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Local Sefl-Government

Dr Mohammad Mohabbat Khan of the Department of Public Administration, Dhaka University, study on “the functioning of Local Govt in Bangladesh” stands good for most local self-governance in the world, notwithstanding adaptations to suit local conditions. He quotes provisions made in Articles 9, 11, 59 and 60 of the Bangladesh Constitution for administering state affairs to safeguard democratic values and secure economic and social justice at the local level. Similar clauses in the Pakistan Constitution constitute the supreme source of all laws, ordinances and rules relating to the local government system, there being no alternative to facilitate the consolidating of democracy and promoting good governance.

During the medieval age the Village Panchayat system required village administration to collect revenues, with adequate financial resources to perform their many different functions, maintenance of law and order, supervision of education, irrigation and religious rituals, governing the moral behavior of the villagers, punishment of crimes, settlement of disputes, management of communal lands and public utilities. This subsequently included construction of roads and other public works. During the pre-Mughal era, village-based local government administered their own affairs. An elected body with executive and judicial functions, the village headman often controlled the Panchayat. During the Mughal period, Sarkar/Chakla and Pargana became the nerve centers of general and revenue administration, with the Panchayat system ultimately disappearing altogether. The village level government gradually lost its long traditional independent and self-sufficient nature. Considerable importance was given to towns instead, each town included a number of wards or Mohallas. An appointed “Mir Mohalla” acted as spokesman for each Mohalla. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was the “Kotwal”, wielding wide-ranging powers magisterial, police, fiscal and municipal power. A Kazi was the judicial officer with a “Mohatasib” assigned to prevent illegal practices. With citizens participation missing in the Mughal system, a top-down hierarchical administrative system extended central authority into the local areas.

The British abolished both the Pargana and the Panchayat systems, replacing these effective indigenous mechanisms with the British model of local governance meant to promote and sustain the feudal system. The Permanent Settlement System required the civil and criminal laws and courts to become the basis of local administration, landlords became the local rulers, British rule considerably weakened the traditional independent village government system but were forced to introduce the Chowkidari Act 1870 and attempt to revive the age-old Panchayat system. The British experiments with local government system served only imperial interests, ie the maximization of land revenue collection and maintenance of law and order. The Panchayat became a local police body to further British rule, with little to do with public welfare. Remaining the practice in Pakistan today, which political party, including the PTI, really intends to break the feudal shackles? Take a close look at the Sindh LG Bill 2013, voted by the feudals for the feudals!

Imperial power had little understanding of (and or) interest in indigenous local self-governing institutions. The Bengal Local Self-Government Act 1885 established Union Committees (UCs) responsible for construction of roads, primary education, sanitation, upkeep of tanks and ponds and registration of vital statistics. For administrative convenience only the UC had the power to raise funds from villagers owing or occupying adequate properties. The 1919 Act was only a minor improvement, conferring powers to form Union Courts for settlement of minor offences. Village governments enjoyed much more judicial power during ancient and medieval ages.

Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy Order (BDO) of 1962 made the functional jurisdiction and financial resource base of the Union Council was self-governing and significantly strong on paper, in actual practice this Council was under complete political control of the central government. The four-tier system in Bangladesh comprises 40392 Gram (villages) Parishads in the rural areas duly elected by the people. With the Gram Parishad and Union Parishad Bills passed by Parliament in Sep 1997, local government structure was attempted to be implemented at the grass-roots level. The largest Municipalities, Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi, were given metropolitan status as City Corporations, Sylhet and Barisal being added later. Electing Mayors since 1994, members of the City Corporation Council (Ward Commissioners) are elected from respective wards. However instead of having elected officials, there are nominated ones on some tiers.

Theory notwithstanding, the version in practice in Bangladesh today enjoys very little power. The “feudal mindset” is the reason why it does not work in Pakistan today, in Bangladesh those pocketing enormous amounts of money through corrupt practices are the “new feudals”, their financial clout giving them enormous powers in the urban areas commensurate to what the landed feudals once had in the rural areas.

Self-governing local bodies must have appropriate administrative and financial authority as well as institutional capability at the grassroots level. This is only possible through an accelerated de-centralization process on the principle of specialization followed by different ministries, departments, directorates, and such other agencies of the central government. To quote Dr Mohabbat, “several abortive attempts have been made at decentralization but the system has remained highly centralized.

Local Bodies are characterized by weak administrative capacity, a limited financial and human resource base and little participation”. While citizen involvement in day-to-day local govt thwarts attempted poll rigging, more importantly meaningful participation of citizens in communities immediately identifies strangers, unearths “terrorist safe houses” and/or prevents unusual activity. With Bills for Local Govt in the offing, will the “democrats” elected to the Provincial Assemblies permit democracy at the local level they themselves enjoy at the higher plane? In a democratic farce the Sindh Chief Minister (CM) has powers to suspend the Local Bodies (LBs) for three months at his own sweet will! Should the laws framed for the LBs be made applicable also to the Assemblies? Will the CM accept his Provincial Govt be similarly suspended by the Federal Govt? Notwithstanding the rosy contention of the Sindh Advocate General, many Constitutional aberrations in Sindh LG Bill 2013 need rectification.

Imran Khan claims a genuine devolution of govt in KPK will happen, he says, “if the present PTI-led coalition in KPK flops, PTI flops.” This may well come true. Notwithstanding the outstanding “whistleblower” protection in the Right of Information (RTA) Act and the proposed Ehtesab Commission, the Khattak Govt is showing signs of becoming dysfunctional. Despite the mixed KPK performance in the first 90 days, Imran Khan’s charisma will probably carry the Aug 22 By-polls in KPK and give MQM a fright, if not a fight, in Karachi. Charisma can go only so far in ensuring good governance. Imran must prove he means what he says, making effective changes in governance in KPK and introducing a local self-governing model other Provinces will find difficult to ignore.

Effective laws for local self-governance must (1) ensure constitutional provisions and ordinances to enable local govt to function in an autonomous manner (2) ensure institutional efficiency (3) annunciate the responsibilities and authority of the local govt institutions with the organization and structure clearly defined to discharge these properly and (4) by stopping bureaucratic and political interference in their functioning eliminate outside pressures in making decisions.
Democracy’s stakeholders must genuinely exercise their rights and executive authority at the grassroots level, not act out the facade of lip-service local self-governance.

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