The road not taken

by SM Gubair Bin Arafat | Published at 08:55pm on December 18, 2016

BANGLADESH is going to have the first ever district council election on December 28. After a long wait, the 130-years-old institution is going to have its deserved place. We welcome the prospect. The effort to install elected district councils started with the enactment of the District Council Act 2000 and subsequently the District Council (Amendment) Act 2016. Since then, its implementation has been due. Such development has already generated enthusiasm among people long advocating for decentralisation as the district council election will complete the cycle of election in the local government institutions. A representational district council, however, is a new phenomenon. Besides, the goal and objectives of the district council remains unclear to both the general public and policy maker. Without a clear view, it is likely that a number of political, governance, and resource-related challenges will emerge in the course of establishing the highest tier of local government. It could, for example, face challenges from the same vested interests that impede the functioning of the upazila council since its inception in 2009. The new initiative to operationalise district councils may well be premature. It is important at this stage to shed some light on the readiness of district councils to perform its role from a political, governance and resource perspective, and share some thoughts on its long term sustainability.
Among the three tiers of local government at present: union council, upazila council and district council, only the union council appears to be effective although its accountability and transparency are weak. The performance of upazila councils also has not been as expected. It was envisioned that the implementation of the upazila council would enable smooth and effective service delivery and also be efficient and inclusive. However, since the election of 2009, upazila council has been under significant political stress, caused by tension in the role of the upazila executives and members of parliament in delivering development in their constituencies. Experiments in local government have a long history since British period, most noticeably since Bangladesh independence. The government has given importance to getting the structure right rather than on empowerment of the Upazila as a local government institution. The lack of administrative devolution of power and decision making authority has rendered the upazila council much less effective than it could be. The issue has been widely discussed and there is awareness problem, however efforts to address issue have been woefully inadequate. The government amended Upazila Council Act 2009 in order to facilitate a strong advisory role of the members of parliament in the development of their constituencies. However, the inherent risk is such ‘advisory power’ would translate into more direct influence in local government decision making. This is what seems to have happened. Indeed the political stress or tension has become a major challenge in local government development management and risks undermining local development in certain case. It is not difficult to concise that a similar challenge is likely to recur in the functioning of district councils. In addition, local government as an institution has experienced several political challenges to sustain itself. The history of local government in Bangladesh has witnessed the abolishing and re-establishment of upazila council under different regimes. With no constitutional guarantee to work independently, except for Article 9, 59, 60 in the constitution, it is likely that any regime unfavourable to the idea local government could dismantle the district council. Therefore, a constitutional guarantee for district councils is required so that the institution could be strengthened over time. The sustainability of district council will depend very much on the degree of institutionalisation as well as the level of empowerment.
In addition to the political stress between elected representatives and government functionaries, eg, upazila nirbahi officers who are designated to exercise executive authority and the elected UPZ committee, the government needs to clarify the role of lawmakers in supporting and facilitating local development — a provision which is prevalent in many other countries as well. A historical tension between the government and local administration has existed for a long time. Traditionally, central government officials ie, deputy commissioner, upazila nirbahi officer, and assistant director of local government have exercised authority over local government institutions. There seems to be a resistance to the devolution of authority to elected representatives, which, as stated earlier, was evident following the implementation of upazila council level, remains unresolved. Adding another layer — elected district council — without resolving the existing tension and there sources many further complicate the decision making process at the local government levels and hence impede the present development momentum.
Another significant challenge for the upazila councils is the inadequacy of resources available to them for development purpose. With little power to mobilise local resources they are compelled to rely on low central government funds allocation. Due to lack of financial capacity of the upazila councils, they are neither able to provide adequate services to citizens nor spend funds to meet local development and current budgetary needs. The available revenue sources are little explored and inefficiently tapped. The financial autonomy of upazila councils remains unrealised. How could we believe that the elected district council will not have the same fate as the union council?
The district council can play a much bigger role in the context of Bangladesh. Traditionally, the central government has maintained direct communication channels with the district administration. A district administration is interconnected with various hierarchical local government administrative units and institutions, tasked to facilitate both, local development and maintain peace and stability in the entire administrative unit (district).However, a fully decentralised local government is only possible when the district council would be able to mobilise its own resources, cater to its own needs, and manage local development with sufficient autonomy. And to realise that objective, the district council must be equipped with adequate technical capacity, as well as required infrastructure. Besides, the district council should be a fully decentralised unit rather than just being another layer of administration merely tasked to coordinate activities of upazila councils and/or implement central government development projects.
There is little doubt that the forthcoming district council election would be an important step in Bangladesh’s administrative decentralisation. However, the apparent lack of preparedness could weaken the entire project and even derail it from its intended mission. The lessons from the upazila council should be taken seriously in order to avoid the same tension between bureaucrats, technocrats and elected representatives. Without resolving the existing and aforementioned political and resource constraints in other local government units, an effective district council would be very hard to materialise. A district council should not merely be another administrative tier to complete the local government cycle, rather it must be envisioned as an effective engine to drive local development, deliver public services more effectively, and act as a ‘forward base’ for the implementation of the central government’s development vision.

SM Gubair Bin Arafat is a researcher at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University.