During the early British period, when modified versions of Mughal (1526-1858) and earlier administrations were adopted, the closest the government came to the rural society was the zamindar, an administrator with concurrent judicial functions, who ensured revenue flows from the localities to the central government and handled a wide variety of official business. Government from the top down was the general rule for the Indian Civil Service and later the Pakistani and early Bangladeshi civil services. After 1971 the government of Bangladesh saw the benefits of involving more people in democratic decision-making and development programs, but the progress of reform was slow. In 1959 General Mohammad Ayub Khan's government inaugurated a "basic democracies" program designed to involve villagers in development programs, with direct elections to union councils and indirect elections to bodies serving larger administrative units. Mujib's government held elections for union councils, but the coup of 1975 prevented their effective functioning. In 1980 Zia's government announced the Self-Sufficient Village Government Plan, but this project ended when Zia was assassinated in 1981. In 1982 Ershad appointed the Committee for Administrative Reorganization/Reforms, which led to the establishment of the National Implementation Committee for Administrative Reorganization. These bodies built a comprehensive plan for administrative decentralization based on the subdistrict.
Bangladesh is divided into four main territorial divisions. In the late 1980s, the four divisions were divided into twenty-one regions, and the regions were subdivided into sixty-four districts (zilas). Below the district level, there were further urban and rural subdivisions. Urban areas include four municipal corporations (Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, and Khulna, each of which included several municipalities), eightyseven municipalities (pourashavas) and thirty townships (thanas). The four divisions had the same name as the four municipal corporations. The countryside had 460 subdistricts upazilas, which were further divided into 4,401 unions (the rough equivalent of an urban ward); these, in turn, contained 60,315 mouzas (groups of two or more villages--about 20 percent of the total) and single villages (about 80 percent of the total). A further subdivision, equivalent to the rural mouza, was the mahalla, which was found in urban areas. Each mouza or mahalla, the size of which was determined by census data-gathering techniques, contained about 250 households. An average village in the late 1980s contained 1,300 to 1,400 people. An average union contained about 15 villages and a population of about 20,000, and an average subdistrict had 8 to 10 unions with about 200,000 people.
Throughout its history, one of the main challenges to the Bangladeshi government has been finding ways to involve people in democratic politics at every administrative level.
According to the decentralization plan in effect in mid-1988, each rural mouza had its own council (parishad) of elected representatives chosen by local voters (persons aged eighteen and over). At the next administrative level, the chairmen of the union councils were directly elected by voters within their jurisdictions. The remaining members of the union council were chosen by the mouza councils, with each member of the union council representing three or four villages. The chairmen of the union councils formed the voting membership of the council at the subdistrict level, along with three appointed women and another appointed member, usually a former freedom fighter. The chairman of the subdistrict council was directly elected by subdistrict voters. Thus the people had a direct electoral role at the village level, and they had a voice in choosing influential chairmen at the union and subdistrict levels. In the late 1980s, plans called for the expansion of representation at the district level, and the controversial District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill of 1987 was the first step in this direction. By mid-1988, however, these plans had not been implemented; the region and division levels remained administrative units of the civil service and had no political significance.
Local participatory politics met the civil service in the subdistrict council. In the late 1980s, the chief government official in charge of local projects and development efforts was the subdistrict project management (upazila nirbahi) officer, who directed a staff of about 250 technical and administrative officers. Nirbahi officers were part of the staff appointed by central authorities in Dhaka, and they received their pay, benefits, and promotion from the civil service. Their direct supervisors, however, were the subdistrict council chairmen. The subdistrict councils, through their chairmen, were expected to make plans for public works and development projects within their own territories, spend allocated government funds, and direct the development activities of nirbahi officers and their staff. Nirbahi officers and other subdistrict technical personnel were allowed to participate in subdistrict council meetings, but only as nonvoting members. Civil service members, heirs of a long tradition of elite government, took orders from subdistrict council chairmen because the latter wrote the annual evaluations of nirbahi officers which served as the basis for promotion within the civil service. In this way, elected representatives of the people at the local level exercised direct control over civil servants and government projects in their own area.
In the late 1980s, the administrative apparatus at the urban level was comprised of a governing council with an elected chairman, elected commissioners (no more than 10 percent of whom were women), and several ex officio members. A mayor and deputy mayors were elected from among the council members.
The decentralization scheme implemented under Ershad's government was the most ambitious attempt in the history of Bangladesh to bring responsible government to the local level. The system officially began with elections in 1983 for four-year terms to union councils and with elections in 1984 for three-year terms to subdistrict councils. However, there were major problems with this scheme of decentralized administration. First, the electoral system tended to represent only the wealthiest and most influential members of society. These persons made decisions that strengthened their own patronage networks and influence at the local level; the poorest strata in society had little direct voice in elected committees. Second, the subdistrict councils were designed to create and implement development activities in their areas, but they were typically slow to draft five-year plans or carry through broad-based development efforts. Most of their projects emphasized construction or public works, (e.g., school buildings or irrigation canals, and they sometimes neglected the personnel and training components necessary for social involvement. Third, civil service members have long lacked respect for local politicians, looking to their own advancement from their supervisors in Dhaka. They have often been slow to cooperate with elected members of local committees. For example, although the subdistrict council chairman was responsible for writing the nirbahi officer's annual evaluation, the officer was expected to submit the evaluation form to the subdistrict council chairman, and in many cases these forms did not appear, thus preventing the chairmen from exercising control. Finally, the entire system of decentralized politics was viewed by opposition politicians as a patronage network designed to attract local elites to the party of the regime in power. Observers tended to conclude that instead of furthering decentralized democracy, the system only strengthened the national party controlled from Dhaka.
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