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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Authority where it's needed

Update : 14 May 2015, 06:42 PM

Although the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh maps out three institutions (zila or district, upazila or sub-district, and union) at the local government level, there is no common legal framework that governs the institutions and each unit has their own laws as “acts.”

The first upazila elections after the inception of electoral democracy in 1991 were held in 2009 to directly elect three representatives in each upazila, and the complex and cumbersome legal framework, which at times may be considered to contain contradictions, deters the devolution of power and authority to the elected.

The Upazila Parishad Act, 1998, with the latest amendment in 2011, currently establishes the council at the upazila level and, according to law, 17 departments belonging to 12 ministries are transferred to the upazila parishad.

In effect, all their functions belong to the upazila parishad and the government officials remain accountable to the council of the elected representatives. Nevertheless, the law stipulates that their performance appraisals are to be written by the superiors of their respective line departments as well as the upazila parishad chairperson: It is the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) in case of departments and the Annual Performance Report (APR) in case of upazila parishad.

Furthermore, the law does not clearly mention any sanctions that are to be imposed from these appraisals, particularly from the council. The fact that the upazila parishad has been newly introduced, in addition to the loyalty of the line agencies, belong to their respective departments -- having formal sanctioning authorities -- makes such exercises problematic.

This “dual accountability” feature, or rather lack of accountability to the upazila parishad, results in the council being marginalised in the governance process.

According to the most recent amendment of the Upazila Parishad Act, there are a total of 17 standing committees that can be formed by the members of the upazila parishad with the provision that the committees are to be chaired by the elected representatives except for the upazila chairperson.

The standing committees, as mentioned in Article 29 of the Act, provide support to the parishad in performing its functions where the relevant government officials of the departments are the member-secretaries to the committees.

The line agencies, to a certain extent, fulfill the mandates of the upazila parishad and these committees hold the government officials accountable for their functions. Various studies have found that most standing committees of the local government institutions, predominantly at the upazila level, are inactive.

Again, absence of formal sanctioning mechanisms to hold the upazila administration accountable to the elected representatives contributes to the problem of inactivity without proper devolution of administrative authority to the parishad.

Although the local government institutions fall under the Local Government Division (LGD) of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development, and Cooperatives, only four departments of the upazila administration belong to the LGD.

The lack of an overall legal framework matched by the lack of coordination among the agencies leads to circulars and guidelines to be circulated by the ministries establishing rules at an ad hoc basis that, in certain cases, do not complement each other and, in numerous others, are found overlapping.

Various committees exist through these notifications whose functions, as well as functionaries, overlap with that of standing committees.

Even though most of these committees formed by various ministries have existed prior to the introduction of the parishad, there are no legal provisions that require the dissolution of such committees. The upazilas tend to function as they used to, essentially making the standing committees redundant.

Despite the overlap of functions of the two types of committees, the functions of the committees belonging to the administration are not limited to that of the standing committees and indeed extend beyond that. There have been efforts of incorporating the upazila chairpersons as chairs of such committees.

However, the local member of parliament is also included in these committees with an advisory capacity. The law stipulates that, as translated from Bangla, the parishad “will have to take the advice” or “shall accept the advice” of the MP (Article 25 of Upazila Parishad Act).

The MP, being a prominent, and moreover powerful figure, can dictate the play at the upazila level with the “mandate” provided by law. Also, the upazila parishad forms a council with union parishad (UP) chairpersons and one-third women from the reserved seats at the UP (and councillors of the pourashava, if any) under the territory of the upazila.

Each of these members of the upazila parishad, in addition to the directly elected chairperson and vice-chairpersons, has equal voting authority for the council to function collectively.

This, however, constrains the decision-making power and authority of the three elected representatives at the upazila level.

Additionally, these representatives are not incorporated in “all” the committees belonging to the line ministries, and there remain some important ones, for example the committee for old-age allowance, where the UP chairpersons are members leaving the UP more inclusive, and, in essence, more decentralised in the local government governance process.

The Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) remains the most important actor in the governance of the upazila. The charter of duties of the UNO requires the generalist to coordinate the transferred departments of the upazila in addition to remaining the representative of the central government.

According to the Upazila Parishad Act, the UNO communicates with the central government if the official deems it necessary and/or if any “abnormal” or “unusual” situation arises in the upazila parishad. Although an official transferred to the council, the legal precedents provide the UNO with the formal oversight power “over the parishad.” Furthermore, the act, as amended in 2011, has changed the previous formal position of the generalist from “secretary” to “chief executive officer” of the parishad.

The above laws, guidelines, and the overall formal powers of the actors highlights only some of the issues that tend to deter the devolution of power and overall decentralisation process at the upazila level.

With the collegial setup, it can be asserted that the lowest tier of local government, which is the UP, enjoys greater power and autonomy to the extent that, along with greater financial capacity, the UP budget is not approved by the tier above it, the upazila parishad. Whereas, to reiterate, the UP members have equal decision-making authority as the upazila chair and vice-chairpersons.

In addition to “reporting” to the central government, the UNO is required to also report to the local MP, who enjoys an advisory role that, at times, can be termed as discretionary. Apart from the legal overlaps, the political jurisdictions of the elected bodies -- MP, upazila chairperson, and UP chairpersons -- also overlap, where vested political interests can coincide.

The asymmetric power relations and interests within their constituencies are exacerbated by the formal rules, leaving the upazila parishad with hardly any authority to fulfill its mandate. 

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