The first ever election to district councils, also known as Zila Parishads, scheduled to be held on December 28, may be considered an important step towards fulfillment of the dream of the framers of our Constitution. They dreamt of a democratic local government and translated their dream into the Constitution in 1972. According to constitutional provisions, participation of people must be ensured in the district administration through their elected representatives, as the district has been declared an administrative unit by the Constitution itself, and district councils were created through laws to meet the constitutional provisions.
Holding elections, however, is not enough to honour the spirit of the constitutional provisions. Each of the district councils must be empowered with necessary jurisdiction, human resources and funds to plan and implement development activities in its area and supervise the functions of the local administration. If the local administration, led by deputy commissioners, are allowed to keep on exercising their authority over the local administration, the district councils will remain powerless and dysfunctional just like the upazila parishads. The upazila parishads could not be fully functional as upazila nirbahi (executive) officers, who belong to the administrative cadre, have been allowed to exercise their full authority over the upazila level administration.
Moreover, MPs, who are advisors to district councils, must be prevented from interfering in the functions of the councils. Their meddling in the local government body's functions is against the spirit of separation of powers.
The government, therefore, in addition to holding the elections, should plan how to bring dynamism to the district councils. The ruling Awami League can play important role in strengthening the district councils in view of the upcoming elections in December. The party should pick honest, efficient and dynamic candidates with party support. It is certain that local AL leaders will be elected chairmen to all 61 district councils [three district councils in CHT areas are run by separate laws]. The BNP and Jatiya Party are not in the electoral race as they do not have enough representatives elected in other local government bodies who are electors in the district council elections.
A strong district council is very important to improve governance at the district level. Being top tier of the local government system, district councils can play a significant role in implementing the government's agenda for developments.
The history of the district administration, however, reveals the ground realities.
The main reason behind the creation of district as an administrative unit during the East India Company rule was to accelerate the collection of revenue. Demarcation of boundaries of districts and setting up of headquarters was on the basis of controlling organised dacoit groups, ensuring security for Europeans and some other administrative advantages. Districts had been used almost for the same purpose during the entire British rule. Their number had gradually been increased for the important role the district administration had performed.
In 1769, the select committee on the then East India Company split the entire Bengal into 19 districts, and appointed an English supervisor for each district to supervise collection of revenue. Of them eight were in what is now Bangladesh. The number of districts in Bangladeshi territory increased to 16 in 1916 and then to 17 in 1947 and 19 in 1969.
In independent Bangladesh, some reforms were brought in as well. In 1983, the then military ruler had planned to upgrade all 46 sub-districts to districts. A seven member committee was formed. In line with the recommendation of the committee, 64 districts were formed in 1984. The number of districts has increased, but they did not get the democratic character in line with the constitutional provisions due to lack of political will of successive governments. Either MPs or DCs were allowed to run the district councils in violation of the constitutional provisions.
In 1975, the government led by Bangabandhu had replaced the traditional local government system with party machinery. District councils with representatives from Baksal and its front organisations were constituted, with party men at their helm as governors. General Ziaur Rahman promulgated a local government ordinance in 1976 which provided for a district council in each district, to be comprised of elected representatives. But no elections were held. The DC continued to act as an ex-officio chairman of the parishad.
Under another military ruler, HM Ershad, things changed. His government enacted a district council law in 1988 with provisions for MPs to serve as chairmen of the parishads as a way of strengthening the base of his Jatiya Party at the district level. After the fall of Ershad in 1990, the then BNP-led government removed the chairmen of the district councils, and appointed DCs temporarily as ex-officio chairmen of the councils. The DCs continued to function as ex-officio chairmen until the Zila Parishad Act was passed in 2000 by the AL-led government with provisions for holding polls to the parishads. But no election was held. Again it was the AL-led government that in December 2011 appointed its party men as administrators to run the district councils who are still running the councils.
The history of districts tells both sides of the stories – underlining the important role played by the district administration and how district councils have been abused by successive governments for their narrow political interests. Now, the elections have put the district councils at a crossroads. The government, if it wants to, can transform them into the focal point of local economy and all other development activities. Each of the district councils could be turned into a mini-government that will have all jurisdiction to run the district administration.
The big question is whether Deputy Commissioners (DCs), who belong to the powerful admin cadres, will accept such change in the district administration. If the administrative cadre does not agree to curtail the jurisdiction of DCs to empower district councils, an unpleasant situation may prevail. In that case, the district councils, once they are constituted through the elections, may face hurdles while carrying out their functions the same way the Upazila Parishads have been facing since 2009.
Government policymakers should give careful thought to such a possibility. As Finance Minister AMA Muhith stated in his speech last June, we should keep in mind that the poor state of local governance remains a major impediment to overall good governance in the country.
The writer is Special Correspondent, The Daily Star.