Church leaders have welcomed Bangladesh amending rules to make its faction-riddled cooperative societies more democratic, transparent and participatory.The changed rules make it mandatory for all cooperative societies to have annual general body meetings and elect executive board members during such meetings, when necessary.
Until now, regulations allowed executive boards to be elected by a representative body without all members of a cooperative society taking part in elections.
"Participation of each member is the core principle of a cooperative society," said Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, while welcoming the change.
The ministry of rural development and cooperatives issued amendments to the Cooperatives Society Rules 2004 on Dec. 1 following the national parliament's approval.
Catholic MP Gloria Jharna Sarker initiated a motion in the parliament on Sept. 11 seeking to remove ambiguities in the rules.
Sarker argued that part of the rules worked against people's participation and interests and ran against international cooperative practices that encourage democracy.
Many cooperatives exploited the provisions to deny voting rights to eligible members of the general body, violating democratic principles leading to corruption, abuse of power and power grabbing, she noted.
Sarker's motion comes against the backdrop of massive rivalry, mud slinging and court cases among members of the Christian Cooperative Credit Union Ltd. (CCCUL), which had some 43,000 members, both Catholic and Protestant, before its last election in 2017.
"Cooperatives are supposed to be democratic always. So, Christian cooperatives should follow principles of democracy to make them truly participatory," Father Gomes told UCA News.
Pankaj Gilbert Costa, the CCCUL president, welcomed the change.
"We have been trying for a long time for the rights of every member of society. We have always prioritized the democratic process, but it was hindered because of a court case," Costa said.
Costa was referring to court cases in his wealthy society that has estimated assets of more than 6 billion taka (US$72 million).
Following a legal wrangle between rival groups, the High Court asked the CCCUL to hold elections on Jan. 25, 2017, by representatives as per the regulations. The elected team included Costa.
"Now we will follow the 'one member, one vote' policy," as the amendment wanted," Costa, a Catholic, said in a video message.
Dipok Peris, former secretary of the CCCUL and leader of the opposition panel, blamed the current management board for being undemocratic.
Peris, a Catholic, said the present management deprived the general members of "their right to vote and exercise accountability. It allowed the current board to misuse money."The change will halt misuse of money and abuse of power, Peris said.
In the 1950s, Christian missionaries pioneered cooperatives to assist the poor and save them from local loan sharks. The movement became popular and spread across Bangladesh.
According to the state-run Cooperatives Department, there are about 1.77 million registered cooperatives in the country, with more than 10 million members.
Of the 900 cooperative credit unions in Bangladesh, 250 are based in the Christian community, church sources say.