Local Democracy In Crisis
Nepal’s unique practice of grassroots democracy has come under a huge crisis since 2002 in the absence of new local elections. Despite the fact that the country has witnessed massive political change and achieved unprecedented success in promulgating a new federal democratic republican constitution, the reflection of such progress at the local level remains elusive. In fact, the problems of local governance are increasing amid uncertainty over a fresh election.
While the recently ousted K.P. Oli-led government had planned to conduct elections of the local bodies this November, the attempt was thwarted by the other major political parties, citing lack of preparedness and adequate consultation. Now even under the premiership of Prachanda, the local poll is looking challenging with more uncertainities and increasing hostility among the mainstream parties who claim to be people’s representatives.
It looks as if the parties are not really serious about handing rights to the local authorities owing to fear of losing power. Although it is being said that the new government is committed to conducting this election in coming March, it is not convincing as the ground reality suggests something different.
Furthermore, this has been complicated by the pending report of the Local Governance Commission formulated by the government to recommend on the modality of local governance under a federal setup. Likewise, the recent constitution has also restructured the local bodies by dividing it into village and town assemblies instead of the previously practiced VDC, DDC and Municipality model.
The local government is running on an ad-hoc basis with bureaucrats assuming the role of the head of the local bodies. The All Party Mechanism (APM) which was introduced in 2009 to fill in the vaccum of the elected local government has been dissolved now due to corruption and fund embezzlement issues.
In fact, th APM only catered the interests of their loyal cadres and diverted the resources for the benefit of their henchmen even though it was expected to be a vibrant bridge between the government and the people and bring back the derailed local governance process on track. However, political bickering and lust for money and power stifled the local governance-based reforms. Consensual corruption in the grassroots institutions seems to be rising through a close working nexus among the political parties, bureaucrats and user committees in the villages.
The absence of locally elected representatives has adversely affected the process of institutionalising development at the level of village and municipality. Improper distribution of resources and unhealthy competition for power and money among the local elites have immensely thrived as there is no authority to maintain the check and balance. Moreover, the accountability mechanisms have quickly eroded, fostering high-handedness by a few priviliged groups in society. Owing to this, local development activties have come to a grinding halt, fueling human and social poverty.
Overpoliticisation of development issues relating to disaster risk reduction or development of socio-economic infrastructure has made it difficult to expedite development activities in the villages and towns. It has become very difficult to find a non-partisan local leader or a development worker in the village these days. Political affiliation for fulfilling their own vested interests is pervasive.
Perhaps the hardest hit in this imbroglio are the people of low socio-economic background, namely women, dalits, janjatis, Madhesis among others. This group of economically and socially backward population have been denied any meaningful participation in the present deliberation related to local democracy.
Participatory-governance reform has witnessed a massive setback in the last one and half decade primarily due to the political transition at the local level. Meaningful representation and participation of local people in key decision making has sharply eroded in recent years. In the absence of an appropriate authority to reinforce their rights, local people have been left ‘high and dry’.
Breaking the Impasse
There is no alternative but to hold the local elections at the earliest possible date. It has become too costly for the state to keep avoiding fresh polls because local resource mobilisation hasn’t been effective. In order to institutionalise the accomplishments attained at the local level and further expedite the process of sustainable development, the election of local representatives is a must. Locally elected authorities will then have decisive power to provide an impetus to development activities.
Reviving community-based self-reliance also requires a general direction and supervision of competent and fully elected authorities. Fostering enterprise development and working towards the formation of capital goods in society demands robust local leadership that can supervise and monitor the role of other agencies working in the locality. Since the local bodies are the direct point of contact of the general people and are entrusted with the responsibility of delivering quality service, rejuvenating these offices is important to ensure long-term development. To sum up, local development is a prerequisite for the larger development of the nation.