1947. Senior citizens recall the district boards/councils and the services rendered by them, especially in the field of education. Interestingly, most of our older politicians came to prominence through local institutions. Luminaries like Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy started their careers from district boards. If our present-day guardians cannot manage small cities, how will they manage mega cities? We have not been able to produce alternative models of governance at the local level that can devise cost-effective, scientific, and sustainable methods of sanitation, drainage and waste disposal. Master plans have been made but are nowhere near being implemented. No responsible quarter is seen talking about the concept of a "city government", and no interest group lobbies for it earnestly.
The problems of emerging cities cannot be solved by engaging old archaic tools meant only for rural areas and small towns. Inadequately trained public servants cannot tackle problems relating to hyper-urbanisation, mass transit or environmental degradation because they have neither the tools nor the knowledge and training to understand even the basics of these problems.
Let us realise the wisdom of the saying: "All politics is local." Social change and development of grassroots institutions require a longer gestation period, so there will be mistakes. But effort has to be made so that our local institutions may know better, because there is no shortcut to development. The orientation of our public servants and the mindset of our politicians have to drastically change to ensure the good governance of our cities.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP of Bangladesh Police.