Upazila Parishads, a crucial tier of local government, have been kept sidelined for their entire five year-term. They have been denied their due mandate to function properly as local bodies.
This exposes the Awami League-led government’s sheer indifference to the decentralisation of state power through a strengthening of local government.
A more appalling fact is that the setting up of none of the around 480 upazila parishads was completed during their tenure as elections to some 1,600 posts reserved for women in the parishads were not held in time. And that has been possible thanks to the government’s lack of interest in making the parishads functional.
In such a situation, the Election Commission has moved to hold polls to more than 480 upazila parishads in phases from February 19.
But the future as well as success of the crucial local government bodies still hangs in the balance as it is not clear whether the newly formed AL-led government will allow them to exercise their mandate.
After a long gap of nearly 19 years, elections to upazila parishads were held on January 22, 2009, generating high expectations among people of the beginning of a landmark chapter in the history of the country’s local government.
But it did not take much time for the authorities to upset the then growing expectations. The AL did not hesitate to take measures contrary to its pledges made in the run-up to the December 29, 2008 parliamentary election.
It had promised to decentralise power through strengthening upazila parishads and other local government bodies. It had promised to develop upazila headquarters as industrial growth centres and planned townships. The electoral pledges were made in light of the constitutional provisions relating to the local government system.
But a month after the upazila elections, the AL-led government amended the upazila parishad act, making MPs advisors to the upazila parishads in their respective constituencies. This allowed MPs to meddle in the functions of the parishads. In fact, MPs kept controlling local development activities in a traditional way.
The saga subsequently kept unfolding as the government took a number of steps empowering local bureaucrats to perform the functions of parishads. In so doing, it saw different ministries form more than 80 committees to run development and other activities in the parishads. Elected chairmen were given the scope to head only a few committees on less important matters.
In contrast, upazila nirbahi officers (UNOs), the top government officials at the upazilas supposed to work as chief executive officers of the parishads, were given charge of most of the important committees, including even those departments that have been brought under the parishad’s jurisdiction.
Therefore, upazila parishads, the most crucial local government body in terms of formation and functions, with significant constitutional jurisdiction to run local administrations and implement plans for economic and social development, have been kept dysfunctional for the last five years.
This time around, the AL, as it approached the January 5 parliamentary election, promised to strengthen the upazila parishads. But bitter experience have discouraged many elected representatives to the upazila parishads from keeping faith in the AL’s latest electoral pledges.
Over the past five years, many upazila chairmen and vice-chairmen were seen demanding that the government allow them to play their due role. But their demands were ignored.
This time, if the government does not change its ongoing strategy and take steps to strengthen the upazila parishads, holding mere elections will not yield any positive results in the local government system. The government may take some credit, though, by holding the polls in due time.