The factors held responsible for poor functioning of the local government bodies in a study report presented by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a private think tank, at a discussion meeting late last month are quite known.
Lack of resources and coordination and bureaucratic hindrances were cited in the report as major reasons for LG bodies failing to perform up to the level desired by most people.
Though focus of the CPD report was on the performance of the urban LG bodies in relation to achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by the year 2030, discussion, for obvious reasons, did cover the entire LG bodies.
However, one particular proposal---establishment of a permanent autonomous commission for the LG bodies--- mooted by the CPD could be of special interest.
The formation of such a commission may be necessary in view of the lack of attention of the ministry concerned to both urban and rural LG bodies. But one cannot be certain about its effectiveness in transforming the LG bodies into effective entities.
It is hard to contest the fact that the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives is more interested in exercising its control over the LG bodies than allowing the latter to perform in accordance with the Articles 59 and 60 of the country's Constitution.
The principal reason for the LG bodies, irrespective of their locations, remaining ineffective is political. A lack of political will on the part of all governments, political or otherwise, to empower the LG bodies in accordance with the Constitution have rendered the LG bodies more as non-entities. The government at the centre has tried to use these bodies as pawns in the power game. To the people at the centre, LG bodies are more like extensions of the Bangladesh secretariat, the main seat of power of the government.
A case in point is the powers of the Upazila Parishad (UZs), the most important tier at the thana level created by autocrat General Erhad. Ershad, however, had created this particular tire in the country's LG system with certain political motive. He wanted to create a political support base for him at the grassroots through the UZs.
But the UZs, if used with pious intention, have the potential to revamp the rural economy and help create jobs.
Unfortunately, there were lots of negative developments centring around the UZs. Those were abolished once and, later, after lots of foot-dragging, reintroduced. But the potential of this particular LG tire has remained largely unexploited.
Lawmakers are still exerting their influence over the operations of the UZs despite lots of protests from the local-level elected leaders. However, the elected leaders of the UZs have organised protests for the sake of regaining their control over the local level affairs. Rarely, do they seek what is enshrined in the Constitution for the LG bodies.
Like General Ershad, the political governments have been interested in getting their men elected at the local levels. For, it serves their political objectives. They have, until now, bothered least to ensure true development in rural areas using the services of the LG bodies.
Moreover, in a situation where the LG bodies can do little without government doles, it is hard to expect any meaningful role on the part of these institutions.
The Constitution empowers the LG bodies to prepare their budgets and raise taxes at the local level. But those are hardly implemented. For, the government is not interested.
Moreover, the relevant law has empowered the government to remove or suspend the elected representatives on different pretexts, at times, flimsy ones. There are also plenty of instances where such power has been exercised with political motive.
So, lack of power to mobilise resources remains a major hurdle for any LG body, be it urban or rural. It can hardly take up any major project without government allocation. Such dependence, under existing political culture, does make the LG bodies vulnerable to influence peddling by the government.
True, if given full autonomy to levy taxes at the local level, resources thus mobilised would not be enough to do anything tangible. The LG bodies would need financial support from outside. The availability of the same, however, should not depend on the whims of the people at the centre. The allocation needs to be automatic, depending on the area and population of the LG bodies. And utilisation of resources should be monitored and any deviation need also to be made a punishable offence.
None would, possibly, dispute the fact that politics remains at the root of poor functioning of LG bodies that could be otherwise very effective instruments in making all the positive changes both in urban and rural areas.
So, formation of a local government (LG) commission, as proposed in a CPD study, may be helpful to some extent in overseeing operations of the LG institutions but any meaningful improvement in their service delivery is unlikely to happen. What is necessary here is that the administration at the centre must loosen its grip on the LG bodies and allow them to work in accordance with the constitutional provisions.
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