What our members of parliament (MPs) do in their respective constituencies – beyond their parliamentary duties – to keep voters happy, is really extraordinary. Apparently, they are filling in the gaps left by the state and thus acting as "mini welfare states" in their areas.
Does that sound unfamiliar?
Let's have a brief look at the "welfare activities" MPs are carrying out in their constituencies, to make things clear.
MPs donate to local schools and religious institutions, provide needy families with financial assistance for medical care or marrying off daughters and settle local disputes to maintain peace in those areas. Every month they spend a good amount of money on these activities. Many of them perhaps spend more on their constituents than they earn through their salaries.
Despite being part of the legislative branch of the state, MPs also play a role in the execution of local development programmes; however, the job is supposed to be done by the executive branch of the state, popularly known as the government.
This situation is weird. MPs are advisors to the upazila and zilla parishads in their respective constituencies. And it is mandatory for the two local government bodies to seek MPs' advice to plan their development programmes.
People bother little about MPs' parliamentary functions such as lawmaking and overseeing public expenditure. They are interested in MPs' engagement in local affairs. As people prefer to visit MPs with demands for the construction of new roads and bridges, politicians use the opportunity to gain personal popularity. To keep voters happy, MPs pursue the government development agencies to undertake projects to carry out development work.
With a lot of philanthropic work, every MP is apparently functioning as a "mini welfare state" in their constituencies, a term The Economist recently used to describe similar activities being carried out by some MPs in a few African countries.
"But what MPs do in the legislature is only part of the job. In their constituencies, they fill gaps left by weak states; and this informal role matters more to voters than passing laws. This helps explain why politics is so expensive."
Politics in Bangladesh is expensive too. Managing party tickets to contest the election and winning the race involves a lot of expenditure. Even after being elected, MPs and politicians need to continue spending to keep voters happy.
But MPs are not supposed to act as "mini welfare states." They should focus on their parliamentary functions – making laws, reviewing the enforcement of laws and holding the government accountable for its actions and expenditure of public money. In brief, they are supposed to make laws and work to protect the country's democracy.
MPs should in no way be engaged in local administrative functions. That is the job of the government, which has a countrywide administrative network to discharge the duties. It has around 5,000 local government institutions with more than 50,000 elected representatives in those bodies.
The local government system is an extended arm of the central government and is supposed to plan and carry out development programmes and ensure the welfare of locals. Under the leadership of civil servants – such as deputy commissioners and upazila nirbahi officers – more than three dozen departments of various ministries are functioning at the district and upazila levels. The administration they are leading is an extended part of the central bureaucracy. They are assigned to enforce laws to maintain law order and carry out various welfare and development activities too.
Yet, the involvement of MPs in local administrative work has become an auxiliary force of the central government in discharging its duty. The flip side of it does not look bright as MPs involvement in local affairs just exposes the deficiencies of the governance system.
MPs need to play a bigger role in improving governance through monitoring the government's performance and holding it accountable for its actions, as the constitution says the cabinet is collectively accountable to the parliament. Their work requires them to ensure that people's rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution and other laws are protected. They are constitutionally empowered to hold accountable any government machinery for abusing laws or infringing on people's rights and freedoms.
They should discuss and debate policies executed by the government. They need to raise public issues before the House and examine whether the government is properly addressing them or not. If the government's actions are not on the right track, they will make recommendations alternative to the present measures being implemented by the government. All this work by MPs will contribute to improving governance and ensuring that people's rights and freedoms are well protected.
When MPs do not perform their duties properly and efficiently, governance deficiency grows bigger, people's rights are violated and the government is not held accountable for the poor situation because MPs have already become a part of the system. This is in opposition to the doctrine of the separation of powers, too. And in view of The Economist, even if MPs are not corrupt, they are a poor substitute for a genuine welfare state.
This situation, however, invites the judiciary to step in to fill the gaps left by the state, though it puts additional work pressure on judges. How?
Take the example of the duty of the Department of Environment.
In January, 2020, the High Court (HC) asked the authorities to shut down 231 factories surrounding the highly polluted main river of the nation's capital.
The Department of Environment does not need the court's decision to shut down the factories polluting the river. The law empowers the department to shut down a factory if it fails to become compliant. The HC had to step in as the Department of Environment had not discharged its duties.
MPs should act to hold the Department of Environment accountable for its negligence in discharging its duties. As they were not very interested in it, the HC had to step in to provide a remedy, though it is already overburdened by a backlog of cases, keeping numerous justice seekers in wait for an indefinite period.
Shakhawat Liton is the Deputy Executive Editor of The Business Standard.