Local governments in the Indian subcontinent had a chequered route throughout its history. Its nature was determined and reshaped by the ruling regimes from time to time. During the pre-Mughal era, village-based local governments or village councils (equivalent to present Union Parishads [UP]) were in place and each village used to run its own affairs. Then, village councils were capable bodies. Almost all government tasks were performed within their jurisdiction and the control exercised by the central government was also minimal.
During the medieval age, village administration was organised under the Village Panchayat. The Panchayat was responsible for collecting revenues, maintaining law and order, superintending education, irrigation, religious rituals, and moral behaviours of the villagers. Later, during the Mughal period, the revenue collection system and the local administration became more systematic and dynamic. Then, Sarkar and Pargana became the nerve centres of general and revenue administration.
By the Permanent Settlement System, however, the British colonial rulers replaced the native system with the British model of local governance. With the abolition of Pargana and Panchayat systems, the civil and criminal laws and courts became the basis of local administration and landlords became the local rulers.
Through the Chawkidari Act of 1870, the British Government tried to revive the age-old Panchayat system. Under the Local Self-Government Act of 1885, a three-tier system came into operation: district board for district, local board for subdivision, and union committee. Through the enactment of the Bengal Village Self-Government Act of 1919, however, the former three-tier system was replaced by a two-tier system consisting of union board and district board.
During the Pakistan period, President Ayub Khan introduced a new model of local government system popularly known as Basic Democracy that introduced a four-tier local government structure comprising union council, thana council, district council, and divisional council. After the liberation, the Presidential Order No. 7 of 1972 dissolved all existing local government committees and to continue local administration, the government appointed designated committees to replace the defunct committees.
The Union Council was then renamed as Union Panchayat (later Union Parishad) and the District Council was renamed as the District Board (later Zila Parishad). The Thana and Divisional Councils were, however, not replaced by such committees. The Presidential Order No. 22 specified that each union composed of several villages would be divided in three wards; three UP members would be elected from each ward. Besides, provisions were made for the Chairman and Vice Chairman to be directly elected by all eligible voters living within a UP.
During Zia regime, the Local Government Ordinance of 1976 introduced a three-tier local government system: Union Parishad, Thana Parishad, and Zila Parishad. The structure and functions of the UP remained almost the same as they were under the Presidential Order No. 22, with the exceptions that the post of the Vice Chairman was abolished and four additional nominated members (two from women and another two from peasants) were included.
After the resumption of parliamentary system of government in 1991, the first Khaleda Zia government abolished the upazila system. A Commission was formed to review the effectiveness of the then structure of the local government and recommend on possible reorganisation. This Commission proposed a two tier system for the rural area: Union Parishad at union level and Zila Parishad at district level.
The first Sheikh Hasina government formed another commission to suggest the structure of local government. This commission suggested for a four-tier system: Gram Parishad at village level, Union Parishad at union level, Upazila Parishad at thana level, and Zila Parishad at district level. One significant addition of this government was holding of election in reserved women seats at UPs. The second Khaleda Zia government did not do much for strengthening the local government system.
Currently, however, the Gram Parishad is not in place. True, the Union Parishads gradually lost their significance in administrative role they used to play from the ancient to the British period. However, the Union Parishads have nonetheless remained viable and useful local government bodies in Bangladesh. The elections of Union Parishads except the elections under Ershad were more or less free and fair. The range of violence was also not that appalling.
Of late, the electoral system at the union level saw a drastic and dramatic change. Previously, Union Parishad elections were held on a non-partisan basis, although there were political flavours with many candidates. The government’s decision to turn Union Parishad elections party-based is thus a very recent phenomenon in the history of local governments in Bangladesh. The government claimed to make the local government elections more participatory by introduction of party-based elections.
Though it is a little too early to conclude on the party-based electoral system of Union Parishads, the developments centring round the ongoing Union Parishad elections are sending wrong messages. The volume of violence, the complaints of nomination business as well as corruption in the electoral system have been awful. Around ninety people have already died and many more injured during various phases of the elections, with two more phases yet to take place.
Such number of deaths in the Union Parishad elections is indeed a dreadful development. As the Union Parishad elections were held on a non-partisan basis in the past, many neutral and locally popular people had opportunities to be elected. This time, however, such people felt rather shy in many cases. Moreover, infiltration of money in the nomination process has turned out to be a real shame. Dedicated and honest politicians have also fallen behind in the race of courting favours from the influential ones. The wisdom behind the party-based model of Union Parishad elections is thus being questioned vehemently.
As local bodies for development of local people as well as localities, there should be genuine room for local government representatives for carrying out local development works with the allotted money and resources from the government exchequer. The scenario is, however, bound to turn grim if they have to remain more worried about dividends on their heavy investments during the electoral process. There also remains the danger that backlash and retaliation of election-time violence and casualties might occur and recur to mar the future of the otherwise peaceful local government body, the Union Parishad.
The writer is Associate Professor and ex-Chair, Dept. of Public Administration, University of Chittagong. E-mail: [email protected]