Dev Raj Dahal
Democratic consciousness has inspired the struggle of Nepalis of diverse stripes to turn their rights congruent to public goods. Civil society as their associations, federations, networks and movements aim to guard their interests from the capricious actions of the holders of power and wealth, and spur their creative engagement to make governance open and responsive to public interests. Civic action is the engines of political democratisation and social modernisation from below. It enables Nepalis to build their community vibrant and control the deviation of public policy from constitutional spirit.
By cultivating the general will and public action, duty-based Nepali civil society groups seek to keep democracy in fair balance. Their volunteerism has historically complemented the state functions while collaboration with citizens moderated the utilitarian prejudice of politics and the business. Stirred by the enlightenment values Nepali civil society have served the voice of weak and enriched the bridging social capital of Nepali communities. This turned civic sphere inclusive in discourse, engaging and dynamic so vital for democracy consolidation.
Socialisation of selfish nature of human beings towards civic ideals of tolerance of diversity, education, culture, communication, laws and institutions enables public action in many areas of public good. It can control extremism, dualism and contradictions that heaped various vices in Nepali society - poverty, inequality, discrimination, ecocide, social violence, corruption, impunity, refugees, etc. pounding the writ of democracy. Now Nepalis have developed a habit to compare and judge democratic life of the nation with its constitutional ideals and universal principles, not just relying on dead statistics, legal logic and causal determinants which misjudge the links of bodily needs with mind, spirit and soul. They seek to improve overall human condition reared by historical wisdom.
Robert D. Kaplan says, “Democracy loses meaning if both rulers and ruled cease to be a part of a community tied to a specific territory, the state.” This means democracy project of rights-based civil society in Nepal needs to transform Nepalis of various identities into equal citizens able to exercise their 31 constitutional rights and four duties, and remain loyal to the institutions of state. Only their critical debate on democratic values and actors can renew the project of ecological resilience, human rights, democracy, social justice and peace. The interactive forums of Nepali civil society can offer the solution to these irrationalities and bring the society and the state back to the middle path. It enables the leadership to create a condition to secure security, basic needs, civic rights and pluralism. Citizenship is a condition to engage in public sphere and a shift from clan-based, group-enclosed and pre-rational insular community to group-opened, rational and citizenship-based society unbounded by geopolitical interest, partisan politics, interest group, business or cultic leaders caustic of social capital, civic sensibility and democracy which are essential for political stability in Nepal.
The Nepali leaders have yet to align politics, laws and public policies to a common civic spirit and constitutionalise all the actors such as the state, market, political parties, civil society and individuals to steer them to the direction of social development, social justice, environment and human rights. The regime is seeking donors and INGOs to collaborate with national NGOs, civil society, local bodies and communities and align their activities to national priorities. This can bridge the knowledge, skill and resource gaps in the spheres of women, children, livelihood, poverty alleviation, job creation and skill training. The Social Welfare and Development Act provides legal structure for local bodies to register, renew and monitor NGOs and civil society. They can cancel their registration of those indulged in social engineering and divisive politics and spending most of money in administrative cost, not target groups.
Those working at inter-village or municipality level have to do the same at province level. INGOs, the soft power of global regimes, cannot work directly with local NGOs and civil society without the official consent. Nepal offers civic space for civil society and NGOs, chamber, journalists and authorities to participate in Good Governance Committee at the local level. The demands of Nepalis for democratic dividends--social inclusion, rights realisation, skill, education, health, technology, information, market access and development imperative have amplified civic space where civil society can plug in to balance the mounting deficits.
The Nepali state’s pluralist social and cultural universe historically tolerated the liberal values. It did not suppress the society’s freedom to self-organise, articulate and effect public action. This has provided Nepalis associational life, a culture of autonomy, mutual trust and cooperation with the state on security, protection, wellbeing and freedom of citizens. The evolution of democratic impulses, social inclusion and right-based development broke the social closure for Dalits, women, poor and minority in public life though some political parties still harbor parochial politics of negation, identity craze, politics of difference and the realisation of group-differentiated rights which excludes the other beyond democratic citizenship of equality.
Great Poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota argues that the corruption of public culture followed the propensity of intellectuals and rulers to think for themselves first before the nation and people and minimal interest of well off in social investment. It hit the resilient rebuilding of this nation. One reason is that leaders as a role model under diverse regimes seemed concerned more about the self, family, business and partisan benefits than about public goods where party-affiliated civil society are subjected to grubby conformism while donor-driven to clientalism-both lacking interest in democratic emancipation of Nepalis. The other reason is the real lack of democratic accountability and the vital counterweight of fair media, autonomous civil society and judiciary to limit the bargaining power of interest groups, fulfill primal urge for basic needs and detribalise Nepalis. Democratisation is closely allied with distributive justice. Now, civil society need to build the skills of Nepalis to beat their weakness and enrich civic virtues to create a healthy community linked to one another as a member of common nationality and shared humanity.
Both the government and international community in Nepal find local bodies, community organisations, federations, cooperatives, NGOs and civil society valuable partners for their projects considering that they are less bureaucratic, more flexible, innovative, adaptable and issue-based. They are complementing the development and political functions of the state, providing the resilience to citizens to cope with their needs for justice, identity, reconciliation and reconstruction. It has liberalised the nature of traditional politics from status-bound to social contract, altered the functions of state and transformed Nepali society to post-conventional direction of inclusive, secular, federal, democratic republic. Still, what is taxing is how can they overcome their partisan character, develop autonomy, build coalitions across diverse Nepalis and enable collective action on matters of public good. Civil society groups in Nepal, as partners in democratic progress, are providing useful information to increase public understanding of governance goals, policies and strategies. Their alternative vision, methods and proposals provide useful information for planning, policy, budgeting, management, execution, evaluation and critical review of democratic progress. Their contribution is cherished by laws and plans. The Nepali Constitution has included lots of social rights for the expansion and deepening of democracy. But, its fulfillment needs multi-actor cooperation including those of civil society and business. This helps to control lawless dissent.
Nepali polity prizes the constructive roles of civil society in improving societal acceptability in policy making and outcome in the preparation of plan, Constitution, Post-Earthquake National Reconstruction Plan, peace accord etc. It can limit polarising effects and build coherence and sustainability in different actors’ goals, means and strategies to progress. They have helped to create ownership and representation of diverse interests and moderate macro-development policies--PRSP,SDGs and post-conflict and post-quake reconstruction through stakeholders’ consultation (training, workshop, seminars and discussion) and obtaining necessary public feedbacks for the contextualisation of policy.
The mechanism of accountability is set through Public Account Committee, anti-corruption watchdog, Auditor-General, media, policy makers, donors and voters where civil society invoke right to information entailing the openness of democratic governance. Now local elected bodies engage the citizens’ representatives from various walks of life in public hearing about plans, policies, priorities, budget allocation and even evaluation. Others busy in social struggles aim to foster equity in the development outcome (gender, caste, region, age, class, ethnicity etc), ecological preservation (sustainable development) at multi-level rule, delivery responsiveness, education about social charter, social audit, public hearing, formation of Citizens’ Groups, partnership and consensus building and enabling polity to pilot through democratic ideals.
The task of civil society in rural areas is to scale the institutional incentives to peasants, workers, women Dalits and poor to adopt new skill, technology and entrepreneurship enabling them to adapt to new age of inclusive transformation. Many hands approach is useful to capture the hierarchy and complexity of Nepali society and internally democratise the public and private actors. Local ownership in democratic initiatives is vital to build indigenous capabilities. It provides basic condition for basic liberties and public services that cuts undue dependence on external agencies.
Local civil society groups are engaged in a variety of mediation and peacebuilding roles at multi-track and mobilising Mothers’ Groups and now Dispute Settlement Committee seeking to resolve conflicts by ethics of human rights, justice and integrity of democratic life. A vibrant civil society can correct the power of the state, moderate the appetites of government for arbitrary use of power, resource and authority, democratise political parties and temper the ferocity of market forces in the general interest of public goods vital for democratic dynamism.