“There's much more we can be doing in parliament; we could be giving more power back to people at local government level through local referendums (elections)," so said Theresa Mary May, a British Conservative Party politician, who had been Home Secretary. Finance Minister AMA Muhith just echoed, in his 2016-16 budget speech, what she said, having the pulse of the economy at his hands.
Mr Muhith minced no words when he said the existing local government system now seems to be the main impediment to the country's progress. In a densely populated country, it would be difficult to infuse dynamism in development initiatives to achieve ten per cent GDP growth unless an enabling environment is created by devolving power, the veteran Minister said. The finance minister was possibly forthright in his views as he has already hinted that he would retire after the present term of his office.
But the finance minister was quite rightly aware of the grim situation in local government bodies the Union Parishads (UPs) and the Upazila Parishads (UZs). That was why he said, reforms in local government system are critically important. "The powers and responsibilities of local government institutions need to be explicitly identified. It can be done even by retaining the power of revenue collection in the hands of central government. This calls for strong political commitment that we have," he added.
But then he was clearly specific in his 2016-17 budget proposals. He said he is talking about devolution of power, not about decentralisation. He even wanted to replicate Bangabandhu's cherished desire to establish district government which he could not materialise during his life time. Mr Muhith said he firmly believes that the idea of establishing a democratic district government is now quite clear. He also believes reforms in local government system will make the transition to the district government system much easier.
In fact, strengthening of the local government system was one of the electoral pledges of the Awami League. Its President Sheikh Hasina in one of her books also emphasised on a strong local government system for ensuring development and poverty reduction. The local government system is also a part of the fundamental structure of the Constitution, and so it cannot be changed by formulating new laws. Any indirect authority over local governments will also be in contradiction to the Constitution and relevant court verdicts.
In fact, there is nothing to hide what has been happening in two vital organs of the local government-the UPs and the UZs for the last few years. Newspaper reports and photographs have clearly showed how the polls to these vital bodies were rigged making the election process just a farce. The voters had their ballots cast by muscle-swingers, a section of poll officials as well as outsiders engaged by the poll contestants. Such a free-for-all took place in both UP and the UZ polls making these bodies fragile in terms of people's support and involvement with development process. Almost all the 'elected' Upazila Parishads, now witness continuing tussle between the elected representatives of the people and the members of parliament assigned with the task of overseeing functioning of the Parishads.
Strong local governments are a prerequisite for good governance and balanced economic development. Local administrations might be rendered ineffective and lawmakers might end up lording over Upazila Parishads, running the risk of letting corruption creep into the system, if MPs are allowed to have their previous controlling authority over the elected local governments, said experts on local government. There must be a policy specifying the duties of the chairmen, vice-chairmen, and women vice-chairmen of Upazila Parishads without further delay. The role of bureaucrats in relation to local governments should also be redefined in order to make Upazila Parishads functional. Interference in local government is attributed to flow of enormous amount of money through the local development circuit. It is against this backdrop that the revenue sources of upazila parishads should be protected from political interference and the role of bureaucracy in local governance also need to be readjusted, as the people want to see a strong local government. A decision has to be taken whether UPs and Upazila Parishads will work as institutions of governance at all.
The UPs recently saw unbridled ballot stuffing in polling centres almost everywhere. This local body election witnessed widespread violence and bloodshed on a scale never seen in the past due to the fact that poll contestants found the UPs as money-earning sources, not as launching pads for development. Deaths of over 110 people in six phases of the UP polls signify grave dangers lying ahead with the village-based local body. Interestingly, most of those who were killed were local ruling party leaders and workers attacked by their own men. Such a situation emerged due to the fact that those who had worked for the party for decades were sent to the backyard during nomination of party candidates. And the situation will further aggravate when the central government starts pumping huge money into the UPs for funding various development works.
The UP and UZ elections have raised the question as to how people elected through unlawful means would contribute to improving local governance. Transaction of a huge amount of money during the polls over picking party candidates might result in further spread of corruption in local governance. In such a ground reality, the finance minister spoke for devolution of power.
The Transparency International Bangladesh too has found corruption and political influence as the main barriers to development of the local government administration. A TIB study, however, gave credit to the government for some achievements in administration of the local government. But it said the achievement could have been greater had there been no corruption and political influence.