Good Democratic Local Governance in Bangladesh: Ramification of Upazila Parishad in Accelerating Local Development

Md. Shahriar Islam's picture
The objective of the paper is to look at the various governance and democratic aspects such as participation, accountability, transparency, rule of law etc. at the Upazila level in Bangladesh and to what extent the indicators portray good democratic local governance at the Upazila level. This paper examines to what extent the aspects of governance and democracy is being channeled to ensure that the needs and wants of the local people are met and alleviate poverty towards local development. Our paper would discuss whether the Upazila Parishad in Bangladesh is ensuring good democratic local governance to expedite the development process at the local level.
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In many ways, Bangladesh is a reflection of mal-governance, where the govern-ment has failed to ensure better governance involving the crisis in public administration, including the agencies of law enforcement (Sobhan, 2010). Corruption is pervasive in public institutions. Lots of pilferage and larceny as well as responsibility lapses and negligence of official duties are prevalent (Zafarullah & Siddiquee, 2001). The country does not have a tradition of consensus building, political compromising and collective nation building. The public access to information is difficult, leading to poor transparency. With all these national problems, it is difficult for the local government institutions to work to their full potential and this is where the process of democratization is needed at the local level. This would make way for accountable local government with citizens and the private sector being part of local development where human rights would be protected, security for local-marginalized people, promotion for economic growth and delivery of essential services such as health and education leading to local growth and progress ensuring sustainable development at the local level. To bolster the process of local development through good democratic local governance it’s important that the communication is two-way consultative process, i.e. bottom-up as well as top-bottom before any decision is reached among all the stakeholders such as with local representatives, administrative bodies, citizens, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and development agencies. Meeting the needs of the poor would not only help reduce the poverty level it would also improve the education and skill levels of the population, with the concomitant potential for contributing to greater economic growth (Katie Willis; Theories and Practices of Development; 2005), so there is no alternative to the participatory approach for grassroots development such as in the Upazilas .
With Upazila Parishad playing the pivotal role for local development at the rural level in Bangladesh, it’s important that governance includes people, providing greater access to all sections of the community and empowering them to control the decision that affects them. In order to ensure that there is good democratic local governance at the Upazila level, it’s important to build local political leadership that would ensure people’s participation, creating an accountable administration and implement people oriented development programs. Local people’s active and effective involvement in planning, implementation, supervision and monitoring, which promotes decentralization allowing greater autonomy in decision-making and stronger control over local resources enhances the process of local development that would lead to improved local development performance. To expedite the local development especially at the Upazila level, it’s important that the institution functions well based on universal principles of rule of law, popular legitimacy, participation and the accountability. This will improve transparency and will make public administration such as the Upazila Nirbahi Office (office of chief executive of Upazila in Bangladesh) and the Upazila Parishad itself to be more participatory to enhance legal and policy reform at the national and sub-national level in order to promote and expand decentralization. When citizens become part of local governance, their hopes, dreams and ambitions begin to be reflected in the development of their communities. It is the duty of the local government institutions such as the Upazila to provide services at the door-steps of the rural people--improving the lifestyle of the marginal people, helping the community bond to grow stronger. The objective of the paper is to look at the various governance and democratic aspects such as participation, accountability, transparency, rule of law etc. at the Upazila level in Bangladesh and to what extent the indicators portray good democratic local governance at Upazila level. Having shed light on such background, this paper examines to what extent the aspects of governance and democracy are being channeled to ensure that the needs and wants of the local people are met and alleviate poverty towards local development. Our paper would discuss whether the Upazila Parishad in Bangladesh is ensuring good democratic local governance to expedite the development process at the local level.
Conceptualizing Good Democratic Local Governance
Local governance involves the processes of democratization and decentralization at the rural-local level such as in the Upazila and in the Unions, good local governance imposes the sustainable and socially inclusive development of the local disadvantageous people including the civil society and semi-governmental actors as well as the non-governmental organizations, associations and mass organizations participating in the planning, implementation and monitoring of local development processes. Good local governance reflects the dual function of local government- on the one hand local governments act as the vehicle of local democracy providing services responsive to the local needs and conditions, on the other hand local governments must constitute the local branch of the nation-state administrative apparatus, executing state policies in key-policy areas (Kersting, Caulfield, Nickson, Olowu & Wollmann, 2009). Good local governance is not just about providing a range of local services but also preserving the life and liberty of residents, creating space for democratic participation and civic dialogue, supporting market-led and environmentally sustainable local development, and facilitating outcomes that enrich the quality of life of residents (Shah, 2006). It is important that local representatives undertake various ground works such as constant interaction, linkage with different local development program to give effect of operational coordination for strengthening democratic institutions such as Upazila which would serve the interest of all stakeholders.
According to Saldomando, democratic governance is the way in which compatibility between the state and the capitalist accumulation regime has been achieved in order to reproduce the social order, to channel the plurality of interests, the reactions against change and conflict management (Saldomando, 1998). Local democratic governance is essential for poverty reduction and long-term sustainable local development. When the human rights are maintained at the local level, when there are various accountable local government institutions such as the Upazila Parishad, when there is freedom and democracy (system of decision-making based on the principle of majority rule) with application of non-discriminatory legal system, local democratic governance seeks to exist. Local democratic governance aims to improve basic civil liberties and human rights within the local community. It is an end in itself as a moral imperative consistent with the aspirations of local people for freedom and for a better social and political stability, one that is more humane and more or less egalitarian. Local democratic governance should maximize popular consent and participation for the most marginal population, the legitimacy and accountability of locally elected representatives especially for the grassroots leaders, and better management of available local resources to respond to the basic needs and aspirations of the local population.
Good democratic local governance is a continuous process of expanding the local political space to ensure for everyone equal access to basic rights and liberties. This means that from the local communities new political leaders would emerge and carry the torch of the local people’s needs so that the needs of the most marginal people are taken into account. Good democratic local governance assures that corruption is minimized at the local level institutions, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making at locality. GDLG calls for democratic decentralization, which is presented as the sine qua non of rural poverty reduction which postulates for a balance between autonomy and accountability; constructive support from external actors such as NGOs and development agencies; and a commitment to democratic deepening at the local level (Development Policy Review, 2001). In order to establish good democratic local governance it is necessary to ensure that local government is democratic in a way which focuses on achieving developmental outcomes, such as provision of basic infrastructure and services; the encouragement of local economic development initiatives and the empowerment of local communities (Saito, 2008).
Democracy or Autocracy: Local Governance in Bangladesh
For good democratic local governance, which requires a capacity to establish alliances and influence the public agenda, the traditional centralist and bureau-cratic system in local government service delivery are needed to be relinquished (Barten et al., 2002). Upazila Parishad in Bangladesh is an elected body, established in 1982 to give effect to administrative decentralization in practice, involved in planning and implementing various development projects at the Upazila level. For Upazila to have democratic character, it must be accessible to the local people to its services by promoting their participation in the politics and administration of the local development process. The 1982 decentralization program, because of its representational character and its delegation of planning and decision-making authority to lower levels, was expected to provide a framework for participatory (Siddiquee, 1997). However, over the years, Upazila Parishad has failed to ensure, a system of welfare and redistribution aimed at narrowing social inequalities and a system of decision-making based on the principle of majority rule; i.e. a futile situation in ensuring people’s participation. Not only it has failed to give a democratic character but there is no regularized mechanism of popular control with decision-making power concentrated on a few people, giving the characteristics of autocracy.
The proponents of good democratic local governance propose that, through effective local governance the local government institutions such as Upazila Parishad and the local administration such as the Upazila Nirbahi Office could be more responsive to the local needs. However, evidence suggests that both UZP and Upazila Nirbahi Office created a platform of opportunities for various forms of patronage and corruption in management of service delivery system creating an autocratic nature in the decision-making process. The Upazila Parishad Chairman (UZC) uses their position to make fortunes for themselves, for their friends, relatives and supporters through patronage, corruption, nepotism and favoritism (Siddiquee, 1997). Factors such as kinship, social and political relationships rather than adherence to formal and impersonal rules and regulations have aggregated the autocratic nature where decisions do not reflect society based on equal opportunity and individual merit, rather than hierarchy or privilege. In the present circumstances, UZPs cannot operate in a fully democratic manner as members including women members lack knowledge about the functions and operational procedures of a UZP. Most councilors are to a great extent unaware of the intricate and detail rules as well as procedures of budgeting, planning, resource mobilization and allocation (CPD, 2000).
Tender, which is an important means of improving the physical infrastructure, is an important mechanism for Upazila Parishad representatives and officials for corruption and patronage distribution at UZP. Although in accordance with UZP Act there no real authority for members and Chairman of the UZP in the selection process but in practice exercises immense pressure on the Tender Committee (TC). This is because each tender selected by TC needs mandatory approval of the UZP Chairman and this is where the Chairman dictates by giving priority to his lineage members and party workers. The TC committee members are also not deprived as they are given rewards generated by the abuse of the tendering process. UZPs are required to form a number of Committees including standing ones for different development sectors however practically many of these are not formed or are dormant (CPD, 2000). Even if they are formed, they are filled with the close aides of the Chairman or other members, with no real democratic means in selecting members, which the UZP Act calls for. The Upazila has failed to articulate the views of the people, particularly those of the poor and so the marginal people have always remained the entity of tyrant decisions made by the elites in the Upazila. In a survey carried out by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) , only 16% respondents at a Upazila had participated actively in the local development process and they are mainly the people who are in power or close to those who hold power. In the development planning process of various projects, the intended beneficiaries are not consulted, thus these decisions tend to be un-democratic and also lack the transparency as there is no real accountability mechanisms to make sure that decisions reflect the needs and wants of the local population. Such as in a road construction project undertaken in 1990 at a village in Rajapur Upazila, the village people came to know about the project only when its Project Implementation Committee (PIC) attempted to start the earthwork for the project. As villagers believed that the proposed road would be of little benefit compared to its cost, they turned against it. The villagers were also concerned that the proposed road would not only take away a large amount of cultivable land, but also would cause enormous damage to the growing crops in the field. The administration remained firm with the decision and the UZP Chairman supported the act. This explains the autocratic attitude of the chosen representative with no real application of the good democratic local governance where the decisions are to be transparent with the consent of the majority.
UZP’s participatory practices, to involve local community in UZP actions such as planning and implementation of program are absent. Most Chairmen and many members believe that they understand the problems and can make all decisions on behalf of the people without consulting them, creating an oppressive nature as regards the needs of the people which is an obstacle for local development creating a barrier for GDLG. In the operation of the UZPs, there is a lack of basic procedures for accountability. According to Upazila Act (amended) 2011, there is the need of public posting of UZP budgets, minutes of UZP meetings, or UZP accounts are absent. The accounts are not presented to a full meeting of the UZP for approval. Lack of local consultation and the absence of adequate auditing procedures add to this non-accountability and non-transparency of UZPs, which puts the final nail in the coffin for democratic nature in the Upazila Parishad as the finance or the budget procedure is the most important means of resource mobilization for acceleration of local development in all the tiers of local government in Bangladesh. If we look at the Upazila Act (amended) 2011, we will see the Act itself does portray an autocratic look, such as according to Article 6 (13 KA), the central government can suspend any member or Chairman of the UZP on the ground of being mentally or physically unfit. Also the Article 25 of the Act states that Members of Parliament (MPs), of the concerned Upazila, would be the Advisors of the UZP and the advice is compulsory for the UZP. Now, this is very autocratic and an undemocratic section as this will hamper the local development process. Such as if the MP of the concerned UPZ has a hostile socio-political relationship with the UZP Chairman, then the MP would create unfavorable situation which would act as a barrier in establishing good democratic local governance in the locality. Another common argument against especially the chairmen and vice-chairmen is that they have a propensity to perform undemocratically. Indeed, there is an option in the law (Article 26) that provides them a scope to become undemocratic, "Executive Power. - Â (2) If not stated otherwise in this law or rules, the executive power of UZP will be provided to Chairman and according to this law and rules the power will be executed by the Chairman directly or by a person empowered by him/her”.
Elections and electoral process constitute the heart of modern democratic system and local government election is an important means of choosing local representatives. However, the recent Upazila election, 2014, held in six phases, in Bangladesh reflected an undemocratic attitude by the central government and a poor governance process by the election commission, having failed to take drastic action against vote rigging and violence. There was little violence during the first phase but the extent of violence increased during the subsequent phases. The elections to the UZP, which virtually came to a close through the fifth phase on Monday, with 20-odd upazilas expected to go to polls sometime in July-August, have well and truly marked the rejuvenation of a few demons of the past that were generally believed to have been consigned to history with the restoration of governance by elected representatives upon the ouster of the autocratic regime of HM Ershad in 1990 (New Age, April 2, 2014). The government exercised its power to influence the elections with an aim to snatch victory while the Election Commission played the role of a silent spectator which led to the incremental intensification of violence and vote-rigging almost exclusively by leaders and activists of the ruling party. Such as, supporters of ruling Awami League-backed candidates have occupied more than 30 out of 47 polling centers at Chhagalnaiya Upazila in Feni (The Daily Star, April 27, 2014). The compound and accumulative escalation of violence and vote fraud from one phase of the upazila elections to the next also constitutes a strong case against staggered polling and made a mockery of the democratic concept of local election, making the whole concept of good democratic local governance futile.
Local Development through Upazila Parishad: Aspirations and Facts
The main objective of the Upazila system, as enunciated in governmental documents, is the devolution of authority to local bodies, supposedly in order to induce faster development at the local level with the participation of people (Saber & Rabbi, 2009). Upazilas have great potential to become the growth centers and are important tiers for implementing local development. The local people see it as a means which would help achieve poverty alleviation. Through the Upazila system, the local people are thought to be empowered to raise their voices in government decisions that affect their lives. It was assumed that with the democratically elected representatives at the Upazila level, the responsiveness and accountability of the Parishad would be significantly enhanced (Saber & Rabbi, 2009). To implement decisions pm various physical infrastructures and other service delivery, the government emphasized the development of local government bodies like Upazila and people’s participation at all levels of administration to improve the living conditions of the local people. The local people had the desire that there would be a bottom-up approach for local level planning process, where they would identify their own problem which they would solve themselves. Various groups such as women’s group, youth’s group, small/landless farmers’ group, religious groups, various occupational groups such as fishermen and others are in the pursuit to be part of good democratic local governance where the people’s choices would be effectively established. People at the Upazila level view themselves as citizens and think that they should practice their right to establish their voice by participating directly in development activities. The local people in rural Bangladesh have been participating in development programs in different forms but effectiveness of these participations is still low (Aminuzzaman & Sharmin, 2006; Bardhan, 2002; UNDP, 2002; World Bank, 2002b). All these aspirations call for good democratic local governance for expediting the local development process.
However the reality or the fact at local government shows a different picture. The UZP looks like complete devolution of power, but a closer look at its structure and functioning gives a factual difference, such as the central government retains the regulatory and policy-making power and control of vital functions such as policing, magistracy, judiciary, revenue collection and land administration, the UZP has little authority to exercise its power to steer local development projects and provide services to the citizens. Officially the UZP is assigned with the responsibility of formulating local level planning (Ahmad, 1991) to ensure people’s participation in the overall development activities within its jurisdiction. However the scope of such participatory arrangement does not include areas retained by the central government and is limited to deal with the transferred subjects only (Ahmad, 1991). The UZP again has failed to utilize its limited devolutionary authority and could not achieve the promised bottom-up planning and responsive service delivery (Sarker, 2006). The reality is that there is a lack of planning through local consultation and public participation. One of the hard realities of the UZP is its control by the central government. UZPs have always suffered politicization by the central government. UZPs have been used as potential source of voter banks, through indulgence of oversight of corruption and non-compliance to rules and regulations by UZPs and other local government units, and the 2014 Upazila election is a clear picture of poor governance at the Upazila level, with no real application of the rule of law. Another reality check on the UZP is that of the administrative control by the various administrative agencies. UZPs and other local governments are controlled through a plethora of intricate and complicated orders and circulars from various administrative agencies concerned with the Upazila including the line ministries, Deputy Commissioner’s Office (DCO) and UNO. This kind of constant central control of UZP affairs is also clearly indicative of the lack of acceptance by the central government that true local government is a separate state of governance for developing countries such as Bangladesh. There is a huge financial control at the UZP, where budget remain subject to scrutiny and approval of UNO and DC. As Upazila system has failed to mediate the needs of the local people along with the autocratic nature in planning and implementing the decisions, as in practice local level planning by UZPs is severely influenced by central guidelines. UZP plans, therefore, fail to be need- based and lack community consultation and acceptance, as the local field administration and the central government dictates the terms and there is a lack of external monitoring of UZP’s planning activities.
One of the many realities for which the UZP has failed to execute good demo-cratic local governance to accelerate local development is because of the failure to mobilize local resources. Traditional sources of local revenue are not fully exploited by UZPs which is overlooked by the central government and local administration in allowing mechanisms of UZP inspection, monitoring and evaluation to remain dormant. The UZP members lack the knowledge of many sources of local revenue while UZP Chairmen frequently skips tapping them for not evoking displeasure of potential voters and involving in corrupt practices of raising revenue but without accountability for it. The UZP Act itself is not pro-developmental. The UZP through the Act has limited authority to collect revenues from particular sources, such as rents from hats-bazaars, tax from professional and trading license, fees from fairs exhibition and tournaments, and toll on services and facilities maintained by the UZP (Siddiqui, 2005). Except from hats-bazaars, there is inadequate income for salaries or to manage other UZP activities. The UZP and Union Parishad Chairmen often lack skills and expertise of making project design and become largely dependent on the UNO and officials of concerned departments (Morshed, 1997) and these offic-ers often ignore the advice of the elected representatives of UZP and use their bureaucratic strategies and skill to undermine the democratic system. In practice, the avenue for bureaucratic accountability within the UZP is weak. According to the UZP Act, the UZP Chairman has overall authority over all officers of the Parishad, however in reality majority are employed as dictated by the central government and salaries are paid by the grants from central government, thus in practice the officers are not accountable to the Parishad itself leading to lack of transparency in the works of the personnel which hinders the local development process.
Development through Good Democratic Practices: Policy Measures for Upazila Parishad
The UZP can become the hub of developmental activities if all the governments have the intent to practice the democratic values in the local development process. Various initiatives can be undertaken in order to carry out the local devolvement process by practicing the values of good democratic local governance.
First, there must be enactment and amendments of various laws which would be suitable and effective for local level development. The provision of Advisor of the MPs must be scrapped as this allows for an unwanted interference from the MPs and does not take into account the needs of the local people. The political parties in state power and outside need to keep their commitments to the local government decentralization expressed through explicit rhetoric of policy statements.
The local level planning should incorporate the needs and wants of the local community. There must be strategies for both long-term and short-term plan-ning. In Bangladesh, one of the barriers to local development is that whenever any government changes the development activities of that government changes, which should be stopped and the approved plan for development should be followed irrespective of political changes. UPZ members and Chairmen need to be oriented or trained in participatory methods of planning. The local community also has a big role to play as the community needs to be made aware of their roles in UZP activities as well as their responsibilities such as paying taxes and in evoking UZP accountability of its members and Chairman. There is also a need for strong and effective coordination at Upazila with other administrative agencies. All the decisions regarding local government need to be coordinated by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development at the central level and by DC office and UNO at the district and Upazila administrative level.
One of the pre-requisites for fostering local development is to ensure accountability and transparency for the UZP. There must be strategies for making both the public officers and people’s representatives accountable to the authority. Also strategies for making them accountable to the people should be developed. Specific punitive actions should be put into effect for both people’s representatives and officials for any lapse in duty.
It is important that skills are developed for both public sector officials and people’s representatives. Comprehensive training and orientation of all UZP members and Chairmen on roles and responsibilities and regulations is required. The traditional training by government organization like the National Institute of Local Government (NILG) needs to be restructured in the light of experiences of UZPs in the process of present reform implementations. There must be effective personnel management system at UZP. The responsibility of recruitment and salary of UZP staff should be allocated to UZPs through legal provisions and there must be more areas through which the UZP can increase earnings. Parishad should be allowed to carry out local planning responsibilities to make sure that it is need- based and developed through a process of local discussion.
For any institution to be organizationally stable and for it to function efficiently and effectively, it is important that the institution has financial autonomy. The UZP budgeting process should be evaluated to provide a supporting or democratic and not dictating role to the local administration. It is important to fix the priorities in the allocation of fund and projects through local interaction and need assessments which facilitate planning of implementations of need-based projects. It is also important to increase the various income sources for the UZP in order for it to be less dependent on the central government for grants and funds for its functioning and potential local sources of revenue should be identified, however, it is also important to share the responsibility of local resource mobilization from the existing sources, such as collection of revenues from various sources must be done efficiently and all local people who fall under the category must be bound to pay taxes, fees and rates. The monetary transactions of the Parishad have to be made transparent and accountable through the enforcement of provisions in the UZP Act.
Bangladesh which has undergone political and economic turmoil from time-to-time still tries to ensure that there is free flow of democracy in the governance mechanism of the country. However, in practice we have failed to ensure the aspirations of the local people in meeting their needs. We have failed to achieve the expected level of development at the Upazila level due to our lack of vision and inefficiency and lack of will or intent to make it the center of good democratic local governance. It is important that the political leaders both the central and local representatives look at the bigger picture to make sure that local development can only take place only if we practice democratic local governance where the needs of the poor and marginalized people are taken into account. Only when the most marginal people’s wants are reflected in the decision-making process, democratic local governance can be ensured. We need to promote grass-roots participation which would enable vast majority of the local people to involve themselves in the local development process, which would improve their living standard. The delivery of services should reach the rural people and access to those services should be unhindered. The ultimate success of ensuring good democratic local governance which would lead to local development largely depends upon the political commitment and the motive behind the initiation and the forces that shape their implementation. History however does not suggest that the political people have stuck to their commitment, however, there is always hope that irrespective of political objectives, the Upazila can be bring about changes in the fate of the local people and gradually good democratic local governance becomes the mechanism for rural development in Bangladesh.