Catholic MP Gloria Jharna Sarker speaks to people during a program in Bangladesh's Khulna district in July. She has called for better democratic practices in cooperatives. (Photo supplied)
Christian leaders have backed Bangladesh’s only Christian female MP after she called for changes in laws to forge better democratic practices in cooperative societies.
Advocate Gloria Jharna Sarker, a Catholic, made the appeal during a recent speech in parliament through the speaker Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury.
“Our father of the nation [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] prioritized the cooperative movement as an effective tool for eradication of poverty and asserted ownership of cooperatives as one of the three key types of ownership in the constitution. However, the Cooperative Society Rules 2004 have many ambiguities, which must be removed for the greater welfare of members,” Sarker said on Sept. 11.
In the absence of clear-cut directions, many cooperatives with more than 3,000 members are exploiting a provision in the law to hold annual general meetings and elections through representative members instead of all eligible members, she said.
“These provisions are flawed, which encourages undemocratic practices in cooperatives including corruption, abuse of power and power grabbing by illicit means. These are against people participation and interests, and also conflict with international cooperative practices that encourage democracy,” Sarker added.
The proposed legal changes are long overdue, according to Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, a social researcher and secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.
“Day by day, many cooperatives have become business organizations vying for profits for board members instead of the welfare of members, and Christian cooperatives are also moving in the same direction,” Father Gomes told ucanews.com.
The priest also referred to electoral rivalry, mud slinging and legal battles ahead of the 2017 board election that led the Christian Cooperative Credit Union Ltd. (CCCUL) of Dhaka, the country largest cooperative with more than 40,000 members, to adopt a “representatives only” policy for annual meetings and board elections.
“This provision not just introduced undemocratic practices and cast away accountability but it also planted divisions and destruction of social bonding among members. If this continues, the worst is yet to come,” the priest said.
Nirmol Rozario, a Catholic and president of the Bangladesh Christian Association (BCA), also welcomed the call for changes.
“The provision of representatives destroys cooperatives’ spirit. Every member must have the right to vote and to offer opinions about the activities of a cooperative society,” Rozario told ucanews.com.
The dire situation before the 2017 election forced the society to adopt “undemocratic means,” said Rozario, a backer of the CCCUL’s current board.
“It is true the image has been tarnished, but with changes to the law, we hope members will get back their rights,” he added.
There is no way of development without a participatory approach in a cooperative society, said William Proloy Samadder, a Baptist leader and a critic of the CCCUL board.
“This provision has been in place for years but never used before by most cooperatives. Suddenly, some people exploited it in order to snatch away the rights of members and to consolidate power dishonestly,” Samadder told ucanews.com.
In the fallout of the 2017 CCCUL election, Samadder’s group broke away from the BCA and formed the Christian Association Bangladesh (CAB) with disgruntled members.
“I am appalled to see ongoing division and disunity among Christians over the cooperatives. But I am hopeful that the provision will change and people will get back their rights,” MP Sarker told ucanews.com.
According to the Cooperatives Department, there are about 1.77 million cooperatives in Bangladesh with more than 10 million members.
Last year, a study by Bangladesh chapter of Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog Transparency International found that 47 percent of cooperatives were ineffective amid a lack of monitoring, while many were engaged in illicit activities including mismanagement and fund embezzlement.