Challenges of People’s Participation at Local Governance: A Case Study on the Standing Committees of Union Parishad in Bangladesh

Abstract: 
The concept of "'local governance" is definitely a new and interesting dimension in the field of governance. Some researchers and academics are trying to explore the idea of local governance after observing the year-long failure of local government and local agencies of central government. The basic question, which has been raised by governance thinkers, is - what of the vehicle by which the goal of "regenerating the local economy" is to be achieved? This is where a focus on local governance becomes of critical relevance. The cast of actors who matter here extend well beyond the traditional focus on local governments. The presence of many actors, however, does not simply imply diversity; there is a certain matching of actors to roles. In this regard, the role of people’s participation in the local governance mechanism is pertinent. An effective local governance mechanism plays a critical role in economic development and social justice. In the institutionalization of governance, in most developing countries like Bangladesh, local government suffers from negligence and is most often lost in the shadow of national policies, practices, and efforts at economic growth and social and political development. In Bangladesh, the only elected local institution, i.e. the Union Parishad still remains weak due to the overshadowing dark clouds of inefficiency, lack of resources and political corruption resulting in a low level of confidence of people in it. The different standing committees of Union Parishad are the main institutional avenue for the people’s participation in the local decision making process. This paper analyzed the current level of activities and functions of Standing Committees, their involvement with the local people as well as the perceptions of local community regarding their performance. It also presents a policy framework on better functioning of standing committees of Union Parishad to strengthen the local governance.
Main Article: 

1. Introduction

An effective local governance mechanism plays a critical role in economic development and social justice. In the institutionalization of governance, in most developing countries like Bangladesh, the local government suffers from neglect and is most often lost in the shadow of national policies, practices, and efforts at economic growth and social and political development.

In Bangladesh, democratic local institutions like the Union Parishad still remain weak due to the overshadowing dark clouds of political corruption resulting in a low level of confidence in the government. Bangladesh faces problems of corruption, lack of clear representation of citizen's interests by their elected officials, a highly centralized government and a promising local government movement that is still learning how to exercise rights. When the local government institutions will be able to plan, manage and generate additional resources, then their capacity to deliver services will improve and their relationships with general people will be enhanced. An effective and efficient pro-people local government will definitely be able to reinforce the importance of government transparency and ultimately improve the quality of life for average citizens.

The concept of "local governance" is definitely a new and interesting dimension in the field of governance studies. Some researchers and academics are trying to explore the idea of local governance after observing the year’s long failure of the local government and local agencies of the central government. The basic question, which has been raised by governance thinkers, is - what of the vehicle by which the goal of "regenerating the local development" is to be achieved? This is where a focus on local governance becomes of critical relevance. The cast of actors who matter here extend well beyond the traditional focus on local governments. The presence of many actors, however, does not simply imply diversity; there is a certain matching of actors to roles. In this regard, the role of people’s participation in the local governance mechanism is pertinent.

The prime focus for building a new local government system should be on purpose and functions, and not on structures and administrative control from higher levels. Among the findings of most studies on decentralization and local government reviewed, conclusions stated that most local government systems are unable to conduct all their assigned responsibilities is common. The formal responsibilities currently assigned to Union Parishads are numerous and varied. Union Parishads are formally allocated 38 separate functions. Realistically, they are able to undertake five to six of these activities and even then in a very limited manner. Questions are also raised on how many Standing Committees should Union Parishads have in Bangladesh and which ones of these should be treated as the focal points?

1.1. Reviewing the existing literatures

There are a number of literatures available where intellectuals and researchers discussed about the activities and shortcomings of the Union Parishad of Bangladesh, based on those findings a brief review is presented.

In the book "Local Government in Bangladesh" by Kamal Siddiqui, a great amount of important information was found about the evolution of the local government in Bangladesh. The changes made to these institutions in the past in respect to its structure, functions and duties were discussed very well. The issue of Inadequate finance and personnel in the UP were mentioned and suggestion for improvement was made as-

“The tax base of the local bodies has to be sufficiently enlarged. The local bodies, in their turn, should make the best use of the tax base within their competence. The management of local bodies should be made more efficient by recruiting qualified persons and organizing skill-oriented training for the existing employees. The terms and conditions of the services should also be made attractive. Some of the tax items, yielding substantial revenue, may be transferred from the central government to the local bodies. Revenue sharing with the central government may be an effective way of increasing the income of the local bodies. The rate of taxes on non-income based items should be increased in proportion to the rate of inflation. In the case of property based taxes, the valuation of property should be revised in proportion to the rate of inflation. So the same rate of tax should be able to yield more revenue.” (Siddiqui, 2005:227)

"Union Parishad Training Manual", published by the National Institute of Local Government (NILG), is a government prescribed detailed guidebook for the Union Parishad to operate. All necessary rules and regulations are added in it to enable the UP to operate accordingly. In the sixth chapter of this book titled "Participatory planning at local level", it was mentioned:

“Real development has not been achieved because in a top-down method, the demand felt by the people is not reflected and there is no participation and sharing of the people in making plans. In this context, importance has been given in local level participatory planning as well as national planning.” (NILG, 2003:225)

Different types of participation of the people were discussed in this chapter but no legal bindings were mentioned to enforce this concept in the activities of the UP. Formation, functions, duties of the UP Standing committees were described in this book.

In the book "Local Governance in Bangladesh Leading issues and Major Challenges’" by Kamal Siddiqui, reformation of the local government was discussed in a wider sense like the tiers of the local government, the relationships between elected officials and their bureaucratic counterparts, role of local government in land management etc.

1.2. Methodologies followed in this study

The fieldwork for this research was carried out in two phases with two different sets of people. In the first phase, Focused Group Discussion (FGD) was conducted at Union Parishad level, where local community people, local leaders and Union Parishad Chairman, Members and employees were present to express their views on what kind of changes are necessary for the standing committees to make them more active. In the second phase, different perceptions were gathered from the opinion makers of the society by semi-structured questionnaire, conversations and interviews.

The units of observations of this study are the common people whose voices are not heard by the media or research works. The research team organized a total of 8 of these FGD sessions at 2 different districts' (Cox’s Bazar and Gazipur districts) Union level. The sessions' participants belong to a community whose voice are rarely heard, and individuals who are engaged in informal and often unrecognized social actions, the representatives of Union Parishad, local NGO officials, local influential persons and others. Separate sessions were arranged for community women including destitute and laborer women, local women leaders, female UP members and so on. In every session, the average number of participants was 12.  The total sample size of this phase was 96 (8X12 = 96). This sample was as randomized as far as possible controlling for such variables as age, sex, social status, and nature of work.

Considering the level of awareness and understanding of the group members, first of all, the research team made an attempt to define role of Union Parishad and Standing Committees in a very simple way. In most cases, the facilitator of the FGD asked the group members to point out some key issues which they think would ensure better improvement for Union Parishad, and in all cases the facilitator asked them to talk about the kind of changes they expect the government would undertake for strengthening the Union Parishad as a whole. To initiate the discussion, FGD facilitator asked each of the group to identify at least five most important hindrances that cause lack of initiative of the Union Parishad and Standing Committee, as they perceive and make a thorough discussion on those issues. The discussions with the groups were in informal settings so that the groups became very keen as well as active in raising many issues, which according to them were relevant to find out the changes for improvement.

In the second phase of data collection, the study focused on the opinion makers (e.g. academics, political leaders and government officials) of the society whose voices are more or less heard in the media and in policy framework. Semi-structured questionnaire, conver-sations, and interviews were used as tools for this phase of data collection. The sample size of this phase was 8. The total number of sample size was 104 (96+8).

1.3. Limitations of the study

The respondents were not very much aware of the duties and functions of the Union Parishad. So they suggested some reform agenda for the standing committees based on how they see the UP at present. It would have been better if they had some idea about the rules and regulations of the UP. The focus of this study was the standing committee of the Union Parishad, but the members of the Union Parishad are more interested in project implementation rather than the duties of his or her own committee. The members and choukirars do not attend the UP office regularly because they have to do something to feed their family. So it was difficult to make sure all the members and employees of a UP present at a FGD. Local people have many complaints against the UP but they have no constructive suggestion on how to make the UP Standing Committee more useful, what reforms are needed for the standing committees. 

2. Evolution of Union Parishad in Bangladesh

2.1. Historical Development

There is a long and traditional history of local government in Bangladesh. Existence of local government may be found since very long in this subcontinent. During the ancient, medieval, British, Pakistan and Bangladesh periods, initiatives were taken to enable local government to function properly.

Panchayet System was an old local government institution in this region. The term 'panchayet' implies an assembly of five or more persons. The term was in vogue in Bengal, as in the rest of northern India, since time immemorial. During the ancient period, this village assembly or panchayet, which was either nominated by the king or elected by the people of a village, was left undisturbed in the overall management of the administration of the village. The composition of the panchayets was such that they represented different classes and castes. The panchayets distributed land among the villagers, collected tax from them and paid to the government its due share. Kautilya's Arthashastra mentioned the grama-vrddhas (village elders) who were the esteemed members of the village assembly and whose duty was to assist the government officials in deciding petty disputes in the villages (Banglapedia, 2006).

The present structure of local government in Bangladesh had its origin in British colonial period. The first attempt at establishing local government institution was made during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The structure, functions and financial management of local government institutions have undergone many changes from the British colonial period to the present day.

It is recorded in history that the villages were self-reliant before the colonial rule. Every village had its own community-based organization known as Panchayet. All the adult members of the village society constituted it. Taking decisions on social matters, adjudication in disputes and maintenance of law and order were among its responsibilities. The Panchayers used to mobilize resources for the discharge of their traditional functions. The Panchayet evolved naturally out of the social needs and was based on public opinion. There was no legal basis or authority behind them.

During the British rule, the Bengal village Chowkidari Act was passed in 1870 with administrative, economic and political objectives. This paved the way for setting up local government body under the law. Under this Act, several villages were organized into a Union, and Chowkidari Panchayet (Organization) was set up in each Union. The Chowkidari Panchayet had five members who were appointed by the government for three years .The Panchayets were responsible for the appointment of Chowkidars (village police) for maintenance of law and order. The village police were paid through the collection of Chowkidari tax from the villagers.

Under the Chowkidari system, members were considered as government functionaries rather than representatives of the villagers. The Panchayets were used mainly to assist the administration in maintaining law and order and for tax collection. They had no role and function in respect to development activities. For these reasons, the need for local government bodies with greater responsibility was felt replacing the Chowkidari Panchayet, A major step in this direction was marked by the passing of the Bengal Local Self Government Act in 1885. Under this Act, Union Committees, Local Government Boards and District Boards were set up respectively.

The Bengal Village Self-Government Act of 1919 abolished Chowkidari Panchayet and Union Committee and in their place set up Union Board and District Board. Two-third of the members of Union Board were elected and one-third nominated. The system of nomination was abolished in 1946. The main function of the Union Board was maintenance of law and order, roads and bridges, provision of health care, charitable dispensaries and primary school, water supply and assistance to the District Board. The Union Board could dispose of minor criminal cases and was given the authority to levy Union rate.

During Pakistan period, under the Basic Democracy Order of 1959, local government bodies were set up at four tiers viz. Union Council at Union level, Thana Council at Thana level, and District Council at District level and Divisional Council at Divisional level. On average, a Union comprised an area with 10,000 inhabitants and the Union Council was constituted with 10 to15 members, Two-third of the members were elected by voters and one-third was nominated by the government. The system of nomination was abolished after the introduction of the constitution. The members used to elect a chairman and one vice-chairman among them. In addition to the maintenance of law and order of their area, the Union Council was given 37 functions among which agriculture development, water supply, and education, communications, and socials welfare were included. The Union Council was also given the authority to set up conciliation court and the members were given judicial power under the Muslim Family and Marriage Ordinance of 1961.Under the Basic Democracies Ordinance, 1959 the Union Council was authorized to impose taxes on property and other sources to build its own fund in addition to existing Chowkidari fund. Government grant was given for rural works program and for constitution of Union Parishad office.

The present local government system in Bangladesh had its origin in British colonial period. The self-governing local Panchayets that functioned at the village level gradually became weak and disappeared soon after the colonial rulers established their authority over the length and breadth of the country. The local bodies had no autonomy, though the names of local government bodies were changed during the Pakistan period their status remained almost the same with very little increase in autonomy. After Bangladesh became independent, decision was taken to strengthen local government institutions at three levels and to make provision for women members. In 1982, Upazila Parishad was established as an elected local government body at Thana level. Earlier efforts at forming Gram Sarkar and Palli Parishad at village level did not succeed. The Upazila system introduced in 1982 was abolished in 1991. Since inception, the local government institutions were given the responsibilities for maintenance of law and order infrastructures development and their maintenance, health, education etc. within their area.

2.2 Legal Basis of the Union Parishad

The Union Parishad owes its existence to the Constitution of Bangladesh.

1)    Article 59 of the Constitution of Bnagladesh states:

2)    Local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with the law.

3)    Every body such as is referred to in Clause (i) shall, subject to this Constitution and any other law, perform within the appropriate administrative unit, such functions as shall be prescribed by Acts of Parliament, which may include functions relating to:

a)administration and the work of public offices;

b)the maintenance of public order; and

c)the preparation and implementation of plans relating to public services and economic development.

Article 60 states: For the purpose of giving full effect to the provision of Article 59, Parliament shall by law confer powers on the local government bodies referred to in that Article, including power to impose taxes for local purposes, to prepare their budgets and to maintain funds.

However, under the Fourth Amendment of the Csonstitution in 1975, this provision was abolished. In Chapter II of the Constitution, corrected up to 28 February, 1979, there is only one sentence on local government, in Clause 9:

“The state shall encourage local government bodies composed of representatives from relevant areas and in these bodies, there shall be as far as possible, special representation of peasants, workers and women.”

Under the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution in 1991, it has been stated:

“Local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with law. Every local body shall perform within the appropriate administrative unit such functions as shall be prescribed by Acts of Parliament.”

In 1992, the Local Government Structure Review Commission recommended major changes in the structure, composition, functions and finances of rural local government bodies in Bangladesh in order to facilitate local government activities and also to ensure people’s participation in them. Accordingly, the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) passed the Local Government (Union Parishad) (Amendment) Act, 1993. According to this law, a union was divided into nine wards, in each UP it reserved 3 seats exclusively for women member, provision for forming standing committees were introduced.

Provision for direct election of the 3 women members of the reserved seat of the UP was introduced in the Local Government (Union Parishad) (Second Amendment) Act, 1997.

2.3. Union Parishad at Present

In order to understand the functions of the UP Standing Committee, which is the focal point of this research, we need to know about the present Union Parishad. UPs are governed by the Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance, 1983. In 1988, 1993 and 1997 major changes occurred with respect to the structure and composition of UPs. However, these amendments have been incorporated in the 1983 Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance (as modified till date). The structure and composition of the UP are based on these amendments.

The structure, power and functions of the Union Parishad in Bangladesh have been changed many times since its inception. The present structure of the UP came through the demand of the people and the thoughts of the political leaders. The present UP has its legal basis in the constitution.

At present, in Bangladesh, the Union Parishad is constituted under the legal basis of the constitution of Bangladesh. In section 9, 10, 11, 59 and 60 of the constitution the formation, responsibility and functions of the local government institutions has been described. Based on those sections, the Union Parishad operates according to The Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance, 1983 and its elections are held according to the Union Parishad (Election) Rules, 1983.

The Union Parishad is constituted of 1 Chairman and 12 members. Among the 12 members, 3 seats are reserved for women. Each Union is divided into 9 wards and each ward has 1 member elected directly by the people’s votes. One woman member for the reserved seats is elected by the voters of every three wards. But, any woman voter of the Union can elect a member for any of the 9 wards besides the reserved 3 seats. The chairman will be elected by direct vote of the voters of his or her Union. The term of a Union Parishad will be 5 years from its first meeting. But, it will continue to work until the next Union Parishad holds its first meeting even if it exceeds the 5 year limit. The functions of the Union Parishad are of 5 types. These are a. Civic functions, b. Police and Security, c. Revenue and Administration, d. Development and Poverty Alleviation, e. Judicial functions.

The government pays the remuneration of the chairman and members of the UP. The income sources of the UP are very limited and the duties and functions are enormous.

Since inception, the local government institutions were given the responsibilities for maintenance of law and order, infrastructures development and their maintenance, health, education etc. within their area. Though they had sources of own revenue income for most of their activities, they mainly relied on various grants from the government. At present, only Union Parishad is an elected local government body.

2.4. Responsibilities of the UP

The responsibilities of the Union Parishad are determined by law. According to sub-section 2 of section 30 of The Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance, 1983, the Union Parishad has 10 compulsory responsibilities. These are:

4)    Maintenance of law and order and rendering of assistance to the administration in the maintenance of law and order

5)    Adoption of measures for preventing disorder and smuggling

6)    Adoption and implementation of development schemes in the fields of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock, education, health, cottage industries, communications, irrigation and flood protection, with a view to improving the economic and social condition of the people

7)    Promotion of family planning

8)    Development and use of local resources

9)    Protection and maintenance of public property, such as roads, bridges, canals, embankments, telephones and electricity lines

10) Review of development activities undertaken by different agencies at the union level, and submission of recommendations to the Upazila Parishad with regard to the activities of those agencies

11) Motivation and persuasion of the people to install sanitary latrine

12) Registration of births, deaths, blind people, beggars and destitute people

13) Conducting censuses of all kinds (Siddiqui, 2005:154).

Besides those compulsory responsibilities, UP has more 38 optional responsibilities described in Part-1 of the Schedule of The Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance, 1983.

3. The UP Standing Committee

For decentralization of work and proper solution of problems, each Union Parishad can constitute standing committees with its members or co-opted members (if any) which will perform its duties according to the specific rules. Section 38 of The Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance, 1983 states that the Union Parishad can form any committee with prior permission of the authority if it deems necessary.

The concept of Union Parishad Standing Committee came from the objective of making the UP more active and efficient. According to the Local Government Union Parishads (Amendment) Acts. 1993 and 2001, each UP will constitute 13 standing committees, one for each of these areas: (a) finance and establishment (b) education and mass education (c) health, family planning and epidemic control (d) audit and accounts (e) agriculture and other development works (f) social welfare and community centres (g) cottage industries and cooperatives (h) law and order (i) welfare of women and children, sports and culture (j) fisheries and livestock (k) conservation of the environment and tree plantation (l) union public works (m) rural water supply and sanitation (Siddiqui, 2005:163).

3.1. Formation of Standing Committee

The UP forms its standing committees for one year. During every fiscal year, at the first meeting of the UP or as soon as possible in the second UP meeting, these committees must be formed. A standing committee elects one of its members as its Chairman, and another member as its Vice-Chairman. One-fourth of the total number of Vice-Chairmen of the standing committees will, subject to the availability of candidates, be elected from among the women members elected from the reserved seats. Furthermore, a UP may co-opt a person of either sex who is not a member of the Parishad but who may, in the opinion of the Parishad, possess special qualifications for serving on any of the standing committees; however, such a member does not enjoy any voting rights in standing committee meetings, but is deemed to be a member thereof for all other purposes. Besides, the UP may, with the previous approval of the Deputy Commissioner (DC), constitute additional standing committees for such purposes as may be prescribed by regulations.

The purpose of the UP standing committee is to assist with the activities of the UP. It is not possible for some matters to be resolved in the UP office without proper verification. In those cases, the UP standing committees conduct on the spot inspection, take people’s opinion, analyze that information gathered and submit them to the UP. When such a matter is put before the UP with the analysis and suggestions from the standing committee, then it is easier to implement. The UP decides the working area of a standing committee. Any decision made by the standing committee has to be approved by the UP. Functions of different standing committees are described below:

1)     Finance and Establishment Committee

a)To take initiative to increase the income of the Union Parishad

b)To ensure the regular attendance of the UP Secretary and the Coukidars/Dafadars

c)To supervise the activities of UP employees and inform the UP Chairman for taking adequate steps about any activity against discipline and suggest measures against such activities by the UP employees

2)     Education and Mass Education

a)To take necessary steps to ensure the attendance of the students in all the education institutes in the Union

b)To try to solve any problem occurred in the education program

c)To take necessary steps to ensure the attendance of the teachers in all the education institutes in the Union

d)To supervise regularly the proper functioning of all the education institutes in the Union and take necessary steps in case of any irregularity

e)To take necessary steps to ensure education for those elderly people who could not take education at early age, so that they can read, write and calculate

3)    Health, Family Planning and Epidemic Control Committee

a)To take necessary steps to ensure proper healthcare of the local people

b)The committee will keep itself informed of the activities of the health and family planning workers in the local area so that they carry out their duty properly. If any irregularity is found, it will first advise them to solve the issue and then if necessary request the concerned senior officer to take measures against the responsible persons

c)To aware the local people about the family planning matters and  give publicity to birth control in the local area

4)    Audit and Accounts Committee

a)Scrutinize the UP accounts and submit the report to the regular UP meeting 3 times a year

b)To conduct inspection of all UP accounts including the cash book of the secretary at different times

c)Inspection of accounts and works of all budget/skim

d)Inspection of register books of tax collection, assessment, daily collection, income account at different times

e)Instruct the secretary to resolve any irregularity, if found. If the irregularity persists, disclose the matter to the UP meeting for due action against responsible persons

5)    Agriculture and Other Development Works

a)Take necessary steps towards agricultural development of the UP area

b)Motivate the people to use high quality seeds

c)Arrange meetings to disseminate information on diseases and nursing of crops and ensure the presence of an officer of the agricultural department in those meeting

d)Coordinate between the agriculture department and the local people to make sure that the people get proper service from the employees and officers of the agricultural department

6)    Social Welfare and Community Centers Committee

a)Give publicity to the programs of the social welfare department

b)Arrange trainings through the social welfare department

c)Maintenance of community centers, if any in the UP area

7)    Cottage Industries and Co-operatives Committee

a)Motivate the local people to be engaged in cottage industry and arrange necessary training

b)Motivate local people to development activities through cooperatives

8)    Committee for Welfare of Women and Children, Sports and Culture

a)To identify the problems of the women and children of the UP area and take necessary steps to solve them or raise this matter in the UP meeting for taking necessary steps

b)Inform the local people about the harmful effects of dowry, divorce etc

c)Creating public opinion to resist torture against women and children

d)Take necessary steps if any incident of torture against women and children occurs

e)To take necessary steps to  inform the local people about provisions of punishment for the crime of torture against women and child

9)    Fisheries and Livestock Committee

a)Motivate the people for fish farming

b)Arrange training by officials of the concerned department for the fish farmers

c)Arrange training on livestock rearing for the local people by the officials of the livestock department

d)Inform local people on modern system of fish and livestock farming

10) Committee for Conservation of the Environment and Tree Plantation

a)Publicity for plantation of more trees

b)Undertake tree plantation program on the roadside in the UP area

c)Assist any organization interested in tree plantation

d)Take necessary steps to nurture the planted tees

e)Take necessary steps to make the local people aware about the importance of conservation of the environment and what they should do to avoid damaging the environment

11) Union Public Works Committee

a)Supervise the progress of public works undertaken by the UP and to ensure that the work is properly done

b)To monitor all works in the UP area undertaken by any department to ensure that the work is done properly

12) Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Committee

a)Take necessary steps to ensure pure drinking water for the UP residents

b)Take necessary steps to ensure healthy sanitation system for the UP residents

13) Law and Order Committee

a)Take necessary steps to ensure security in the UP area

b)To supervise the work of the dafadar and choukidar

c)To inform the chairman about any threat to the security of the UP residents (Neeti Gobeshona Kendro, 2006: 48-55).

The Local Government Division of the LGRD&C Ministry in 1989 issued a circular for the formation of a committee in each UP of the country to resist oppression of women. The functions of this committee are as follows:

  1. to entertain complaints regarding oppression of women and take necessary measures on a priority basis to combat such oppression. Where the committee is unable to solve the problem, the matter is referred in writing to the Upazila Women’s Affairs Officer
  2. to take all necessary steps to combat the oppression of women
  3. to publicize the rules regulations and institutional arrangement regarding this matter on the UP bulletin board, so that the oppressed women can easily know where and whom to knock for help
  4. to hold meetings at least once a month and submit a report to the Upazila Women’s Affairs Officer every month on its activities

4. Study Findings Regarding the Role and Performance of Standing Committees

This section contains the field findings of the research together with an analysis and discussion of the findings. This paper has mentioned in previous sections the present structure and functions of the Union Parishad and their Standing Committees.

During the field study, two types of Focused Group Discussions (FGD) were conducted. The first type involved the UP Chairmen, Members and employees. The second type involved the people living in the Union area, men and women in separate sessions. The FGDs were conducted from different angles, obviously based on the study objectives. These various groups of people were closely linked with the issue. The target group of the study was the people living in Unions because the UP was created to serve them.

The following observations were derived from the discussion with different sections of the people at the Union level and the interviews with some academicians, political personalities, government and NGO officials.

4.1. Structural Weaknesses of Standing Committees

There are some serious structural and procedural flaws of the standing committees of Union Parishad. Some of these flaws were identified by the respondents in the following manner:

  1. Meetings of standing committees are not arranged regularly
  2. Not having a clear concept about the functions of the UP among its members also
  3. Weakness in co-ordination and inter-relation among the different UP standing committees
  4. Members stay busy with their personal work and therefore unable to contribute enough time to the Union Parishad activities
  5. The standing committees are formed officially but are not active because of the lack of sincerity of the chairmen
  6. All the Chairmen and Members are more interested in the Project Implementation Committee (PIC) or other project committees
  7. Most of the standing committees' activities are not related with monetary matters, so the members are not much interested in the activities of those committees

Hashem Ali, a shop owner of Rajapalong union in Ukhia upazila in Cox’s bazar district says- “We do not know how many standing committees are there and what their duties are, but we see the activities of 5 or 6 standing committees sometimes.”

Structural weaknesses of standing committees have raised some burning issues. Firstly, the question of whether the number of standing committees should be 13 or not? Are all those committees necessary for an effective Union Parishad? Which standing committees are more important than others? Which standing committees are not necessary? And, finally, how can be the standing committees are more active? The study searched the answers to those questions during the field work and came up with some opinions.

Table 1 : Some suggestions of the FGD participants

S. n. Union Parishad Participant Suggestions Occupation
1 Rajabari Union, Sripur, Gazipur Shahidul The number of standing committees should be reduced to 8 Agriculture labour
2 Aminul Islam The quality participation by the general people at the Standing Committee meetings is essential Agriculture labour
3 Rahela Standing Committees  should arrange meetings in every month House wife
4 Kabir Ahmed Every committee need more fund to work UP Member
5 Moktar Ahmed Standing Committee needs training Shop keeper
6 Rashida Begum Standing Committee should publish their fund and expenditure to the people House wife
7 Badiur Rahman Activities of the Standing Committee should be regularly published on the notice board Student
 

 

8

 

 

 

Rajabari Union, Sripur, Gazipur

Karimullah Fisheries and livestock, conservation of the environment and tree plantation, union public works, social welfare and community centres, these committees are not useful Farmer
9 Fazal Ahmed Standing Committees should write down the needs of the people in regular meetings with them and forward those in the UP meetings School teacher
10 Rajapalong Union, Ukhia, Cox’s bazar Amina Khatun Standing Committee members should attend their office regularly Poultry farmer
11 Tobarok Hossain Standing Committee members should be paid for job so that they can work hard Agriculture labour
12 Jubair Committees should be given more project and more fund Small business
13 Sofura Khatun More women should be included in the committees Household worker
14 Habibullh Standing Committee should talk with the people about their needs and aspirations Farmer
15  

 

 

 

Rajapalong Union, Ukhia, Cox’s bazar

Dholu Hossain Number of committees should be 8 or 9 UP Member
16 Sabbir Ahmed Standing Committee Members should be paid enough to compensate their time and work  NGO Officer
17 Aisha Khatun Each committee should have separate office and the members should attend the office regularly House wife
18 Shafiullah More tax items should be transferred to the Union Parishad from the central government UP Member

In all those discussions with the UP’s chairmen and members, local elites and local people, one thing was clear that the Union Parishad suffers from financial crisis and it is a major reason for its non-function.

The Director of National Institute of Local Government (NILG) said that, NILG is planning to have some special training course on the specific functions of the standing committees, so that these committees can perform their specific duties with efficiency.

At present, all the financial and administrative management is the responsibility of the UP secretary alone. This duty should be distributed to other employees of UP for better management. There should be a monitoring and evaluation committee for supervision of development works of the UP and this committee should be properly trained and, if needed, may co-opt an expert.

To summarize the discussions with the respondents, for the better functioning of the standing committees, UPs and other relevant government departments have to consider the following issues:

  1. Regular meetings of the standing committees
  2. Skill development training for the committee members
  3. Incentives for committee members for extra work
  4. Evaluation of committee activities twice a year
  5. Arrange the presence of union residents in the meetings of each committee and their opinions and suggestions about the activities of the committees should be considered with importance
  6. Adequate honorarium for the standing committee members
  7. Number of committees may be reduced on the basis of practicality
  8. Arrange more fund to finance the committee activities
  9. More tax items should be included into the UP to increase its revenue

4.2. People’s Participation and the Standing Committees 

Structure and functions of the standing committees need to be co-ordinated according to the demands and aspirations of the common people. According to the constitution of Bangladesh, section 7.1., "All powers in the Republic belong to the people, and their exercise on behalf of the people shall be affected only under, and by the authority of, this Constitution."

The standing committees of Union Parishad need to ensure the participation of the people to engage them with the local level planning as well as local development process. It is the people living in the unions and villages who know the real problems of the Union Parishad because they experience those issues on a day to day basis. But, the reality is quite contrary to the expectations. The study revealed that the people have very little access in the decision making process of standing committees mostly because of non-functional committees as well as procedural lackings. 

The Executive Director of a national level NGO working with Union Parishads for a long period of time stated in her interview that the Union Parishad should enjoy more freedom in their work as an elected local government institution. The central government exercises a lot of control through its officials, over the functioning of the Union Parishad by conducting periodic inspections of their papers, records and property. In the field of finance, supervision and control of the central government is as stringent and comprehensive as it is with regard to day-to-day administration. The government in the first instance regulates the income of these local government institutions. The central control and dependency on central government reduce the opportunities of local level participation and engagement.

4.3. Human Resource Capacity of Union Parishads and Standing Committees

One of the existing Union Parishad chairman mentioned in his interview that the Union Parishads need more qualified employees to perform its duties. To appoint qualified employees, it needs to increase its income as well as limiting its activities. According to him, all the 13 standing committees are not necessary for the UP. He suggested that committees regarding (a) education and mass education (b) health, family planning and epidemic control (c) welfare of women and children, sports and culture (d) fisheries and livestock (e) conservation of the environment and tree plantation, are more important than the others. Duties of other existing committees are already performed as regular duty of the whole Union Parishad.

A renowned academician of Dhaka University said in an interview that the duties of the UP should be limited to the 10 compulsory duties described in The Local Government (Union Parishads) Ordinance, 1983. All other extra duties, sometimes vested upon the UP, should be carried out by the local administration of the central government.

A woman member of a Union Parishad argued that at the decision making level, the attitude of controlling the activities of the people’s representatives of the local government by the central government has to change, so that the UP can be a local government in the true sense and not a part of the local administration of the central government. The dependency of UP on central government is an important hindrance of building its own human resource capacity as well as financial capacity. 

Some of the members of Union Parishad gave their opinion for qualified employees in the field of fisheries, livestock and agriculture to help the local people in income generating activities. These employees may be a part of one or more standing committees. The UP standing committees on fisheries, livestock, and agriculture need more qualified members as well as some employees to assist the committees.

5. The Way Forward

Since the Union Parishads and in particular the standing committees are not playing their role to the expectation of the people, they require some changes. Therefore, in order to activate the UP standing committees and make those committees useful for the people, some reformation is necessary.

First of all, the central government has to realize that some changes are necessary for the UP Standing Committees to make them active and serve the people interests. Secondly, they also have to agree that any sustainable change agenda must come from the people.

There must be no scope for the bureaucrats and politicians to interfere in the whole process of change. From the experience gathered by the field visits and discussions conducted at different levels of respondents, some suggestions were made to activate the Standing Committees of the Union Parishad:

  1. The number of Union Parishad Standing committees may be reduced or restructured based on further study and evaluating the practicalities.
  2. Adequate honorarium for the standing committee members should be arranged to make them more sincere to their duties.
  3. The Chairman has to ensure regular meetings of the standing committees.
  4. Skill development trainings for the standing committee members need to be arranged regularly by NILG (National Institute of Local Government) with due importance and supervision of the Local Government Division, Ministry of LGRD and Co-operatives.
  5. Arrange more fund to finance the committee activities through expansion of the tax base of the UP, yearly evaluation of all tax items.
  6. Assessment and collection of the business tax, which is an addition to the income tax and license fees, can finance the Standing Committee programs.

6. Conclusion

No significant improvement has taken place in the personnel system of the local government bodies during the last five decades, and, hence, permanent local government functionaries continue to be a highly marginalized group of public servants. The advocacy by the so-called civil society for genuine decentralized local government is ineffectual. A ‘presidential’ type of local government has been continuing under a parliamentary democratic central government, which is a serious anomaly. Union Parishads at present have almost total exclusion of and lack of participation by the poor, and only token representation of women. Its mobilization of local resources is highly inadequate and is dominated by and completely dependent on the national government.

The Union Parishad is chronically dependent on central government grants, and this, in turn further reinforces the dependency relationship between the UP and the national government. The changes in local government has been restricted to format only; that is number of tiers, tenure of office, manner of election, redesignation of focal point, composition of local bodies, etc. and not its content. Such changes failed to ensure participatory local governance. This is not to underestimate the importance of format, since some formats may be more conductive to people’s mobilization than others. Such frequent changes in the format of local government have obviously destabilizing effects. Interestingly, the cosmetic changes in the format of local government seem to be directly related to the strength of the power base of the government of the day. Thus, for example, a non democratic government with a very narrow power base tends to come up with greater cosmetic changes in the local government structure. Such changes are of top down approach and not sustainable. But a pro-poor and sustainable approach in the form of people’s participation at the grass root level is essential for any meaningful change.

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