Finance Minister AMA Muhith seems to be truly interested to give more powers to the local government (LG) institutions. He has expressed his feeling in public statements on a number of occasions. But the situation with the LG bodies has hardly changed. None of these institutions have enough administrative and financial powers notwithstanding the fact that the country's constitution makes such empowerment mandatory.
In Bangladesh, any election means rivalry, muscle-flexing, favour-distribution, festivity and enthusiasm. Such an observation holds true to all elections, from the ones at the national level down to those at the grassroots. Elections buoy up the mood of all concerned, including candidates and electorates.
That LG bodies have been failing to perform their due role in the socio-economic development of their respective command areas does not in anyway affect the enthusiasm during polls time. All these, unfortunately, are secondary matters to both the contestants and electorates.
But the enlightened section of the citizenry is aware that the LG bodies are deficient in both administrative and financial powers. And the issue of empowering the LG bodies is quite old. Experts have been pressing the administration for quite a long time for granting these bodies powers in accordance with the constitutional requirement. Government leaders have never opposed such an idea. But they have not done anything, as far as the empowerment of LG bodies is concerned.
The other day Mr. Muhith, speaking at a function organised by a private think-tank in Dhaka, reiterated the need for restructuring and strengthening the LG bodies to help achieve higher annual economic growth target -- 8.0 to 10 per cent. One of the ways of strengthening these bodies, according to him, is through devolution.
"Decentralisation is not good, we now want devolution", he said, adding that the LG bodies would be given the responsibility of using their own resources for their own development.
Such a statement would appear rather puzzling to anyone who has gone through the World Bank's definition of 'administrative decentralisation'. 'Administrative decentralisation seeks to redistribute authority, responsibility and financial resources for providing public services among different levels of government. It is the transfer of responsibility for the planning, financing and management of certain public functions from the central government and its agencies to field units of government agencies, subordinate units or levels of government, semi-autonomous public authorities or corporations, or area-wise regional or functional authorities', the definition says.
Devolution in fact is one of the forms of administrative decentralisation. The two other forms are deconcentration and delegation.
When governments devolve functions, the WB definition says, they transfer authority for decision-making, finance and management to quasi-autonomous units of local government with corporate status. According to the WB, 'Devolution usually transfers responsibilities for services to municipalities that elect their own mayors and councils, raise their own revenues, and have independent authority to make investment decisions. In a devolved system, local governments have clear and legally recognised geographical boundaries over which they exercise authority and within which they perform public functions. It is this type of administrative decentralisation that underlies most political decentralisation'.
The LG bodies in Bangladesh would get a boost if the government grants even half of the powers and responsibilities as mentioned in the WB definition of 'devolution'. Whether the government is ready to make available such powers to the LG bodies remains a big question.
There are some anomalies as regards the representative character of the LG bodies in Bangladesh. All LG bodies, barring the one at the district level -- the Zila Parishad, are run by representatives elected through direct voting. For reasons best known to the government, the government has chosen a different type of representation at the district level.
Moreover, the predominant presence of the lawmakers in the affairs of the all-important Upazila Parishad has emerged as a serious problem. The upazila-level LG leaders have made their sour feeling public following the meddling of lawmakers in matters that are supposed to be managed by the Upazila Parishad. The government has tried to soothe the resentment of the Upazila Chairmen and relevant others. But the discomfort still persists.
The moot problem is that the administration at the centre has always considered the LG institutions as a means to expand their political muscle. That is why, instead of granting the administrative and financial powers, successive governments have always tried to put in their own men at the helm of these bodies to achieve political mileage. The situation is unlikely to change soon much to the liking of Mr. Muhith as the need for transformation of the LG institutions is yet to be felt at the highest echelon of power.