Announcement of the election schedule for Dhaka South City Corporation, Dhaka North City Corporation, and Chittagong City Corporation, has in fact changed the political scenario of the country dramatically. Our public at large felt relieved of the stalemate and impasse experienced for over 90 days, even though some were found defying the continuous blockades and strikes called at high risk to lives and property.
More than a hundred people have died, with countless injured and incapable, since January 5, 2015. In any case, the return to normalcy and participation in local government elections is a paradigm shift in politics for Bangladesh.
It is now the duty of the Election Commission to ensure a level playing field for all and exhibit maximum capability in offering equity and justice, so that none can raise any objections of election rigging.
Simply put, it is an acid test for the Election Commission and a great challenge for democracy to sustain. Winning in the election by hook or by crook, with muscle, money, and power and widespread rigging as we have seen before at Magura or Mirpur, should not be repeated under any circumstances. It is the Commission’s duty to ensure fairness by mobilising law enforcement agencies, or by developing a system to uphold the voice and choice of voters. If the Commission fails to do so, it might be a historic mistake – irreparable and irretrievable.
The election of local government institutions is held without any banner of national politics, but the patronage of national level political parties is evident in pledges and speeches. Under the Constitution, all local level bodies both urban and rural are autonomous in character with operational flexibility in governance. Unfortunately, it is not practiced as such. The local government division retains its powers in approving their organogram, and allocating funds to provide budgetary support.
This budgetary support bridges the financing gap of local government bodies through block grants, thereby imposing political control over local government institutions. Local government division sometimes supersedes an elected chairman or mayor if found opposing the incumbent party. That is why party secretary general holds the charge of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development, and Cooperatives. There are instances of taking mayors and chairmen of opposition parties to prison on filthy grounds, simply dishonouring the popular vote of the public.
This situation might not help in growing local government institutions in terms of their capabilities in total quality management, innovations, and digitisation. The more empowered the local government institutions are in governing their own affairs, the less power the national government will have in interfering. Dhaka City Corporation was divided into North and South on November 29, 2011 based on political considerations, without any baseline survey or feasibility study conducted on operational effectiveness.
Dhaka South City Corporation comprises of 56 wards and Dhaka North City Corporation with 36 wards, to a total of 92 wards highlighting imbalances in catchment areas to raise taxes and rates. City Corporations are obliged to discharge more than 100 types of duties and 26 areas to collect revenue by imposing taxes and rates. Almost all City Corporations and Municipalities are incapable of raising revenue to meet their expenditure for conservancies, sanitation, and solid waste management et cetera.
The greater Dhaka City Corporation comprises of around 12 million people, of which 30 percent live in slums with a huge floating population. Dhaka will emerge as the 4th most densely populated city of the world by 2025, and half our population will reside in urban areas of Bangladesh by 2040. So the challenges before the mayors and 93 councillors (31 women councillors) are enormous in bringing substantial changes to governance. Similarly, Chittagong City Corporation, with 41 wards, is a business hub is beset with problems like water-logging, traffic congestions et cetera. The Chittagong Port Authority paid BDT 1.12 billion in arrears due for two years by Chittagong City Corporation, although every year the CPA is supposed to pay about BDT 390 million to City Corporation.
This tendency of government enterprises, offices, and authorities not to pay taxes to city corporations makes autonomous bodies dependent on central government and forces them to become victims to national politics. The city corporation election made a shift in the total political scenario of Bangladesh. It compelled the 20-party alliance to review their strategic position, and redesign their future course of action. As observed, the opposition could not make any headway in their agitations, since Dhaka and Chittagong cities did not respond to their calls. This happened due to changed global economic demands and requirements of our economy to sustain and grow with international trade mechanism in force. Therefore, city corporations and municipalities might be dominating institutions in influencing national politics in the future, and this election will be a landmark in deciding how the future will proceed towards democracy.
Dhiraj Kumar Nath is a former secretary and adviser to the caretaker government.