The government’s decision to appoint administrators to 61 district councils – the top tier of the local government system – instead of constituting the local bodies with elected representatives appears to have opened up a floodgate of constitutional, legal and political questions. According to report front-paged in New Age on Thursday, the government decided to revive the district councils, which have remained dysfunctional around two decades, on the back of the government decision to appoint two additional secretaries as administrators to the newly formed city corporations of Dhaka only two weeks back. It is pertinent to remember that the previous Awami League-led government enacted the Zila Parishad Act 2000, repealing the Zila Parishad Act of 1988. The law stipulates that the chairman, 15 members and five women members of a zila parishad would be elected by an electoral college consisting of the upazila chairmen concerned, municipal mayors and councillors and union parishad chairmen and members. The three-tier local government system, introduced by the government of Ziaur Rahman through the Local Government Ordinance 1976, provided for a zila parishad that was to consist of elected representatives and nominated women members, including a chairman and a vice-chairman to be elected by them from among themselves. In 1988, the Jatiya Party government of HM Ershad enacted the Zila Parishad Act, which provided for a chairman appointed by the government to each zila parishad. The act was made inoperative after the fall of Ershad regime in December 1990 as the chairmen were removed and deputy commissioners were made ex-officio chairmen.
According to Article 59, clause (1) of the constitution of Bangladesh, ‘Local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies, composed of persons elected in accordance with law’ and according to Article 152 (1) of the constitution, ‘administrative unit means a district or other area designated by law for the purposes of article 59.’ The government decision to appoint administrators has come under strong criticism from constitutional and local government experts who see the decision as contradictory with the constitution of the country. Pertinently, according to a report published in a leading Bengali daily on Saturday, within two weeks of the enactment of the Zila Parishad Act 2000, a then member of parliament filed a writ petition with the High Court challenging the legality of two clauses in the act, concerning the electorate and the provision for the appointment of administrators. With the regards to the petition, a bench of the High Court division has already issued a rule asking the government why these two clauses would not be declared unconstitutional and illegal. The rule is yet to be disposed off. Furthermore, according to a Supreme Court directive on July 30, 1992, signed by five Appellate Division judges who had served as chief justices at different points of time, ‘All current local government institutions must be immediately reconstituted with ‘elected’ representatives replacing ‘unelected representatives’ ’. Needless to say, all these leave the government decision appoint administrators on very shaky grounds.
What is evidently more worrying is that almost all the 61 appointees of the government, are either president and general secretaries of the district chapter of the ruling party. This would indicate to a clear and ominous intent on the part of the government to politicise the local administration. Given all these, the Awami League-Jatiya party government would be well-advised to immediately withdraw the appointment of administrators to local government bodies in contradiction to the constitution and social and political mores, and immediately arrange for elections to be held at the district councils.