Local government’s rights must not be curbed, says Dahal
Kashiraj Dahal is a noted constitution expert. Currently Chairman of the Administrative Court, Dahal has been involved in framing various laws related to the media, civil service and federalism, among others. He also served as the head of the High-level Administration Reform Suggestion Committee that recommended to the government to build an efficient, effective and accountable bureaucracy in the new setup.
The country has successfully conducted the first phase of the local election. Although the new constitution has clearly spelt out the rights and responsibilities of the federal, provincial and local governments, they need to be fleshed out as the elected local bodies get down to their business. Dahal talked to Ritu Raj Subedi of The Rising Nepal on the duties, tasks and importance of the local level polls and governments.
As a constitution expert, how do you assess the holding of the first phase of the local polls under the federal setup in an interval of two decades?
It is a historic and exemplary work to institutionalise Loktantra. Loktantra is the rule of the people. In it, the people have the right to choose their representatives. The local government is a means to meet the people’s essential needs, hence it is the foundation of Loktantra. The modern democratic nations have incorporated a provision of the local government in their constitution. It is also a salient feature of Nepal’s statute. It would have been better if the election to the local polls had been held in a single phase. Nonetheless, the first phase of the election was conducted. Now all parties should participate in the second round of the election. The people want to form the local government right away, and the parties should understand the people’s aspirations and needs.
Following the first phase of the poll, the people have become enthusiastic about the second round of the election to pick the representatives of their choice. 2074 BS should be announced as an ‘election year’, and the transition should be brought to an end by conducting the three-tier polls – local, provincial and federal - by Magh 7, 2074 BS. The nation should engage in economic development by settling the political questions through the elections. In that sense, the local poll in itself is a historic gain.
As the elected local-level representatives are set to take office, what task should they accomplish first?
They should first understand the rights, functions, duties and role of local government as stipulated in the national charter. They should set out to execute their tasks within their jurisdiction by formulating an action plan with the participation of the people. For example, in the metropolises and sub-metropolises, such as Kathmandu, Biratnagar, Janakpur, they need to address the problems of dust, smoke and garbage immediately. Similarly, other municipalities should set their priorities and concentrate themselves in the development of ‘smart cities’
The constitution has devolved around two dozen rights to the local units, but the newly-formed local units lack the necessary infrastructure and human resources. How will the elected office-bearers meet their goals in such a situation?
The statute has granted rights to the local government on matters related to the management of drinking water, electricity, residence, roads, agriculture, sanitation, health, education, entertainment, disaster management, and preservation of the environment, culture and fine art. These are very challenging tasks for the local government to execute. Obviously, it is difficult to accomplish them for lack of infrastructure, competent employees, and necessary means and resources. Therefore, the local government should prove its mettle by strengthening inter-relations among the federation, province and local level, and by distributing the resources and means judiciously. There are problems and scarcities galore. In this situation, the newly elected representatives should demonstrate efficient leadership and a creative mindset to be successful in their mission. It is equally important to increase the people’s participation in the development activities.
The statute has clearly defined the role and responsibilities among the three-tier governments – centre, province and local units. But some political parties, especially the Madhes-based parties, are for curtailing the rights of local representatives to elect the president and National Assembly. Don’t you see the provincial and local governments clashing over their rights from the very beginning?
The people receive the dividends of Loktantra through the channels of local government. The rights of the local government should not be curtailed as the constitution has adopted the principle of ‘partnership and cooperativeness’ in governing the relations between the federation, province and local level. So the three-tier government should act in accordance with the spirit of the national charter. The role of the local government should also be reflected at the national level one way or the other. The people will directly benefit from Loktantra if there is a strong local government. Therefore, the political parties should be united to make the local level competent, capable and powerful. Only then will the parties prove themselves that they are responsible to the people. That is why the rights of the local government should not be cut by either the federation or the province. The federation, province and local level should exercise their rights by remaining within the boundary of the statute and the related laws. The tendency to deprive the local units of their rights may put the centre and province in negative light. It will be a real practice of Loktantra if the local government is strengthened and allowed to work according to its constitutional rights.
The local governments have been granted sweeping powers, including high amounts of budget, but there is also a risk of such powers being abused as we have seen irregularities involving the all-party mechanisms in the past.
Loktantra is in itself a responsive system. It is based on the rule of law. In the Loktantrik system, the oversight agencies are in place to control corruption and irregularities. There is a provision of the ombudsman to check the abuse of power by the people with constitutional responsibility. In Nepal, corruption has become a big problem. Power has been abused rampantly in the absence of a system in place. Money and muscle power have hit all organs. In the past, the local bodies were found involved in corruption. This can’t be ruled out in the future, too. So, in order to check corruption, there should be a local ombudsman. The monitoring system needs to be strengthened. We need to develop a system of evaluation based on performance. With the increase in people’s awareness, a strong social power will evolve. The administration should be run based on the evaluation by the service-seekers. If these arrangements are made, the abuse of power and corruption can be largely minimised. In a similar manner, it is necessary to develop a system of making public the funds of the political parties.
How hopeful are you about effective service delivery as a full-fledged local government buckles down to its tasks?
There should be three levels of roles and responsibilities. The federation should be tasked with framing policies and setting standards, the provinces should coordinate and supervise, and the local government needs to carry out development works and provide services to the people. Services should be provided through a single-window system. If so, the local government can provide services in an effective manner. Service delivery should be fast, efficient and qualitative. Let’s hope that the local government accomplishes these tasks.
How do you define Nepal’s federal model as it gives strong emphasis to the local units?
The federal system is in fact a vertical division of state powers. Today around 30 nations practise federalism of different models. Federalism in the US is based on a dualistic model, in which the union and states share powers with each other. Germany exercises federalism based on an inter-locking model. Likewise, co-operative federalism has been adopted by some nations. Nepal has also accepted cooperative federalism. In Switzerland, cantons, as local units, are stronger. Nepal’s constitution has also consolidated the power of the local units. The rights of the local units can’t be forfeited and snatched. The beautiful aspect of Nepal’s constitution is that it has empowered the local units. It has envisioned a model of federalism in which the federation, province and local level work in tandem guided by a sense of cooperation, coexistence and coordination among them. Its practice and experiment should be carried out accordingly.
After the local polls, the country should hold elections to pick the provincial and federal governments. Billions of rupees (above Rs 20 billion) have been spent on the two-phase local polls. Don’t you think that our federal system is getting quite expensive given the nation’s poor economic performance?
Federalism is in itself an expensive system. Since it requires separate structures and mechanisms for the federation, province and local level, the expenses for the construction of the structure and management of human resources certainly go higher. Federalism is not a panacea to all problems. Failure to manage it properly can harm national unity and social goodwill. Bearing this in mind, federalism that is based on mutual cooperation should be practised. Federalism might itself become a bane if the nation fails to focus on economic development by putting the political bickering to rest. As the federal system is economically costly, the tax burden on the people can also increase. Against this backdrop, along with the economic development, the nation should be able to deliver stability, durable peace and good governance.
Some Madhesi and ethnic parties are still calling for ethnic nationalism against a civic one. Going a step further, they are making a pitch for two nations - Madhes and hills. In such a situation, can the new local government have powers to serve as an antidote to these divisive demands and boost national and territorial integrity?
All the nations have not embraced the same model of governance system in the world. There is no uniformity in the bases for the creation of federal states and division of powers among the three levels of government either. Neither do the nations have the same goals behind the adoption of a federal system. In our context, federalism has been adopted with a view to having balanced development in all spheres and ending all types of discriminations and oppressions. Although there has been demand for an ethnic state, Nepal is a garden of all castes and ethnicities, and a state of minorities. The situation of Ethiopia that adopted ethnic federalism is not good. Poverty, exploitation and oppression have not gone down there. Therefore, the main thing is to devolve and decentralise power to the local level. In keeping with this principle, the new constitution has ensured the representation of women, Dalits and minorities at the local level with special rights of local units. With the correct and clean exercise of these rights, the protection of minorities, national unity and social goodwill can be guaranteed. Various demands and problems will be resolved if the local government is strengthened and made effective. The main thing is good intention and the ability to transform oneself as per the need of time.
Do you have anything to add?
The constitution is an inanimate document, and it up to the political parties to breathe life into it. Constitutional Loktantra can’t be alive in itself. Therefore, they should act according to the statute. The need of the hour is to create a strong state and good citizens. We need a society wherein the people realise their duties. In this context, the national charter, which was written through an arduous process, oodles of time and money, carries meaning if the nation concentrates on developing the rule of law, constitutional supremacy and good governance. This should be embraced by the concerned stakeholders, too.