If decentralisation of administration is a precondition for healthier economic growth and social development, the focus definitely ought to be on the bottom tier of local government. In a transition, society at the grassroots level is yet to acclimatise with the country's tax regime. But revenue earning by the local government set-up is a must. Spoon-feeding can never help the cause of getting the lowest tier, Union Parishad (UP) that is, on its feet. There is still poverty in villages but there is also a positive economic trend. Many villagers have phenomenally improved their financial status and there is no way of formally assessing their wealth. Experts in revenue collection are in favour of changing this situation. But unless the local government is empowered with the authority of a rational assessment of wealth and revenue collection accordingly, it cannot make a statement for itself.
At a seminar in the city, this issue organised by the Brac Institute of Governance of the Brac University came under elaborate discussion last Saturday. The discussants tried to identify the impediments on way to strengthening the local government. Apart from the lack of financial independence, problems such as interference by lawmakers of the constituencies concerned, corruption and politicisation of the institution featured prominently in the discourse. Gender disparities in representation also could not be ignored. One of the reasons for the endemic corruption at this level is the meagre compensation package for the job the elected members and chairmen of UPs receive. This should also change. The idea is that elected representatives of such local bodies would mostly render a volunteer service. This is flawed logic in today's context. If someone serve his or her locality on his/her own without asking for reward for the labour given, that is an exception, not the rule.
Politicisation and interference by local members of parliament are two sides of the same coin. It was wise to keep such local bodies apolitical. But now that election to local government offices has been held on party tickets, there is no way of reversing the course. But once elected, the representatives should consider them chairmen and members of all people of the localities -not just of the voters who voted for them. Political maturity is needed to demonstrate such a spirit. After all, the attention should be to the development of the areas under the unions concerned. In this connection, empowering women becomes crucial. If they are integrated better with the system of governance, the benefit will be for all to see.
Now the moot question of giving the UPs enough power for resource collection and allocation hinges on political will. Are the country's leaders on both sides of the political divide ready to welcome independent local governments? How much independence should such local bodies enjoy in order for them to deliver the goods? These are points to be analysed meticulously. The country's present level of economic growth certainly makes a case for more revenue collection at the local level. Once this is put into practice, there is no reason why the authorities in charge should not be held accountable for their expenditures as well.