Dev Raj Dahal
Nepal is in the midst of a great transformational moment brought by an opportunity to compete, collaborate and connect with various scales of actors. Institutional restructuring of national and local bodies, mobility of vast number of labour force abroad, adaptation to modern technology, urbanisation, globalisation and climate change are drivers of transformation. The new narrative in Nepal is happy life, prosperity and stability. The self-rule of local governance structures in Nepal is the foundation to realise this vision. It is relatively autonomous with new types of civic, legislative, executive and judicial authority. The electoral politics of middle path is opened to reason and resolution of conflicts from the bottom up where women’s leadership is predominant.
The Constitution of Nepal has authorised Gaunpalikas and municipalities to direct, control and conduct their own affairs and assume roles on education, health and sanitation, safe drinking water, communication, agriculture, irrigation, industry, animal husbandry, upliftment of woman and targeted groups, right to collect reasonable tax and engage in infrastructure development, planning, monitoring and evaluation, etc. Wards are the lowest units having a strong sense of caring community and shared identity that spawns democratic leadership, citizenship duties and governing. The new transformation in the structures, functions and roles of local bodies has, however, stifled the performance of elected local bodies owing to learning by doing approach. The ties between the federal, province and local levels are based on the principles of cooperation, coexistence and coordination. They are vital to settle the contending interests between the provinces and the local bodies, attain the transformation of the nation from poverty to welfare and prosperity and create civic culture worthy of Nepalis’ civic heritage.
The hope of Nepalis from the local government is stifled by delays in many areas: adjustment of civil servants, required laws by federal and provincial governments, physical infrastructures, determination of local tax and skilled personnel for governance. The normal functions and service delivery in remote areas are stymied by the absence of civil servants, their low morale and increasing partisan prejudice. The Ministry for Federal Affairs and General Administration unveiled that local bodies need 37,000 civil servants which it is fulfilling through a fast track method of Public Service Commission exam. The State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of the parliament pointed out the inability of civil servants to adapt to political changes suggesting their transparent work evaluation and accountability to the tasks.
Absence of laws to regulate shared rights and jurisdiction of federal, provincial and local bodies punch their responsiveness. Restructuring of many Gaun Palikas and municipalities and merger of many local units expanded their sizes and devolved many district offices on functional areas without infrastructural preconditions and the scale of public economy. The District Coordination Committee faces difficulty in coordinating diverse local actors in matters of balanced development. Expansion of local infrastructures spurs economic growth, employment opportunity, cut poverty and widen the access of marginalised citizens in development outcome.
Economic modernisation and institutional set-up in the rural areas drive spatial diffusion of growth of small enterprises based on locational advantage and dispersed resource potentials- hydro, tourism, herbals, agriculture, animal husbandry, etc. To add stimulus to employment generation Prime Minister Employment Scheme offers a conditional grant of Rs. 10 million to local bodies and set the guidelines to the targeted youths in addition to other grants from National Fiscal Commission, Local and Federal Consolidated Funds defined as conditional, special, complementary and financial equalisation and provincial aid set to unleash rational progress.
The Nepali government has issued a directive to set up good governance committee at local level, aiming to represent functional interest groups of society in public deliberation on integrated development planning - setting priorities, public hearing, formulation of plans and programmes, budget allocation, operation and monitoring and evaluation of development in a transparent, judicious and accountable manner. A rational planning can ensure livelihood and uplift Nepalis’ standards. Local elected bodies are largely inclusive in terms of representation of woman, Dalits or minority groups and hold transformatory potential in politics as it discards the caste, class and gender walls that subordinate one Nepali to the other. The representation of local functional interest groups such as chamber of commerce and industries, civil society, NGOs, trade unions, human rights bodies, Consumer Groups, journalists and voluntary associations can make them more deliberative in democracy, shape civic habits and build multi-scale interface transforming inherited rural society into self-chosen one.
They are critical mass of transformation and checks and balances of power. The locally elected chief coordinates the functions of Good Governance Committee. The authority and legitimacy of local government springs from elections. But there are non-government, semi-government, federations, cooperatives, civil society, business, voluntary and non-elected ones whose dominant culture is social inclusion, mutual aid and solidarity and whose decisions on functional areas affect the lives of Nepalis. Therefore, optimisation of interactions among them can improve the level of engagement and commitment in performance in the politics of common good and steer their tasks performances. In others, committee system has to be mobilized to build their capacity to effectively deliver.
The sovereignty of Nepal lies in its citizens, therefore, their participation in local decisions affecting them has become the fulcrum of democratic governance. The rationale of this good governance committee is to foster ethically designed governance, make service delivery people-friendly, organise inclusive deliberation of multi-stakeholders providing them ownership in the policy and share global knowledge, skills and technological innovation thus lowering the costs of transformation.
Since the habitat of politics is the state, Nepali political leaders need to take initiative to resolve the maladies of local bodies: tussles between chair and vice-chair persons, ineffectiveness of judicial committee on dispute settlement, corruption, abuse of public budget to buy luxury items, ineffectiveness of monitoring committee, etc. affecting the distribution of social security benefits and hampering development. These maladies ruin financial discipline and integrity and weaken the social contract. Election of contractors, middle men, owner of dozer, NGOs, businessmen, etc. cultivate predatory practices for collusion with technocrats to gobble up resources abusing the virtue of political power against the vices of structural injustice.
Legislators’ interest in the executive domain of constituency building fund and lobby to increase the amount from Rs 40 million to 100 million for each legislator than legislation making has cut the development prerogative of local government, fostered patronage and made Nepali parliament weak to sustain power balance. The abuse of this money spoils the civic spirit. The increasing municipalisaion of Nepali society is shifting the migration pattern from rural areas to urban nodes and abroad. It is opening economic innovation, newer settlement, occupying newer lands and management for livelihood. This is transforming the scale of politics and the public spheres creating opportunity for social mobility and mixing clan-based community into syncretic one with better life with modern amenities.
This has produced a hybrid poly-culture but created difficulty in retaining youth force to rural households vital to lift transformed life. In the hills social cost of migration is huge. Only women, elderly people and children are left for subsistence farming. A strategy for alleviating misery through the modernisation of means of production through the use of macroeconomic tools of planning intervention is must to enable Nepali society to adapt to new age of acceleration. The egalitarian vision of Nepali Constitution incarnates social justice as a trait of transformation. It opposes cultic honouring of leadership with a heavy load of garlands in the public affronting the concept of popular sovereignty. The key challenge of Nepal’s local bodies is effective governance especially in service delivery to improve the image of democracy and build trust among ordinary citizens, elected authorities and civil servants. This trust is central to improve the living standards of Nepalis affirming that democracy is better than any other type of polity.
Here provision, production and policy functions on exchange of public goods and distributive justice are vital to ignite social spirit of Nepalis as a basis of civil society and set the primacy of law over the privileges of elites flourishing in impunity. Without economic discipline it is difficult to bridge the gap between lofty ideals of local democracy and its outcome for the ordinary citizens. Democratisation of political, corporate and bureaucratic instinct of utility maximization and motivating them to respond to the aspirations of Nepalis can cut social vices, foster civic culture and liberate economic conclaves controlled by a few families against egalitarian spirit.
Sustainable progress demands common commitment of federal, provincial and local governments on basic public goods such as management of ecology, security, rule of law, health, education, food, clothing, voice and social opportunities to participate in public affairs, proper utilisation of dispersed natural resources and use of new technologies for inclusive transformation. Local production of essential needs through the modernisation of agriculture especially improving seeds, irrigation and investment in fertilizer factories, productive employment in diversified enterprises meeting the home market and import-substitution that can replace imported goods can enhance transformative prospects. Nepal’s adaptation to climate change needs creating local institutions that monitors the undue abuse of nature, participation of local citizens and local management of natural resources linked to both livelihood and ecological resilience.
The laws endow responsibilities to local bodies in disaster preparedness, mitigation to resilient rebuilding. Local party leaders with their vital links with central and provincial politicians, civil servants and civil society can help build consensus on democratic progress, work for the outreach of programmes to targeted groups, build legal awareness of elected representatives, protect public property and fill the vacuum created by the dissolution of Local Peace Committees for durable peace. Representative political institutions and those functional interest groups constituted by citizens themselves must embody democratic accountability where no one blocks the collective action on public interest while facilitates the service delivery. Local democracy can take roots if coordination among the actors and institutions towards the goals of local governance musters the synergy of all actors of governance in the transformative prospect of better life.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)