Local Government in Bangladesh: The Quest for Legal Reforms

Local Government in Bangladesh: The Quest for Legal Reforms

The history of local government in Bangladesh is extensive, yet it is still struggling for the right structure to work on. Effective local government can deal with local problems with less effort, less expense and less time. But in Bangladesh there is a huge harmonization gap among the different local and government actors. This study aims to scrutinize the political rift in local government and suggest uncomplicated measures to surmount this gap for more effective local government institutions.

Introduction

In recent times different donors and international organizations have stressed the urgency of local governance especially at the grassroots levels (Parker and Serrano 2000). To strengthen the Upazila and Union Parishad system in Bangladesh the World Bank suggested basic reforms to the legal framework for local governance to clarify powers and functions and to organize an effective system to supervise the performance of the Upazila along with some other recommendations (World Bank 2007). At present there are five different units and institutions of local government for urban and rural areas. Rural local government consists of three tiers—Zila Parishad, Upazila Parishad (UZP) and Union Parishad. The second tier is considered as the most important of all.

The units and institutions of urban and rural local government have “separate sets of laws and rules with distinct cultural practices which sometimes are contradictory and repetitive” (Ahmed 2013). The Upazila stands on its own as the basic unit in the development structure of the country as considered in politics, administrative set up and in the socio-cultural context of our society. The Upazila could not perform its functions due to the lack of delegation of authority (autonomy), centrally controlled administration and planning, and direct interference of bureaucrats and lawmakers.

In spite of this local government institutions are playing a crucial role in promoting decentralization and boosting rural development in Bangladesh. As an institution, the history of local government in Bangladesh is extensive but still it is struggling for the right structure to work on. Different literature argued that there is a huge harmonization gap among the different local and government actors and moreover noncooperation is noticeable between the different local and government actors (Khan 1997).

A good number of reforms have already been initiated for turning UZP as an effective local government institution but some crucial issues have not been addressed yet. In local government the Upazila Parishad is a vital tier but due to lack of appropriate administrative and institutional capacities, the Upazila Parishad is facing multifarious problems in delivering the expected public services at the grass root level (Khan 1997).  The new legal framework of UZP in fact has increased the rift among UZP chairmen, UNO and MP, making it more difficult to work.

Prior literatures on the upazila’s role and relationships focused on individual and group dynamics in the process of administration and Chowdhury (1987) argued that for uniformity of jurisdiction of all field level organizations decentralization of decision making power and authority is a necessity. Alam et al (1994) also argued that strained relationship between elected representatives and government officials at upazila level is a cause for ineffective upazila. Begum (2001) identified dualism of orders both by the UP chairman and UNO affect upazila administration in Bangladesh. The roles and relationship of politicians and bureaucrats in the policy process of upazila parishad in the formative stage was conducted by Ahmed, N. (2009).

He found that lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities is a cause for their misunderstanding and friction. Rahman (2012) examined the role and functions of elected representatives and bureaucrat at upazila level. Based on a survey he explores community perceptions on these issues. But different studies suggested that coordination and working relations among the MPs, upazila chairmen and local bureaucrats are conflictual (Rahman 2010; Ahmed & Selim 2012).

In the context of Bangladesh some studies have been made to understand the existing role of bureaucrats and elected representatives at the upazila level which mainly focuses on the problems of coordination in upazila administration. Factors like functional area and generalist-specialist conflict, lack of proper orientation in bureaucratic rules and procedures, lack of mutual trust and excessive central control are identified as influential factors.

However, the studies are not adequate enough to analyze the triangle of relationship of the UNO-MP-UZPC and no significant study on the legal framework which creates the anomalies and controversies in upazila parishad of the UNO in upazila administration has yet been conducted in Bangladesh. Therefore, this study can be of great use to fill the existing gaps in the literature of effective upazila parishad in Bangladesh especially on the legal issues which need to be addressed for strengthening the upazila parishad.

Upazila parishad in Bangladesh

Upazilas were created through the promulgation of the Local Government (Upazila Parishad and Upazila Administration) Ordinance on November 7, 1982, during the period when President Ershad was in power. In essence the ordinance reconstituted Thana’s and upgraded Thanas to Upazilas. Each Upazila was presided over by a Parishad consisting of indirectly elected and appointed members, and a directly elected chairman. The chairman would hold the executive authority of the Upazila, while the Parishad members held regulatory and oversight powers.

The experiment, however, was short lived (1985-1991), and ended with the fall of the military-turned-civilian regime headed by General Ershad. However, in 1998, the Sheikh Hasina-led government enacted a legislation to reintroduce the upazila system where the MPs were given an advisory role.

In 2008, the military-backed caretaker government of Bangladesh promulgated the Upazila Parishad Ordinance 2008. Through this ordinance, the MPs were removed from the advisory role and two new elected positions of vice-chairpersons were created (one of them being a woman). Although an election was held in January 2009 under the new ordinance, the newly elected government subsequently decided to revoke the Upazila Parishad Ordinance 2008. It reintroduced the repealed Upazila Parishad Act of 1998 with provisions of having MPs as advisers.

Present Structure of UZP

Upazila is a statutory organization and an administrative unit of Bangladesh. The UZP is comprised of one chairman, two vice-chairmen (male and female). Chairmen of all union parishads under the upazila concerned, mayors of all municipalities (if there are any) and women members of the reserved seat.

Secretary of Upazila Parishad: Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) becomes the Upazila Parishad Secretary and he/she does secretarial duties. An officer with the rank of senior assistant secretary from the Bangladesh Civil Service administration cadre is posted as the UNO.

Advisor to Upazila Parishad: The Member of Parliament (MP) becomes the advisor. After taking advice from the MP the Upazila Parishad can try to communicate with the government. It has been made mandatory.

Executive Powers of UZP: The chairman of the Upazila Parishad will utilize executive power to implement the decisions taken by the parishad. An Upazila Parishad chairman’s duties include chairing and conducting parishad meetings, monitoring and controlling all officers and employees, meeting financial expenditure up to certain limits fixed by the government, and commission. The chairman will also prepare the annual confidential reports of all officers and employees of the parishad. The chairman will supervise all accounts of the parishad with the join signature of the UNO.

Role and responsibilities of elected representatives and bureaucrats

Analyzing the present Act, Circular and Office order issued by the Government of Bangladesh some questions may lead to the discussion on who plays the key role in the UZP.

The inconsistencies and features of the Upazila Parishad Ordinances/Acts regarding the role of elected representatives and bureaucrats:

There are two ordinances and two Acts for the Upazila Parishad. In these, from 1982 to 1991 the Members of Parliament were not allowed to have any influential role. But in 1998, the new advisory role of the Members of Parliament in the Upazila Parishad changed the situation. Though the provision of keeping an advisory role for the MPs was abolished by the Upazila Parishad Ordinance 2008, but later it was included. On the other hand, from 1982 to 1991 the UNOs are kept under the control of the upazila chairman but in 1998 another Act gave them the secretarial role which exists till now. The present system of Upazila Parishad follows the Upazila Parishad Act 1998 (Amended by Act 27 of 2009) where the Upazila Parishad is bound to abide by the suggestions of the advisers (Annex 1).

Legal framework and the barrier in functional UPZ

Upazila Parishad Manual: The UNDP in Bangladesh published the Upazila Parishad Manual under the UZP PA project of Local Governance cluster which aims to help transforming UZP into a vibrant organization and turn it into an effective body corporate within the framework of the Upazila Parishad Act 2009. The Act provides the structure and functions as well as other supporting provisions for the Upazila Parishad to be operational as a local body. On the other hand, the manual is a compendium of laws, rules and circulars on Upazila Parishads. The manual is expected to go a long way toward operationalizing the laws, rules and circulars in their proper perspective.

It is assumed that the local government institutions should get their autonomy in their jurisdiction through the legal framework. An analysis of the existing Act, circulars and other regulations for the UZP reveals the following issues as grounds on which role conflict arises in the UZP and make this institution less effective.

  • Section 25 (1) of the Local Government Ordinance designated that as an advisor the MP’s decision is mandatory for UZP to follow. But as a local self-government institution directly elected the role is suppressed by this section. Moreover by the Section 25 (2) the parishad has to keep informed the MP of this constituency if any issue needs to be communicated with the government. Here the rationale is that local issues must be known to the MP but if the case or issue is regarding the role of or any complaint against the MP what will be the parishad’s role?
  • According to Section 42(II) all development plans are set and implemented on the MP’s recommendation which is contradictory to the self-governed institution philosophy because it sets up the MP’s control over parishad. This Act has made UZPs fully accountable to their respective MPs. This, in turn, will promote the autocracy of the respective MPs in the UZP.
  • As per Section 26(II) the executive power of the parishad is exercised through the chairman, vice chairman, member or any other officials rather than the parishad. This act is contradictory and creates complexities.
  • Section 50 and51 of UZP act describes control and supervision power of government on parishad what contradicts with the establishment of local self-government.
  • UZP act is discriminatory to the women of the reserved seats of parliament. Only 300 Members of Parliament who are elected from single constituency get the advisory power at UZP but no woman MP from reserved seats is entitled to do so.
  • From special and general allocation of TR project an MP is authorized to take decision of project selection, acceptance and sub allocation for special allocation; there is no role for the chairman and vice chairman. On the other hand, the chairman is entitled as head of the Upazila TR maintenance committee but as per the scope of this committee finalization of any project the committee has to discuss with the local MP.
  • According to the related Act, the upazila can form various committees to assist its functions where outsiders can be included along with the members of the parishad. Undoubtedly it is a good initiative to create local participation in local development. The qualifications of local people for inclusion in these committees are mentioned only in TR circular but not in other documents.  For this limitation local people who are included in various project related committees have the scope to indulge in irregularities and corruption due to partisan influence. Even without completion any phase of work project money is withdrawn.
  • The UZP chairman and UNO exercise equivalent power in project implementation, investigation and monitoring thus creating dual power. If in any single project they hold different views and give varying instructions the project implementer is bound to be confused and generally they follow the UNO’s instruction. As a result, instead of coordination, power becomes a priority factor. Having equivalent powers the people’s representatives and administrative decentralization cannot be effective.
  • According to Section 29 of the UZP Act each upazila will form 14 permanent committees where the UZP chairman cannot be the head of these committees. After enacting this UZP Act most of the UZPs have not yet formed these committees obviously because the UZP chairman is not interested in committee formulation because he is not authorized to exercise power in it.

Is there any way out of this impasse?

Though there were a lot of reforms and restructuring efforts have been initiated in Bangladesh for making UZP effective the legal frameworks are the vital guidelines which result in overlapping roles and responsibilities between the elected representatives (UZP chairmen and MP) and the bureaucrat (UNO). On the basis of the analysis above the following issues are identified which need to be modified for effective local governance and functional UZP.

  1. Section 25 of the Upazila Parishad Act 1998 (amended by Act 27, 2009) which entitled the local MP as adviser and final arbiter in the UZP shall have to be omitted. The MP’s role in recommendation in each development plan along with project initiation, selection and approval as discussed in Section 42 (3) need to be amended also.
  2. The role of the MP in upazila parishad should be in a manner that does not contradict with the duties and responsibilities of the chairman.
  3. Before passing any UZP related proposed act it must be disclosed to the stakeholders for their opinion.
  4. To make local government institutions dynamic, accountable and effective there should be a free, permanent and neutral local government commission. It will distribute central allocation for each local institution and supervise, monitor financial and administrative functions, investigate complaints and contribute recommendations, policy formulation and research.
  5. The qualifications and disqualifications of committee member must be indicated in the acts, rules and regulations of upazila parishad for inclusion in various project committees so that the UZP chairman, UNO and MP are kept away from their individual choice and interests.
  6. Since 13 sections/subjects from 10 ministries/departments of Bangladesh government have been transferred to the upazila parishad, it has to be made effective.
  7. According to the UZP Act and rules 14 permanent committees in the parishad must be effective in all UZPs.
  8. All official documents including project approval and implementation shall be submitted to the chairman for approval with the vice-chairman’s recommendation.
  9. Development plan, budget, income-expenditure of UZP must be disclosed to the public according to the Act and regulations.
  10. In accordance with the law and regulations the development plan and budget formulation will have to be made effective through the participation of all stakeholders within the stipulated time.
  11. Towards decentralized UZP, in the true sense, a change in attitudes among all elected representatives and government officials related with the local government is essential. The government and other development partners and international organizations may design training programs and participative dialogue sessions to reduce power seeking tendencies and make them local people and service oriented.

Conclusion

As a local government institute UZPs have not yet emerged as truly decentralized bodies. Moreover, due to certain institutional and legal constraints these bodies are failing to function as effective institutions. Unless these are scaled up to cover wider areas, the real impact cannot be properly assessed. As such, it is believed that if a comprehensive approach with wider area coverage is undertaken then the state of governance at the local level is expected to improve to a great extent.

Hopefully, all concerned with local government in Bangladesh will play a constructive role in propelling the country forward. As the government is committed to providing the people with a pro-people state machinery, all the functionaries of the state should cooperate with consummate sincerity and professionalism for turning the country into a middle-income country even before the targeted timeframe.

Annex 1

Upazilla-table


About Farhana Afroz
Farhana Afroz is assistant professor, Department of Public Administration, Jahangir Nagar University, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Meheri Tamanna
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Farhana Afroz
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