Bureaucracy dominates people's representatives in pourashavas

The government's move to appoint administration cadre officers as chief executive officers (CEOs) in the country's top grade pourashavas has sparked controversy. The local government ministry says the move is aimed at boosting the financial capacity of the pourashavas. And the mayors of the pourashavas believe that the government wants to appoint chief executive officer to the municipalities to keep any eye on the elected representatives.

There are 328 pourashavas in Bangladesh. Among them, 194 are grade A pourashavas. Notably, salaries and allowances of many officers and employees of B and C grade pourashavas as well as of some A grade porashavas are in arrear from one month up to 60 months.

The Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives has decided that the pourashavas that fail to pay salaries to its staff will be scrapped. One had hardly disagree with this decision. How will a pourashava serve the citizens if it is not able to pay the salaries and allowances of its employees?

It is indisputable that the pourashavas must be financially solvent. One of the main sources of income of pourashavas is holding tax or municipal tax collected from the citizens. The government's new initiative argues that elected representatives do not raise municipal taxes because of election politics. Many pourashavas have had the same municipal tax for more than a decade. Again, those taxes are not paid for years.

Many pourashavas have been formed for political reasons, without verifying the capacity. In many municipalities, the financial burden has increased due to the recruitment of extra manpower. As a result, these institutions established for the purpose of public service are grappling with their own problems.

So before any new initiative, the government has to find the root cause of the crisis in the pourashavas. Policymakers need to keep in mind that union councils in rural areas and pourashavas and city corporations in urban areas are important institutions of local government. The autonomy and independence of these institutions cannot be diminished. It would not be right to place the responsibility for the financial woes of the pourashavas on the mayor and councillors alone. The centralised policy of the government is also largely responsible for this.

Strong local governance is mentioned in the constitution. But the local government does not exist in real life. The sources of income for the pourashavas need to be increased. Local development plans are made by the local government in those countries with strong local government including neighbouring India.

Although there are local governments at various levels in our country, 90 per cent of the development plans are formulated centrally. As a result, the local government has turned into a puppet. The conflict between the elected representatives in the upazila parishad and the local administration is not unknown to anyone. Although the chairman of the upazila parishad is legally the head, the local administration takes many decisions by bypassing him.

Dual rule will not bring any good in the pourashavas by appointing a CEO. It is unwarranted for the bureaucracy to dominate over the elected representatives at any level in the state apparatus. We also want the pourashavas to do well financially. But the decision has to be made through discussion with the stakeholders. Imposing a decision from above can be counterproductive.