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Decentralisation transfer of administrative, planning and decision making functions from the national government to sub-national and/or local level authorities. In line with efforts made in most other countries, experiments on decentralisation have been initiated in Bangladesh both before and after independence. Indeed, during ancient times the system of administration in the region now constituting Bangladesh had features characteristic of strong local government systems. In other words, central authorities in those days had practically devolved much of their administrative powers to local bodies. Thus, decentralisation as part of measures to transfer administrative powers from the centre to the local bodies in effect had its early beginning long before the British came to the subcontinent.

In most parts of the subcontinent some forms of rural governance and local institutions were prevalent from ancient times. In ancient Bengal, such institutions as Gramin, Gramica or Gramapala, corresponding to the office of village chieftain (usually hereditary) were in existence. During the Gupta period, there were regularly constituted village councils to manage rural administration. The Gupta Empire, indeed, possessed an organised structure of public administration and local government. Above the village councils, there existed the Vishayas (roughly equivalent to modern districts) and Bhuktis (divisions). The governor of a Bhukti called Uparika Maharaja was appointed by the emperor, who in turn used to select the Vishayapati or the officer in charge of a district. The predominant assignment of these decentralised units was to collect revenue for the central government and to look after other functions like the maintenance of law and order and promotion of trade and commerce. The Pala and Sena rule, in essence, followed the basic spirit and character of local government of the Gupta regime, but further elaborated the functions of the local units and added new offices. They developed an extensive system of public administration with such specialised departments as revenue, police, public construction, defence administration, judiciary and livestock.

The sultanate and Mughal rule constituted a striking feature of decentralised local governance in the medieval Bengal. The Muslim rulers developed their administrative system with two main objectives, firstly, expansion of the domain and consolidate their rule in conquered areas and secondly, to maximise revenue for the royal treasury.

The British colonial interest in a decentralised administration in many respects coincided with that of the Muslims. The British administrators consolidated the revenue system to support the industrial revolution at home. Accordingly, the British created a loyal landed class of Zamindars through the permanent settlement system in 1793. Under the zamindari system the indigenous rural organisations in Bengal were decentralised with a view to providing for a sound revenue and political support base to the central government. For protecting and sustaining the colonial interests, a number of institutions and Acts were introduced between 1870 and 1947, notably, the Chowkidari Panchayet Act of 1870, the Local Self-Government Act of 1885, and the Bengal Village Self-Government Act of 1919.

The Pakistan government did not bring about any substantial structural change in the decentralised local government system until the military rule of ayub khan (1958). The Ayub government endeavoured to legitimise its rule with the help of a civilian power base created through the local government reforms under the banner of decentralisation. In 1959, a four-tier local government system called basic democracies was launched, consisting of union, thana, district and divisional councils. It introduced a system of indirect democracy. The union council members and chairmen formed the electoral body for the district level councils, provincial assemblies, the National Assembly, and finally, in electing the President of the country. These electors or the basic democrats were heavily patronised and nurtured by the state to act as trusted 'vote banks'. This policy helped the Ayub regime survive one presidential and two assembly elections.

Bangladesh came into being following a historic war of liberation in 1971. The awami league which spearheaded the liberation movement, came to power under the leadership of Bangabandhu sheikh mujibur rahman. During its rule (1971-1975), there was no significant alteration in the local level institutions and administration, except for renaming the union council as panchayet and replacing the thana council by Thana Development Committee. In January 1975, the multiparty parliamentary system was replaced by a single-party presidential system, and a new framework for local governance was undertaken. As such the sub-divisions were upgraded to districts under the district governors to be appointed directly by the President. Before this reorganisation could come into effect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated on 15 August 1975.

General ziaur rahman (1976-81) followed the footsteps of Ayub Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and used local bodies as a springboard for his political career. He thus initiated decentralisation in an attempt to generate mass support for his regime. Zia's Local Government Ordinance of 1976 provided for the creation of a three-tier local government system, consisting of union, thana and zila parishads, which essentially bore a close resemblance to Ayub's basic democracies. Besides, a new institution called the Swanirvar Gram Sarkar (self-reliant village government) was launched in 1980, in effect, to create primarily a political support base managed by an alliance of rural elite patronised by the government.

The next major phase in decentralisation and the evolution of local governance in Bangladesh was the regime of General hussain muhmmad ershad (1982-91). Immediately after assuming power, Ershad set up the committee for administrative reform and reorganisation (CARR) to recommend, inter alia, an appropriate administrative system based on the spirit of devolution. Following the recommendations of CARR, the government upgraded 460 thanas to upazila (sub-district) and initiated decentralisation at the upazila level for local development.

The government of begum khaleda zia (1991-1996) abolished the upazila system in November 1991. Her government formed the Local Government Structure Review Commission, which recommended a two-tier system of local government, district and union councils. Besides, the Thana Development and Coordination Committee was formed to coordinate development activities at the thana level. These changes did not mark any significant departure from decentralisation and local governance policies of the past.

The government of sheikh hasina formed a Local Government Commission late in 1996. It envisaged a four-tier local government system comprising district, upazila, union and gram (village) parishads. Besides, there are 182 municipal councils and 4 city corporations in Bangladesh. In addition, a separate local government structure also exists for those regions designated as 'special areas' such as the hill districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The regional council which came into being as part of an peace accord signed between the government and the parbatya chattagram jana-samhati samiti (1996) is a unique example of decentralisation in Bangladesh.

Evolution of decentralisation and measures towards local governance in Bangladesh seem distinctive of certain characteristics: (a) domination by and complete dependence on national/central government; (b) unrepresentative character; (c) grossly inadequate mobilisation of local resources; (d) limited or lack of participation of the rural poor in the decentralised bodies; (e) successive regimes' marginal and superficial commitment to devolution or decentralisation in practice.

Decentralisation policies in Bangladesh have served, more than anything else, to create a sub-national political support base for successive regimes. The decentralisation initiatives have suffered from a lack of genuine political commitment to devolution and for the most part relegated to mere deconcentration. Notwithstanding the widespread experiment with varied decentralisation schemes and models the crucial issues and problems, which regulate the success of local institutions, have not been adequately addressed. [Tofael Ahmad and Niaz Ahmed Khan]