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Chaotic urbanization thrives in the presence of poor local governance

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DURING a conference on urban development hosted by the World Bank last week, many of our municipality mayors of the country shared their experiences and grievances with experts and mayors from other countries. 

The fact that our municipality mayors have innumerable grievances is well known. Their main complaint is that the government doesn't allocate sufficient funds to the municipalities. The government, in response, insists they have to finance their projects themselves by raising taxes from the residents and businesses. However, the reality is that there are not many areas where mayors are authorised to impose a tax, and in areas where they are, often the choice is between doing nothing and making unpopular choices - and the outcome is obvious. Thus, once again the sorry state of our almost powerless local government system was exposed at the conference. 

It is not only a clichéd tale of insufficient funds but also the power sharing formula which is evidently missing. The point, however, if the local government is sensible about using the tax money and can make a strong case for what can be achieved with the money, the public will definitely come forward. The fact is, our mayors and city corporations scattered around the country badly need funds and ruling authority, since they have to serve the public. In recent times, they are more interested in short-term measures rather than long-term projects because, firstly, they lack the necessary technical knowhow - Unable to determine what is best for the entire town or city and prepare a concrete plan and translate that plan into reality - they basically seek money from aid agencies and the government for a variety of projects. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the next mayor would follow the path set by them in implementing a master plan. Additionally, it is shocking that despite being elected officials, the mayors are so powerless that a mid-level technocrat at the LGRD ministry can even fire them on the grounds of vague reasons.

Against the backdrop of weak local governance, shortage of development funds, symbolic power there are the meddling of the MPs in local affairs. This has been a huge problem for the last couple of decades. For most of our politicians power means, the ability to control the police force for their own political interests, and collect funds for development and infrastructural projects. Decentralising power by empowering local governments has become the need of the hour. 

Dhaka is perhaps the best example of what happens when people with vested interests in terms of dictating city planning. In the absence of an effective power sharing formula, coordination among the related institutions, our cities have plunged into chaos. As a result, problems such as traffic congestion and water logging persist. Powerful individuals, organisations and companies have occupied a number of canals of the city, making it impossible for water to flow when it rains. This continues to thrive besides the powerful non-state actors who are actively participating in ruining our cities.

The bottom-line is the purpose of such conferences and meetings become pointless if the government doesn't draw lesson from them. If the government is serious about managing our cities and towns better it should immediately start bestowing more power and funds to local governments. 

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