Bangladesh has made numerous attempts at decentralization during the post-colonial and post-independence era. From 1957 to 2001, each successive regime sought to reform the local government structure. However, the introduction of local government did not guarantee inclusion and involvement for the impoverished population. As a consequence, the lack of tangible benefits from engaging in local affairs frequently led to indifference and discontentment among villagers.
The main objective of this essay is to evaluate the decentralization process in Bangladesh under different regimes and determine its level of achievement. The issue of local government plays a crucial role in overall governance, as it allows for greater involvement of the people. Local government institutions have the power to plan and implement projects, oversee educational institutions and hospitals, support campaigns against dowry and child labor, enforce laws regarding gender discrimination, violence against women, and environmental protection, and manage resources through taxes, fees, and tolls. Popular participation is essential as it holds local government accountable to the community while also ensuring accountability of central or national government authorities.
According to Z.R. Khan (1999), when the community is more aware, vigilant, and active in participating in local government bodies, it exerts pressure on local government institutions and government authorities to be transparent and responsive. Decentralization and devolution of power are key for realizing the potential of these local government institutions.
When decentralization and devolution occur, attributes such as accountability, transparency, participation, empowerment, and equity can become integrated into the daily operations of both the government and local bodies. Without decentralization and devolution, local government bodies are merely nominal organizations with no real impact. It can be said without exaggeration that a decentralized local government system provides the best opportunity for the attributes of good governance to thrive and succeed.
Enhancing local government institutions can be viewed as a favorable development towards promoting good governance. In Bangladesh, every government has acknowledged the importance of having functional local government for efficient governance. Consequently, ‘decentralization’ has consistently been a significant policy priority for all administrations. Nevertheless, the numerous efforts to revamp the current local government framework in Bangladesh indicate the inability to establish effective institutions that foster local democracy and facilitate developmental initiatives.
The analysis of decentralization in Bangladesh and its justification requires addressing the following questions:
1) How successful have the governments of Bangladesh been in ensuring decentralized local government?
2) What major issues are associated with the decentralization of local government in Bangladesh? It is worth noting that in certain countries, local government is incorrectly perceived as an extension of central government or a rotational power structure supporting field administration.
Contrary to common belief, the perception of local government as insignificant is a misconception, especially in industrialized countries. The number of civil servants at the local level is substantial. In fact, in the United States, there are four times more local government employees than federal employees. Even in a developing country like India, the count of local government employees amounts to 40 percent of federal employees (Suicide, 1994: 2).
To prevent confusion, it is essential to distinguish between ‘local government’, ‘local politics’, and ‘local administration’. While ‘local government’ specifically refers to governing at a local level, ‘local politics’ encompasses a broader range of subjects. On the other hand, ‘local administration’ involves implementing decisions made by both local government bodies and national/provincial government units on an operational scale. In South Asia, local government is commonly referred to as local self-governments.
In this essay, local government is defined based on certain attributes. These include: its statutory authority, its ability to raise funds through taxation within its jurisdiction, the involvement of the local community in decision making and administration on specific matters, its independence from central control, and its overall function which distinguishes it from specialized autonomous organizations.
In democratic polities, local government’s legal foundation and responsibilities are established through acts of Parliament or by including relevant provisions in the Constitution (Khan, 1996: 1). The Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 explicitly outlines the legal basis and duties of local government. As per Article 59, Chapter III of the Constitution, “Local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with law.”
According to Article 60 of the Constitution, Parliament is required to grant powers to local government bodies mentioned in Article 59 in order for them to be fully functional. These powers include taxation for local purposes, budget preparation, and fund maintenance. The details regarding these powers can be found in the revised Constitution of People’s Republic of England dated November 30th, 1998.
The local government of Bangladesh relies on the constitutional and legal foundation to ensure a decentralized power structure. This allows for the devolution of power to elected local bodies. The Constitution of Bangladesh, specifically Article 59 in Chapter III, clearly outlines the legal basis for the local government and guarantees the allocation of power to local government bodies. The establishment of the Local Government (LAG) in Bangladesh has a long history.
The existing local government institution can be traced back to the demand for self-government in British India. It was initially developed by the arthritis to ensure law and order in rural areas, supported by local elite and the local police (All, 2001). The local elites were selected by the colonial authority to serve in these institutions. The British rulers established this system to maintain their political, economic, and administrative control while imposing colonial extortion (All, 2001).
In 1870, the local government institution known as ‘Judiciary Penchant’ was introduced. This system underwent various changes and renaming during different regimes, from the British period to present-day Bangladesh. These include the three-tier Union Committee (1885), two-tier Union Board (1919), four-tier Union Council (1959), and Union Parish (1973) (Shank et al., 2001: 3). Since 1973, Union Parish has been the lowest unit of local government in Bangladesh. In England, there are two distinct types of local government institutions – one for rural areas and another for urban areas.
The local government in rural areas of Bangladesh is organized into a hierarchical system with four tiers: Gram Karakas, Union Parish, Pizza Parish, and Gila Parish. Conversely, the urban local government consists of Purchases and Municipal Corporation (Lam, 1984: 48). The diagram below, labeled Figure-I (Existing Structure of Local Government in Bangladesh), illustrates the current local government structure in the country.
Decentralization in Bangladesh can be traced back to a period before the country’s liberation in 1971. During British colonial rule, local governments were established through the Local Self-Government Act of 1885 with the aim of maximizing land revenue collection and maintaining law and order. At that time, local officials were selected from the local elite. However, decentralization under British rule was unclear as it was not prioritized by the colonial administration. Instead, their approach towards local bodies resulted in oppression and exploitation. Ultimately, these experiments served only the interests of the empire without benefiting the rural population.
Despite being the first colony to test out decentralization policies, India faced British reluctance to truly implement them. An instance of this reluctance is seen in Inch recommending an elected Penchant (Tinker, 1967: 87). Reforms concerning local governance were also introduced during the Pakistan period, with the late asses witnessing the introduction of a new system of local government called the system of Basic Democracies.
According to Czarina Raman Khan of the University of Dacha, General Buy Khan implemented a decentralization policy for rural development under the Basic Democracies System. This system consisted of a four-tier government that combined elements of decertification and devolution. Raman and Khan (1997:8) further stated that the Basic Democracies system was intended to encompass both democratic and bureaucratic values. In other words, it was a combination of devolution and decertification, and it did not adhere to the principles and characteristics of a democratic decentralized system.
Though it was marketed as a tool for decentralization, the system actually aided General Buy Khan’s military regime in expanding bureaucratic control at the local level. Bangladesh, in light of its history of fighting for freedom and democracy, recognized the need to establish a strong democracy and involve people in political processes, decision-making, and national development following independence.
Efforts have been made to strengthen local governance and expand democracy, albeit slowly. These efforts aim to achieve democratic governance, encourage people’s participation, and address poverty reduction. The Constitution allows lawmakers ample opportunity to establish effective self-governing local government institutions. However, the implementation of this objective has been unsatisfactory (Meijer and Sings).
The decentralization strategies and developments in the local government system after 1971 are as follows:
The Music Period (1972 to 1975): After gaining independence in 1971, the Miami League government, led by Sheikh Maximum Raman, implemented the following reforms in local government:
- The system of basic democracies was abolished and pre-independence government bodies were dissolved.
- Public officials were given authority to establish committees at different levels of government, filling the void left by the termination of certain government bodies.
The committees created would, for the interim, perform local functions. District governorship was introduced in 1973, which resulted in a three-tier system. This system included a directly elected Union Parish (Council), a Than development committee under the control of the sub-divisional officer, and a Gila Parish under the control of the deputy commissioner. This system closely resembled Buy Khan’s Basic Democracies – De. However, union councils were elected but unable to function effectively due to the coup in 1975. While music paid more attention to national issues, it neglected local matters.
Despite its initial intention to promote decentralized local government and grassroots democracy, the Union Parish (Council) did not hold elections for higher level councils and failed to distribute authority to them. The Miami League leaders showed limited political and behavioral support, leading to the abolishment of the parliamentary system. Instead, they implemented a one-party rule known as BASAL, which included presidential rule and the introduction of the ‘governor system’ at the district level (Raman and Khan, 1997:8).
During the tenure of General Curia Raman as the Chief Martial Law Administrator from 1975 to 1981, significant developments took place under his rule. Major General Curia Raman took control of all power in August 1975. However, General Aziza played a crucial role in revitalizing the local government institutions in the country. Under Aziza’s leadership, the Local Government Ordinance 1976 was introduced. This ordinance aimed to decentralize the government by creating Gram Kasbah (village councils) at the village level. By 1980, two years after General Aziza became the elected president, all Gram Kasbah were transformed into Gram Karakas (village government) in each of Bangladesh’s 68,000 villages.
The Gram Karakas, comprised of a gram piranha (village executive) and 11 elected members representing various village classes, acted as a mini-government responsible for planning and promotional programming. The reforms introduced by Gene. Aziza were distinct from previous decentralization policies, as the bureaucracy was granted increased control over local councils. Despite this, the Union Parishes and Gram Karakas remained exceptions to this centralized form of decentralization.
The Gram Karakas, which had similarities to the Manhood model of decentralization, had various characteristics. It introduced equality of representation for different functional interests in England. However, some argue that the underlying objective of the decentralization reform during Sis’s era was to gain political support for the military regime’s civilization process. Lieutenant General Rasher, who ruled from 1982 to 1990, abolished the Gram Karakas after seizing power in a military coup d’etat in 1981 that resulted in the assassination of Gene. Aziza.
During his first year in office, Rasher started implementing reform measures aimed at decentralizing the administration. This was achieved by eliminating previous subdivisions and elevating the arenas to Pastille (sub-districts). At the onset of the reform, Rasher and his associates from the Pizza model emphasized that enhancing accessibility and encouraging participation were their main objectives. However, contradicting their promise to the nation, the military regime took advantage of any available opportunity to undermine the democratic forces in the country and reinforce the autocratic bureaucracy.
The political history of Bangladesh in the 1980s saw a repetition of events similar to when the Pizza was politicized during the rule of the military regime. This happened in a similar manner to how Pakistan’s dictator Ayub Khan used the Basic Democracies system in the 1960s. Additionally, during the 1980s, there was also the implementation of the Gram Karakas (Raman and Khan, 1997:9). During Chalked Sis’s Five-Year Rule from 1991 to 1996, Prime Minister Chalked Aziza quickly abolished the Pizza Parish and reinstated the previous bureaucracy-dominated administration through the promulgation of the Local Government (Pizza Parish and Pizza Administration Reorganization) (Repeal) Ordinance, 1991.
In June 1992, a resolution was passed by the cabinet division to replace the Pizza Parish with Than Nas. This decision was made due to the fact that her party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BAN), had only a few chairmen in the Pizza of the country. BAN did not participate in the first Pizza election in 1985 and in the second Pizza election in 1990, BAN was placed 5th and only gained control of 24 Pizza out of 460 (Maximum Bart, 31 March 1990).
The abolition of Pizza is considered to be the result of bureaucratic dictatorship. The bureaucrats took advantage of the political changes to benefit themselves. Surprisingly, the democratically elected government of Chalked Aziza also engaged in undemocratic practices related to decentralization. During her five-year rule, Begum Chalked Aziza failed to establish any new form of local government, which has led to ongoing governance issues. The local government institutions have weakened and become ineffective due to the lack of intervention from the No’s party.
It appears that the rural population, who are receiving more resources from foreign-funded organizations called Nags, have distanced themselves from the local government (Bahamas and Khan, 1997:9). During Sheikh Hessian’s period from 1996 to 2001, the Bangladesh Miami League, which came into power in 1996, established a Local Government Commission. In May 1997, they released a Report on Local Government Institutions Strengthening. According to the Commission’s recommendations, a four-tier local government structure should be implemented, which includes Gram/Pallid (Village) Parish, Union Parish, Than/Pizza Parish, and Gila (District) Parish.
Although there was some level of local autonomy for local government bodies, they were closely supervised by the central government or a higher administrative body in the state hierarchy. Westward (2000) notes that, similar to previous local government systems, the central government exerts control over all aspects of the local bodies. Meijer and Sings also recognize the patron-client relationship between the national and local governments in their study on the impact of decentralization in Bangladesh.
According to them, the territorial jurisdiction, functions, and revenue/expenditure patterns of different tiers of the local government are determined by central legislation and their activities are guided and supervised largely by departments/agencies of the central government. The present government (since 2001) initiated a change in the local government structure by introducing Gram Karakas in place of Gram Parish. Recent legislation has created these bodies at the Ward levels.
Each Gram Karakas will represent a group of about 3,000 people, known as “alleges”. The Chairman of the AS will be the UP member elected from the Ward, and other members (both male and female) will be elected in a general meeting supervised by a ‘prescribed/directing authority’. The Gram Karakas (AS) has defined functions, but additional functions may be assigned by the government. It also has the right to form issue-based standing committees and decide on their membership.
The passing of the Gram Karakas Act and the selection of TTS members in each ward have received criticism from all sectors of society, including England’s Nationalist Party in rural areas. The main problem is that local government bodies in independent Bangladesh have never truly functioned as self-governing entities. They have mostly served as an extension of the central government with minimal local participation. As a result, these local governments have always suffered from institutional and financial deficiencies, poor management, and a lack of social and political credibility.
The previous reform efforts aimed at local government have played a valuable role in gradually improving the system. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that future endeavors to reform and restructure local government institutions should address certain key issues. These include decentralization, institutional effectiveness, financial sustainability, citizen participation, gender sensitivity, transparency, and accountability. The Local Government (LAG) in Bangladesh currently has limited jurisdiction over specific developmental functions and lacks rotational roles and functions.
The role and functions of regulatory bodies have traditionally been separate from the area of regulatory administration, as noted by Hussein and Sacker et al (1994). The legal framework assigns most developmental responsibilities for Inch LAG units, such as family enlargement, education, public health, social welfare, etc., to various agencies of the national government. One example is that the JPG lacks authority but instead reviews and reports to the Pizza Nirvana Officer (NUN), a functionary of the national government.
UPS does not have much opportunity to participate in the implementation of local development projects initiated by government agencies. The relationship between government departments and the LAG at the field level is ill-defined. The LAG plays a crucial role in local infrastructure development, which is typically funded through food aid and grants from the national government. Various agencies of the national government channel food aid to these projects.
In this area, the role of UP as a Local Government (LAG) unit is limited to selecting potential projects. These selected projects must then be approved by the NUN in consultation with the Pizza Engineer (LIE) and the Project Implementation Officer (POI). This scenario highlights that the functions of LAG units are limited in the field of development administration. Furthermore, the other functions of LAG units are also supervised and guided by bureaucracy (Khan, 2000).
In the LAG, the relationship between central and local government has always been a concern. In Bangladesh, the central-local relationship is legally authoritative. This may be because of the colonial history and the lack of democratic government at the center for a long time. The central or national government mainly controls LAG bodies through field level government officials like the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and the NUN, who are district and Pizza administration heads respectively.
Furthermore, local government units (LAG) are also subject to intricate and complex orders and circulars from various agencies and ministries. These orders and circulars often contradict the initial investigations into the operations of local government institutions. If, after such an investigation, the government determines that a LAG unit is incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities, fails to meet financial obligations, or engages in excessive or abusive use of power, the government has the authority to suspend the local government unit for a specified period according to the law.
This provision gives the district administration the power to eliminate a LAG unit like the UP at any time, making them highly susceptible to the political and administrative whims of the government. Additionally, the central government exerts significant financial and administrative influence over the coal government institutions in various ways. The annual budgets of the LAG units undergo scrutiny and approval from different levels of central government agencies. Similarly, in the case of UP, control over the appointment and payment of staff salaries is in the hands of the central government bureaucracy.
In Bangladesh, the national government exercises control over the internal functioning of Local Autonomous Government (LAG) units. The Local Government Ordinance mandates that each LAG unit creates a certain number of standing committees. Any additional committee formation requires formal approval from the Deputy Commissioner (DC). These facts indicate that the national government constantly controls LAG units in Bangladesh through various mechanisms, governing almost every aspect of their operation and functioning.
Such practices have essentially transformed local government institutions in Bangladesh into mere extensions of the national government and its various agencies. The chronic lack of resources has greatly affected local government bodies in Bangladesh. The LAG regulations have given them the power to mobilize resources from local sources through taxes, leasing of local Hats and Bazaars, water bodies, etc. However, they do not receive the complete resources generated from these sources.
For instance, in the case of LIPS, 25% of the revenue generated from leasing the rural market is kept by the national government, 10% goes to the Pizza, 15% is allocated for market maintenance, and the remaining 50% is given to the UP. Additionally, the NUN receives funds from UP mobile resources such as land transfer tax and market lease money. These funds are held in the NUN’s accounts and later distributed to I-JSP based on government guidelines.
This demonstrates that the I-JSP do not have direct authority over resources produced within their jurisdictions. The national government officials’ practice of regulating and managing financial resources leaves the LAG units consistently lacking in resources and reliant on the national government (Khan, 2000). The local government organizations are granted Annual Development Plan (ADAPT) funds by the national government. The local government regulations require that these funds be utilized exclusively in certain sectors predetermined by the central government.
This pre-determined sector allocation severely restricts the local level planning possibilities and hinders the ability of local bodies to effectively utilize financial resources to meet the immediate needs of the community. It also goes against the notion of functional autonomy for LAG units. Institutional capacity, which encompasses both human competence and logistics, is another important aspect. Various studies show that a large majority of the chairmen and members of these bodies lack awareness about the complex rules and regulations related to budgeting, planning, and resource management (Amazonian, 1998).
Furthermore, for instance, Union Parishes have the obligation to uphold and safeguard over 100 registers. These registers serve various purposes such as general office management, village courts, test relief programs, and food-for-Nor programs. Managing these registers is an enormous responsibility given the limited capacity of the LAG unit. Consequently, only a small number of registers are effectively maintained. This is primarily due to the lack of effort made over time to provide training to elected officials and salaried staff, specifically the Union Parish secretaries, in the relevant areas of local institutional operations.
Furthermore, the relevant institutions lack adequate facilities and the training modules are also outdated. The majority of LAG units have insufficient physical facilities. Ensuring accountability and transparency in the operations and functions of the LAG units is crucial for maintaining their credibility with the electorate. This can only be accomplished through proper supervision and monitoring. Legally, the Monitoring & Evaluation Inning of the Local Government Department in the Ministry of Local Government Rural Development and Cooperatives (ALGER) is tasked with monitoring the functions of the local bodies.
However, the monitoring mechanism of the government is weak and ineffective. Another mechanism is the inspection and visits by government officials at the field level, such as the NUN and the ADDLE. However, their functions are more focused on control rather than monitoring. According to the relevant LAG regulations, I-JSPs are required to publicly display the budget and major decisions of UP meetings, especially regarding development projects, on the UP notice board. However, this practice is rarely observed in most Union Parishes in Bangladesh. In conclusion, there have been six major attempts to reform local government in Bangladesh under six different governments.
The goal of all these governments was to introduce participatory and accountable local governance through decentralization. They aimed to transfer functions and powers to locally elected institutions. These governments acknowledged the importance of decentralized local institutions in planning and executing development projects for poverty alleviation and reducing socio-economic inequality. However, they were unable to achieve these objectives. The governments did not fulfill their commitment to grassroots democracy and failed to empower lower level communities to manage their own affairs.
Regardless, each government in Bangladesh has utilized the local government bodies to bolster their own political foundation in rural regions, disregarding the principles and significance of decentralizing power to the local level. As a result, the main objectives of reducing poverty, achieving economic fairness, and promoting gender equality have not been achieved. (Prang Kumar Pandas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Rajahs, Bangladesh. He can be contacted at: [email protected]) End Notes 1.
The concept of local self-government emerged during colonial times in South Asia, as there was limited self-government at both the central and provincial levels. The British Government made a decision to involve South Asians in managing local affairs, providing them with a degree of self-government. However, this term no longer carries the same significance at the national level today.