Stakeholder Consultations In Policy Making
Policies that are directly linked to the welfare of the public shouldn’t be formulated in a vacuum according to the general principle of policy making. Since such policies influence the everyday life of the ordinary citizens, adequate consultation with the public during the formulation and implementation of policy is desirable. Moreover, civil society members including academics, development professionals and others also need to be invited for discussion on any matter of public significance, let alone the public policy.
However, in practice, the process of policy making tends to override the principle. In our own context, there is a high-handedness of the few political actors in this domain. In other words, policy making has become the prerogative of the privileged few. Such an elitist approach shrinks spaces for deepening interactions and exchanges of knowledge and ideas.
Policy makers have a high opinion of themselves and don’t even bother to consult with the permanent government i.e. bureaucracy in most cases. Whether we refer to a democratic or a communist government, the single handed approach has been dictating the course of actions.
Needless to say, there are dire consequences of this thinking. First, the general problem of public ownership arises. Even the best policies aren’t embraced by public if they come bypassing their meaningful participation. Second, the rift between public and the government will only grow further inviting other social problems. Third, public disobedience intensifies if situation goes out of control. Fourth, public trust with the government will only wane.
In the latest round of policy making practice, the government’s proposed bill on Guthi management has invited severe criticisms from several quarters including the ruling party. Local people, heritage conservationists, academics and cultural experts have come to the streets demanding the scrapping of the bill which intends to withdraw the traditional control of ‘Guthiyaars’ in the overseeing of this age-old institution of religious and socio-cultural significance. While the government has every authority to table bills pertaining to various sectors, it must have consulted various stakeholders associated with this institution for a very long time. In fact, the sentiment of the champions of Guthi system has also been badly hurt. Had there been a round-table meeting prior to the drafting of this bill to seek feedback on improvising the provisions of the bill with important members of Guthi and cultural experts, the situation would have been completely different.
Generally speaking, Guthi refers to a group of local people aimed at preservation and maintenance of religious sites in addition to the operation of various festivals and processions of socio-cultural importance. Moreover, Guthi also performs welfare activities like cleaning roads and temples, providing food and shelter for handicapped and helpless people etc. The history of Guthi dates back to the Lichchhavi period in Nepal when King Mandev inscribed this word in the records of the Changu Narayan.
A total of 2,335 registered Guthis are operating in Nepal according to the latest record of Guthi Sansthan- an umbrella body to oversee them. Meanwhile, 756,000 bighas of land fall under the Guthi across the country. .
The proposed bill aims at transferring the management and authority of Guthi from ‘Guthiyaar’ to a government employee to be deputed under a separate authority established for operations of Guthi. If this happens, there will be a huge problem in the operation of many festivals and jatras which are being managed under the pro-active participation of local community under the leadership of ‘Guthiyaar’. The lifeline that is currently being provided to the religious and cultural heritages will come to a grinding halt provided that the bill is endorsed in the present form.
Nevertheless, opponents of the bill have also expressed their concerns over the intentions of overpowering ‘land agents’ to demolish the Guthi. The unprecedented interference of the State in Guthi has been vehemently criticised by the real guardians of this important institution in Nepal.
An interesting debate on the issue of electoral vs. deliberative democracy has also surfaced with the government’s latest move. Out of the mandate to govern the country until the next election, the present government is in mood of formulating and implementing laws which it supposes are in the larger interest of the people and the nation. Having said that, an important aspect of close interaction with the local communities in every matter of public concern is being overlooked. Ensuring the meaningful participation of the intended beneficiaries in the entire process of policy making from formulation to implementation is the key to the success of any policy measures. But this approach is missing in the present context.
It is still possible that the government holds a dialogue with the disgruntled groups and amend the draft bill. With the co-chair of the present government’s party already hinting at the review of the Guthi bill, we might witness the much needed revision.
(The author is a member of the Social Science Faculty at NIMS College, Kathmandu)