Jul 24, 2015

ECNEC decision will make lawmakers lawbreakers

On July 7, 2015, ECNEC approved the Rural Insfrastructure-2 project, designed to allocate Tk. 6,076 crore to 284 MPs. Under this project, each MP will be allowed to develop infrastructure projects worth Tk. 20 crore, which will be implemented by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED). Sixteen MPs representing urban constituencies and 50 women MPs from reserved seats, excluded from this project, will be given separate allocations.

This decision by ECNEC is a blatant assault on our constitution. It also represents a violation of decisions by our Apex Court. More seriously, it will turn our lawmakers into lawbreakers and allow them to indulge in corruption.

The “principles of separation of powers,” popularly known as the system of “checks and balances,” is the cornerstone of our constitution. Under this scheme, the executive power is vested in the executive branch, the legislative power in the parliament, and power to interpret the constitution in the judiciary. The scheme is intended to prevent concentration of powers and their possible misuse to usurp people's liberty.

Part IV of our constitution deals with the executive branch – the president, prime minister and the cabinet, among others – while also detailing their roles and responsibilities. This part also deals with our system of local government, which is assigned the responsibility of “the preparation and implementation of plans relation to public services and economic development” [Article 59(2)©]. Thus, under our constitution, the delivery of public services and economic development are primarily the preserve of elected local government bodies.

On the contrary, MPs, directly elected from individual constituencies under Article 65 of our constitution, are vested with “legislative powers of the Republic.” Legislative powers generally include enacting and amending laws, debating policy issues, ensuring transparency and accountability of the executive branch, and approving the budget and the government's financial decisions.

The Executive Committee of National Economic Council's (ECNEC) recent decision will violate such demarcation of roles. It will allow MPs to take decisions about infrastructural projects and thereby, get them involved in executive functions.

This step will also violate the important decision rendered by our High Court in Anwar Hossain Manju vs. Bangladesh [16BLT(HCD)(2008)]. During the BNP-Jamaat administration, the government issued a circular creating the position of district ministers to oversee the development activities at the grassroots. Anwar Hossain Manju, then an MP, challenged this decision, arguing that the presence of the district minister did not allow him to effectively play his role in the development of his constituency.
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In declaring the offending circular unconstitutional, Justice ABM Khairul Haque and Justice ATM Fazle Kabir stated: 'None of the ministers, whips and other functionaries mentioned in the above notification can be appointed with respect to any of the districts mentioned therein. They do not have any function as such in respect to the districts, save and except their functions as ministers for the particular departments in the context of the entire country. Similarly, the members of Parliament have no direct role or function, in respect to either development or maintenance of law and order, in the district or in other local administrative units. As such, the petitioner, a member of Parliament, has no function in respect to Pirojpur district.”

Paying no heed to the constitutional bar and the court judgment, the last Awami League government in 2010 adopted a similar project, under which 279 MPs were allowed to develop infrastructural projects worth 15 crore each. The project, completed last December, spent Tk. 4,892 against the original allocation of Tk. 4,691 crore (Prothom Alo, July 8, 2015). The new project is undertaken, it may be noted, without even evaluating the effectiveness of the old one. Incidentally, the former LGRD Minister, Syed Ashraful Islam, reportedly disagreed with the proposed project and was absent in the ECNEC meeting, for which he allegedly lost his portfolio.

After the ECNEC decision of 2010, Anwarul Haque Babu, then chairman of Akkelpur Upazila of Joypurhat district, challenged it in the High Court (Petition 6247/2010). The case was heard by a Division Bench, comprised of Justice Naima Haider and Justice Farid Ahmad. In this high profile case, the petitioner was represented by Dr. Kamal Hossain and the government by the Attorney General. The hearing of the case was concluded on May 28, 2012, and it was listed for judgment. Unfortunately, for some unknown reasons, the case was later delisted and sent to the deep freezer.

There is also the risk of corruption by lawmakers. That certainly was the case in our neighboring India, where a similar scheme called the Member of Parliament Local Area Project (MPLAD), was introduced in 1993. Under this scheme, each MP was allowed to recommend projects worth Rs. 2 crore, which was implemented by government functionaries or Panchayati Raj institutions.

There were many serious criticisms and allegations of the Indian scheme, including of corruption. According to Era Sezhiyan, a former chair of the Public Accounts Committee of the Indian Parliament, “The failures of the government during the last 50 years have been overwhelmed and overshadowed by the volume and variety of irregularities generated by the MPLADS in a short period of seven years . . . The government's disowning responsibility for the works under the scheme and the involvement of MPs in the administrative system, thereby weakening their capability to ensure accountability of the executive to Parliament, cuts at the very roots of the parliamentary system of democracy in the country.” (Frontline, March 15, 2002)

It is clear that the recent ECNEC decision to allow MP to develop Tk. 20 worth of infrastructure projects to implement in their constituencies is primarily intended to provide patronage to lawmakers. However, the remedy sought against a similar ECNEC decision made in 2010 appears to have gotten nowhere – the case was mysteriously delisted after the hearing was concluded and it was designated for judgment – delaying and thereby, denying justice. But does anyone care?

Published in The Daily Star, July 25, 2015

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