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Field Administration


Field Administration spread over different administrative units, viz the division, the district and the Thana' and finally, the Union which is basically a local government unit consisting of a group of villages. The district is perhaps the oldest administrative unit. Its emergence as a unit of administration is closely associated with the land system of Bengal.

Even in ancient times an area was divided into several manageable units for the purpose of revenue collection and state control. The Sultani regimes found the old system workable and maintained it with some structural changes in the revenue collection and control system. The Mughals further sophisticated the district administration. They divided the whole country into large territorial districts called sarkars, a sarkar into zilas (district) and a zila into Parganas. The parganas consisted of a number of mouazas. A group of parganas were made an administrative unit called a district during the early years of British rule, and the system continued throughout the British period. More or less the same district system still operates.

The panchayet or local unit of village administration was a strong traditional institution which was abolished by the cornwallis code (1793), but without replacing it by any alternative institution. Consequently, the law and order situation in the countryside began deteriorating. In 1870, efforts were made to create village level bodies under the Village Chaukidari Act. Villages were grouped into unions to provide for a system of watch and ward in each village. Thus emerged the concept of a local government unit which, though limited to a security function at the beginning, formed the basis of the primary unit of local government in later years. The local government system was further strengthened by the introduction of union board, municipality, and revenue circle under Lord Ripon (1880-1884).

During the early years, there were only three functionaries in the district. These were the district and sessions judge, the district Magistrate and Collector and the superintendent of police. However, over the years many specialised departments were created. Of the three functionaries, the district magistrate and collector was the chief executive of the district and had wide magisterial, police and revenue related powers. However, in the exercise of judicial authority, he was subordinate to the district and sessions judge. In administrative and revenue matters, the district magistrate and collector acted under the guidance and supervision of the Divisional Commissioner. Similarly, the superintendent of police acted under the control and supervision of the deputy inspector general of police. During the colonial period, the deputy inspector generals used to have jurisdiction over what was known as a range, which might or might not coincide with the territorial limits of an administrative division. The district and sessions judge, however, acted under the superintendence and control of the High Court.

There were two main streams of welfare responsibilities of the field administration during British colonial days. One was the special responsibility in regard to famine. This includes both pre and post-disaster responsibilities. The second stream provides the statutory responsibility of the district officer in regard to liberal distribution of agricultural loans and test relief work. Thus apart from maintenance of law and order and collection of land revenue, the district magistrate and collector as head of the district administration was associated with several welfare measures.

The district level officers of other departments acted under the administrative control of their respective heads of departments. This led to a debate on the question of relationship between the district magistrate and collector and other district level officers. montagu-chelmsford report aptly summarises the relationship. The position of the district magistrate and collector in relation to specialised services was not that of a superior to a subordinate. This meant that the district administrative pattern, as it evolved, was run on the recognition of the functional independence of other field agencies. By the end of colonial rule, the position of the district magistrate and collector became increasingly important in local government and rural development. This role was recommended by the Rowlands Commission in the report of the Bengal Administrative Enquiry Committee, 1945. This tradition continued after the emergence of Pakistan and India as independent states.

A significant change in local government took place in 1960. This change stemmed from the introduction of basic democracies. It was during this period that the post of district magistrate and collector was renamed as Deputy Commissioner. The system was claimed to have been designed to ensure the coordinated administration of governmental resources, utilising viewpoints of both the elected representatives and trained government functionaries by bringing them together under the local councils at all levels of field administration, and finally make the field Bureaucracy responsible and responsive to the demands of the rural populace. However, the system was criticised as a form of guided democracy.

With the emergence of Bangladesh the urgency of restoring field administration was keenly felt. The government of Bangladesh constituted a committee called the Civil Administration Restoration Committee which, among others, recommended immediate restoration of the field administration. The structure and functions of the field administration remained almost unchanged.

Closely linked with the issue of restoration of field administration was the question of rehabilitating the local government system. The immediate step taken by the government was the dissolution of some local councils. The order dissolving the local councils recognised only union councils and zila councils. No reference was made to the thana or divisional councils signifiying that the government did not want these councils to exist. The union council was renamed as union panchayet while the zila council was renamed as zila board. Pending regular elections, the Sub-Divisional Officers were authorised to form committees at union level. In the case of the zila board, an administrator was appointed by the government to run the affairs of the board until a committee was formed. On 28 February 1972, the local government law was amended by a Presidential order. The amendment included a reference to the thana development committee to be appointed by the Deputy Commissioner. However, a conflicting arrangement was made subsequently by a government circular providing for the selection of committees with political elements by the members of the Constituent Assembly. This was revoked by another circular in 1972. This circular provided for official administrators. The frequent changes laying down procedures for constituting interim local councils signify reliance on the field administration as a non-partisan institution to run the affairs in the districts and in other administrative units below the district.

On 25 January 1975, the government amended the Constitution providing for a one-party state and a presidential form of government. A national party called the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) was formed. The political changes following the formation of a one-party state had its effect on field administration and local government. The elected local government system was abolished by an Amendment to the Constitution (Fourth Amendment) and The District Administration Act (Act II of 1975). Under the new system, the field administration at the district level was to be headed by a district governor to be appointed by the President from amongst the members of the public service, the members of the Jatiya Sangsad and members of BAKSAL. The number of districts was increased from 22 to 61. The governor was declared to be the chief officer in charge of general and revenue administration of the district, with power of superintendence and control over all officers and authorities except the courts of law. The deputy commissioner continued to occupy an important position in the new field administrative set up. In absence of the Governor, he was supposed to act as Governor. The new scheme for field administration, however, could not be implemented due to the sad event of 15 August 1975. The subsequent regime repealed the District Administration Act by an ordinance promulgated on August 27 (Ordinance No. XLV of 1975).

In 1976, a new local government law was put in place, providing for elections at union and district level but not at the thana level. Elections to the union parishads and municipalities were held in 1977. Nothing was done about elections to the zila board. The deputy commissioner continued to be the administrator of the zila board. This meant that the field administration in relation to the local councils remained more or less the same as under the basic democracies system introduced during the sixties.

Two important developments occurred during the late seventies. First, alongside thana councils, thana development committees consisting solely of the elected chairmen of union parishads were constituted in each thana. Second, District development co-ordinators were appointed from amongst the members of the Jatiya Sangsad belonging to the ruling party. These politically appointed coordinators were accorded the rank and status of deputy ministers. But with a violent change of government and the consequent imposition of martial law in 1982, these experiments came to an end. Rather, a new experiment to reform local government administration was initiated in 1982. The reforms had an effect on field administration as (a) they eliminated a more than century-old administrative unit called the subdivision. Second; (b) it upgraded the thana to include both regulatory and developmental functions; (c) it converted the old subdivisions into districts but without creating any corresponding local council at these levels; (d) it assigned greater authority to the thana councils, renaming these as upazila parishads, in terms of decision making in the planning and implementation of local development projects; (e) the basic structure of the thana council remained unaltered, but it was placed under the control of a directly elected chairman; (f) all functionaries at the thana (now upazila) level were placed under the administrative control of the chairman of the upazila parishad. The other important aspect of the reform process was the appointment of judicial officers at the upazila level to try both civil and criminal cases. However, the regulatory aspects of administration such as justice and police, were kept outside the control of the elected chairman and the upazila parishad.

The above reform measures led to the creation of 64 zilas with 460 upazilas below them. At the upazila level, a radical change was brought about in terms of administrative control and supervision of the appointed functionaries of different departments. Control was vested in the elected chairman of the upazila. The field personnel at the upazila level, therefore, were placed under the dual control of both the chairman and the respective departmental heads operating at the district level. Authority over the transfer and posting of upazila level officers was, however, retained by the respective departments. Since no elected council at district level was constituted, the field administrative set up at that level continued to be the same as before. But the size of the districts became smaller as all existing subdivisions and some thanas became districts. Consequently, members of the field bureaucracy increased in number as each new district had to be given a standard set up consisting of different departments. This was a simple exercise in the territorial reorganisation of administrative units. The substantive part of the exercise involved defining the relationship between the deputy commissioner and the upazila parishad.

Under the local government law which put in place the upazila system, the deputy commissioner still had the authority to inquire into allegations of misconduct, abuse of authority etc, against upazila chairmen. The chairman was required to attend a number of committee meetings chaired by the deputy commissioner, who could also visit upazila parishads and inspect projects. This type of administrative arrangements for both field administration and local government continued for about five years with a presidential form of government at the centre. But political unrest following widespread public agitation eventually led to a change in government in 1991. Later, there was a change in the form of government as well, from presidential to parliamentary system.

The new government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party scrapped the local government law which had earlier ushered in the upazila system. As a result, the field administration reverted to the pre-1982 system. However, the size and number of new districts already created remained unaffected. The upazila was renamed as thana but the personnel set up already in place continued to be there. The Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) was renamed as Thana Nirbahi Officer (TNO).

The Awami League regime (1996-2001) enacted the Upazila Parishad Act, 1998. The government set up a local government commission which submitted its report in 1997. The commission recommended elected councils at union, thana and district levels. In addition, it recommended an elected Palli/Gram (village) parishad (council). This parishad, apart from an elected chairman and members will include official members such as the block supervisor of the department of agricultural extension, health and family planning assistants and other government functionaries working at the ward level and a representative of freedom fighters and representatives of disadvantaged groups. The official members will not have any voting rights. It also recommended a more or less similar set up for the union parishad.

For the thana level, it basically reverted to the upazila system with the inclusion of the member of the Parliament elected from the upazila constituency as an adviser. This means the return to the upazila days with its necessary impact on field administration. The Upazila Parisad Act of 1998 envisages the establishment of as many as 463 upazila parishads in 64 districts. Some of the new features of the Act include declaring the upazila as an administrative unit under Article 152 (1) of the Constitution. The Act further lays down that the field level functionaries at the upazila level will work under the guidance and supervision of the upazila parishad. The Act has listed ten departments whose activities will stand transferred to the upazila parishad. The parishad will also have the authority to write the Annual Confidential Report of the upazila level functionaries of the ten departments. The police and the magistracy, however, have been excluded. Finally, the Act lays down that all such officers will have to remain present in parishad meetings to express their opinion on relevant issues as well as to assist the parishad. They will not, however, have any right to vote.

The Chittagong Hill districts have a largely different field administration system. During the British colonial days, territories in different parts of India were classified as regulation and non-regulation provinces. The former signified the settled areas of Bengal, Madras and Bombay where a legalistic system based on comprehensive acts or regulations governed the working of the district administration. The latter related to the newly acquired territories, which because of unstable conditions, demanded a more authoritarian pattern of administration than in the regulation provinces. The designation of the district magistrate and collector in the non-regulation provinces was deputy commissioner.

Prior to 1947, the district of Sylhet, being part of Assam province, and Chittagong Hill Tracts had deputy commissioners. In 1960 all district magistrates and collectors were redesignated as deputy commissioners. However, the district of Chittagong Hill Tracts continued to be a non-regulation district. It was governed by the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation, 1900 (Act I of 1900).

The powers and authority given to the deputy commissioner and the commissioner of Chittagong division under the regulation differed widely from those of other districts. The deputy commissioner of the Chittagong Hill Tracts enjoyed the authority over criminal, civil, revenue and all other matters (Regulation 7 of Act I, 1900). Similarly, the Chittagong Hill Tracts were constituted as a sessions division and the commissioner was the sessions judge. The commissioner as sessions judge was given all the powers of a High Court under the Criminal Procedure Code. Further, under regulation 9 of the Act, a sentence of death passed by the commissioner in his capacity as sessions judge was made subject to confirmation by the provincial government and not by the high court. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, under the regulation, was declared to be a police district within the meaning of the Police Act, 1861 as amended thereafter. The inspector general of police, East Bengal, was given the authority to exercise in the district all powers conferred on an inspector general. Subsequently, the non-party Caretaker Government (2007-08) reintroduced the upazila system in 2008 by an ordinance promulgated for the reconstruction of the local government.'

These arrangements of wider administrative and judicial functions have not been changed till date. However, other developments have taken place, mainly in the sphere of local government and greater participation of the tribal people of the Hill Tracts in administration. The first of these developments occurred in 1989 with the establishment of separate local councils in the three districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This was done under Acts 19, 20 and 21 of 1989. It was laid down in the acts that the chairmen of the district councils of the three districts would be tribals elected from amongst the tribal communities. Deputy commissioners of the respective districts would be ex-officio secretaries to the councils.

The Local Councils Act also gave some powers to the councils in respect of the police administration. The Act required that officials of the rank of sub-inspector and below would be appointed by the respective councils, which would also have the authority to transfer them and take disciplinary action against them. The entire district police was made responsible and accountable to the respective councils. Every police officer was required to keep the chairmen of the respective councils informed of any crime committed within their jurisdiction.

In December 1997, following Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord signed with the hill people by the government, further amendments to the 1989 Act were effected by Act 9, 10 and 11 of 1998. These amendments aimed at providing greater rights and authority to the tribal population and ensuring their greater participation in decision making in development and regulatory spheres.

Finally, following the peace accord of December 1997, a regional council for the Chittagong Hill Tracts was established under Act 12 of 1998. This council has been given the responsibility for supervision and coordination of all development activities of the district councils including other activities falling within the jurisdiction of these councils. The regional council has also been given the authority to supervise and co-ordinate the activities of the municipalities of the districts. [AMM Shawkat Ali]

Bibliography AMM Shawkat Ali, Politics, Upazila and Development, Dhaka, 1986; AMM Shawkat Ali, Field Administration and Rural Development in Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1982; Hugh Tinker, The Foundation of Local Self-government in India, Pakistan and Burma, London, 1968.