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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Election game: Cities, citizens and coins

THE government is going to hold city corporations elections in less than a month. It is commonly believed that this is going to be a powerful stabiliser of the prolonged political heat, giving citizens a breathing space in the midst of the boiling atmosphere. Therefore, wise men of all fronts thought alike; they decided to join the race. 
Were the elections inevitable to escape from the ongoing deadlock? It can be conceived as a thoughtful strategy of a pure two-person game. True, these elections were long due in Dhaka as per the City Corporation Act 2009 Article 34, which has the provision of holding elections within 180 days of ending of the term of the earlier corporation. As Dhaka city was bifurcated through the City Corporation (amendment) Act 2011, the overdue elections have successfully been applied as the second-best strategy in the game to cool the environment for a while. 
Who wins in this decision? An estimated fifteen million residents of Dhaka are paying tax but are being deprived of services by their chosen representatives for three years. Elections appeared as a means of fulfilling the constitutional as well as legal entitlement of the citizens. Thus, the citizens should celebrate.
Who paid the price for having non-elected persons run Dhaka City Corporation for more than three years? Indeed, the citizens! The government-appointed 'executives' are neither supposed to respond to people's demand nor be made accountable to citizens for their activities which go against the civic interest. Certainly, the executives did nothing significant for the two very important city corporations for the last three years, other than weakening the resource base and eroding citizens' confidence in the democratic local government institutions. It also gives rise to a ray of hope that had faded because the government committed in FY2013-14 to increase aggregate city corporation budget by 233 per cent in FY2014-15. In reality, it witnessed a 33 per cent decline in the revised budget. Resource flow from the national government was slashed the most, because of unelected administrators.
Statistics prove this statement. The government budget for Dhaka South in FY2011-12 was Tk.325.7crore while it was Tk.51.5 crore for the North. Surprisingly, the figure was altered in the following fiscal year with Tk.155.5  crore and Tk.384.8 crore for South and North, respectively, even though the number of administrative wards is higher in the South. The revised budget of FY2013-14 was up for South but significantly down for North (Tk.200.5 crore and Tk.224 crore, respectively). However, the allocation has gone down significantly for both: Tk.60 crore and Tk.74 crore for the South and North in the current fiscal year. Together, the budget is going to be Tk.156 crore in FY2016-17 according to Medium-Term Budget Framework (MTBF) projection (FY2014-15 to 2016-17), which is equal to the government spending for the South only in FY2012-13. Conversely, total government budget for the other city corporations for the entire period is generally growing. It means Dhaka city corporations are regressing in terms of inter-governmental transfer while the others are progressing.     
It is often argued that there is a strong political bias in public financing to local government bodies. Is it true for city corporations where the mayors are from the opposition? Not at all! The revised budget for Chittagong City Corporation was Tk.72.8 crore in FY2013-14, which was nearly double than the actual spending of FY2012-13. The budget continued to increase for MTBF years. The revised budget for Rajshahi grew by more than 50 per cent in FY2013-14, while the MTBF projection did not fall below this budget. For Khulna, the budget witnessed a decline. However, the most recent budget documents of Khulna City Corporation reveal that it has been enjoying a huge revenue surplus that discourages funding from national level, again not purely because of a mayor from the opposition. The actual budget of Sylhet as well as MTBF projection shows sharp rise since FY2012-13. The budget also shows generally growing trend for Barisal as well. Ironically enough, most of these city corporations have higher budget for the MTBF period than either of the Dhaka city corporations that are located at the economic centre of gravity of the country. Thus, one can easily apply 'conspiracy theory' to prove that the fiscal deprivation of the citizens in Dhaka is due to absence of elected representatives.
Will the election bring government spending in the cities through Local Government Division? By no means! The lion's share of the public money being spent in the cities is through non-transferred departments like Water Supply & Sewerage Authority (WASA), Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), and Local Government Engineering Department (LGED). Their functions and finances have neither been transferred to the city corporations, nor are they accountable to the citizens. Corporations are used to frequent coordination failures as claimed by elected representatives, which cause sufferings for citizens. Elected representatives often fail to mitigate the outcomes going against public interest, and tend to think unwise to raise conflict with these departments, especially when they are from the opposition. Thus, fulfilling legitimate demands and aspirations of the citizens remain a far cry due to apparently 'peaceful coexistence' of two governments. 
Citizens remain as coins in the last resort. They are tossed after intervals. Nevertheless, they hold the 'magic,' which is popularly known as 'majority.' Influential quarters are always scared of this toss.

The writer is Senior Research Fellow at Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). E-mail: mahfuzkabir@yahoo.com.  

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