The Centralist Mind-set
Nepal’s attempt to decentralise state power has been always undermined by centralist mind-set and consequent machinations to extend and entrench the arms of influence and control vertically down to sub national levels. It is a matter of irony that the centralist and bureaucratic hegemony has not been shunned at this stage of political development when the country has adopted the federal restructuring of the state structures. The federalist option underpins the reforming state institutions through devolution of authority at local level.
Undoubtedly, federal constitution of Nepal is premised upon the exalted principles of decentralised participatory governance. And it intends to restructure the state institutions in line with the principles of devolved multilevel governance. However, as noted at the outset, the same command-control patrimonial mind-set that existed in the past has started to be continued to counter act values and norms of decentralised federal governance. The decisions taken by the government to give continuity to the past practices testify to the fact that the same centralist tendencies and behaviours have emboldened political elites to hold grip on the resources on this or that pretensions.
The decision taken by some provincial governments recently to allocate funds to be spent under the discretion of the members of the legislative assembly is a repetition of the same widely objected practice that has appropriated a bigger size of fund to federal parliamentarian. In the last budget presented in the parliament, the federal parliamentarians have been entitled to use their discretion to fund development projects in their respective constituencies. In fact, the fund allocation of such a nature goes against the principle of democratic checks and balances and militates against the spirit of local democracy. This point was also raised by the elected executives of the local level governments – Gaupalika and Nagarpalika -- asserting their categorical objection to the huge sum of the constituency area development fund allocated in the budget to be spent under the direction of the members of the federal parliament. In fact, it was at the time of the coalition government formed following the election of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2013 AD that the constituency development allocation was raised lavishly when the then finance minister had increased budgetary resources to be spent by parliamentarians.
In fact, the present government commanding almost two third majority in the federal parliament and also holding sway in provincial and local government should have justifiably discontinued the allocation which was not in consonance with the values of federal governance where the constitutionally mandated local governments have been elected. In fact, constituency area development fund allocations go against the letter and spirit of the constitutional provision that elevates the local government institutions to stand and exercise state authority at par with the provincial and federal government. The decision to allocate resources under the discretion of lawmakers both at the federal and provincial levels has been fraught with flawed interest and misplaced priority as they are mandated by the people through democratic elections to serve as members of the law making forums in their respective levels, enhance and articulate the needs and aspirations of the people. They are duty bound politically, legally and ethically to focus on legislative functions that basically include making the just and democratic laws and redeem the pledge made to the people during the last polls.
From separation of the power point of view too, lawmakers no matter the levels should not own and take over the responsibility and function of executing budget and implement development projects. They should carry out the oversight functions of development projects and point out the lapses and shortcomings of the government policies and programs. When lawmakers themselves desist from law making role, usurp the function of project selection and execution, this will undermine fundamentals of the democratic polity and governance. Normally, three organs of the government – executive, legislature and judiciary- have their differentiated and distinct roles and structures. These roles should not be duplicated and fused as this will lead into monopolisation and concentration of authority. The experience indicates that the resources allocated for the lawmakers in the past offer disconcerting picture of use and utilisation.
According to the assessment of fund allocation made by the lawmakers, there was no transparency in the formation of the users groups as well as in selection of the local projects as a result of which the expenditures could not meet the actual needs of the people. A sizeable amount had remained unsettled raising serious issues on fiduciary risk. Moreover, there had been some cases of duplication of resources as the planning process defined in the rules and regulations was not followed in letter and spirit. However, the question at present is not utilisation or misutilisation but it is the matter of the constitutional principles and norms of the federal governance.
Instead of institutionalising and enhancing local governance institutions according to the provision of the constitution under federal system, allocations of resources to be spent through the federal and provincial lawmakers’ discretion would lead on to jeopardising the prospects of local democracy, decentralised development and service delivery at the local level. If these practices are allowed to go on, the day will come when the Nagarpalika, Gaupalika and local level lawmakers will start demanding for the allocation of fund to be spent according to their discretion thus making a mockery of multilevel federal governance in the country.
(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues)