Role of upazila parishad: Real or rhetorical?

Farhana Razzaque | Update:

Being a signatory country of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Bangladesh is committed to developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels. Local government institutions such as the union parishad (UP), the upazila parishad, pourashava and city corporations are involved in development and service-oriented activities for poverty alleviation and improving the lives of the people.

In order to create a political base, the government of HM Ershad adopted a policy of decentralisation and created the upazila parishad after taking over power 1982. Although the governments succeeding that of Ershad were keen to strengthen local government in Bangladesh, they did not include the upazila parishad in their election manifesto. The first Khaleda Zia government dissolved the upazila system stating that running the upazilas was expensive for the government and begot nepotism, favoritism and misuse of power. In fact, other than Ershad’s Jatiya Party, no other political party in the country favoured the upazila parishad system.

However, Sheikh Hasina’s government took steps to enact the upazila parishad act in 1998.

The caretaker government (2007-2008) attempted to revive the upazila parishad by promulgating an ordinance in 2007. Finally, after about 20 years (the first election was held in 1985 and the second in 1988) the upazila parishad started functioning as an administrative body through the upazila elections in 2009.

The elected body of upazila parishad is responsible for overseeing and coordinating activities of the parishad including the 17 service provider departments, also known as transferred department. Several studies in recent years have shown that elected representatives of the upazila parishad are largely constrained (due to unclear policies and political reasons) in making the transferred department officials accountable to them.

Unfortunately, the laws related to the transfer of these departments tend to be characterised by a lack of precision and ambiguities. In the upazila parishad act, although roles and responsibilities of different actors including the chairperson of the upazila parishad are statutorily defined, in practice these only tend to create confusion.

Despite the transfer policy, the human resources and personnel management set up of these departments manifest a centralised bureaucratic structure and process. This means that in spite of the transfer policy, the system of top-down bureaucratic accountability continues and it is effectively enforced by the following well-developed accountability tools: annual confidential report, annual performance agreement, monthly meeting at the district level, project evaluation report and monthly activity report.

The elected body of the upazila parishad generally believes that they are unable to hold the transferred officials accountable since it does not have any authority to provide salary to the transferred officials and make decisions about their transfer, posting, leave approval, etc.

While the upazila chairperson enjoys freedom in appointing employees of the upazila parishad and taking disciplinary action against them, the authority of the upazila chairman is circumscribed in relation to the central government officials transferred to the upazila parishad. Lack of trust between transferred officials and public representatives, in a governance context of politicised administration and entrenched corruption, also seems to influence the view of the former, which in turn creates disincentives among them to resist being accountable to the public representatives.

Apart from the gaps and vagueness in laws there are several other factors such as, information deficit, authority deficit, knowledge deficit of the transferred officials, elected representative’s lack of control over resources and, ineffectiveness of the  democratic accountability tools (annual performance review, project monitoring by upazila parishad and project monitoring committee) explain why the democratic accountability process has remained dysfunctional.

Although the transferred departments are linked with the upazila parishad through committees and monthly meetings, this linkage does not ensure any de facto transfer of administrative or financial powers. In practice, the officials of the transferred departments continue to remain accountable to their respective ministries’ rules and regulations.

It can also be argued that the existing laws and procedures that govern the transferred departments are essentially in favour of administrative accountability rather than democratic accountability. Such reality can best be described as de facto dual accountability process and this dual accountability relationship tends to have a negative impact on the quality of the service delivery process at the local level.

Moreover, formal and informal interventions by the member of parliament (MP) have substantially affected the dynamics of accountability at the upazila parishad discussed so far. The advisory role of the MP (defined by law) has created a broader space for him/her to intervene in the process of fund allocations and distributions, which has reinforced the politics patronage centring UZP governance. For example, a research carried out by the local governance programme ‘Sharique’ shows that MPs tend to interfere in departments where resources are larger in size due to the relevance of the projects under them for her/his constituency. For instance, farmers are the most important 'vote bank' in rural areas and services (subsidised fertiliser, seeds, power-tiller, etc.) provided by the department of agriculture extension are crucial to them. Thus, this department gets more importance from the MP as s/he might want to serve a larger population through distributing services and keep winning their votes in future elections.

Transferred officials frequently receive informal ‘advice’ from the MP while approving beneficiary list for those services and in some cases they have to implement such advice without any question. Resource allocations and distributions are largely influenced by the local MP rather than the upazila chairperson and other members of elected body of upazila parishad. The local elected representatives have always been part of or the henchmen of the local elite. In effect, a realignment is taking place--the local elites are experiencing having to surrender some of their traditional 'stranglehold' on resource allocation at the local level to the 'new kid on the block' i.e., the MPs. MPs in Bangladesh have been given an 'advisory' role, without clarifying effectively what the word means. More importantly, they have each been given a budget' to spend on spurring development activities in their respective constituencies. This is the larger problem than the issue of the 'advisory role.'

As a result of this legal ‘advisory’ power of MPs given by the central government, transferred officials become de facto ‘accountable’ to the MP. This creates a new line of accountability for the officials creating 'tensions' between the government officials and the elected body of upazila parishad. The complications have arisen around lines of accountability--the officials of the transferred departments are 'pulled' in three directions--accountability to the upazila parishad chairperson, to the MP and finally to their own respective bosses in the ministries.

Such a hotchpotch of accountabilities is likely to impede rather than accelerate the government's rural development plans, and thereby deters the possibility of the evolution of a balance of power in the upazila parishad governance process. Such politics of patronage has considerably diminished the relevance of the dual accountability structure/process (both de jure and de facto) at the upazila, thereby transforming the incentives of the relevant actors. Apparently, the transfer strategy at upazila parishad has not served the greater purpose of decentralisation and devolution and failed to simplify complex bureaucratic procedures and enhance good governance.

*Farhana Razzaque is a research associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University.

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