Long wait for local government

With politics at a standstill in Kathmandu, governance should be shifting to the local levels. In fact, the national is holding the local hostage.

The former Kingdom of Nepal now calls itself a federal, democratic republic. Invested in the word federal is a whole range of popular aspirations: for meaningful participation in local governance away from the chafing dictates of the Centre, and for the exercise of cultural and linguistic rights that so many of Nepal's communities have been historically denied. The demand for federalism emerged and became an important part of Nepali public discourse due to the frustration that arose as a result of the state's tendency to concentrate power in Kathmandu even after promises of decentralization had been made and codified into law – a tendency caused partly because of the state's limited ability to undertake the reforms necessary for federal governance and partly because of its unwillingness to let go.

Nepal's experience with decentralisation over the past two decades can be divided in three phases. First, the 1990s was a period of experimentation and gradual acceptance of the principles of local self-governance. Contrary to some views, the political class that came to lead the state after the democratic opening of 1990 was not immediately and whole-heartedly committed to allowing local governance bodies – in Nepal's context, at the district, village and municipality levels. Such maximum autonomy would erode the powers of the central government. Nonetheless, the basic administrative units at the village level were renamed Village Development Committees (VDCs), and greater political freedom prevailed within these as compared to the time of the Panchayat regime, when VDCs were called village panchayats.

The ambivalence among the Nepali political class regarding decentralisation is reflected in the fact that the 1990 Constitution did not include any constitutional guarantee for local self-governance. During recent debates in the Constituent Assembly, this lack has been recognised as a major weakness of that Constitution. Although separate laws were created for the governance of districts, villages and municipalities, it was not until 1999 that a single law – the Local Self-Governance Act (LSGA) – was passed, incorporating aspects of these earlier laws and new ones that took into account more radical (for that time) demands for devolution of power.

The second phase began soon after the promulgation of the LSGA. It continued until 2006, when the civil conflict came to a formal end, with the parliamentary parties and the Maoists entering into an uneasy peace. But rather than ushering in a period of progressive implementation of the act and consolidation of local powers, the time became one of turmoil, leading to the outright breakdown of the architecture of self-governance. The Maoists, through their insurgency, took over certain administrative units while causing severe disruption in others.

Just three years after the LSGA was passed, in 2002, the entire elected leadership of local bodies across the country was dissolved because their elected tenure, gained during the local elections of 1998, had come to an end. Nepal was in no position at the time to hold fresh elections so, as a transitional measure, representatives from the centrally controlled civil service were initially granted full administrative authority. In 2004, a royal ordinance was passed, enabling the central government to 'carry out functions, duties and powers of members of the local bodies as may be necessary', which reversed the progressive gains towards local autonomy that had been made during the 1990s. Political representatives were nominated to local bodies through royal decree. Although then-King Gyanendra did hold elections to some local bodies in February 2006, these polls took place against the backdrop of countrywide opposition to his regime, as he had seized all executive powers a year earlier. None of the major parties participated, and only 20 percent of the electorate voted, thus compromising the elections' legitimacy.

Tiptoeing around the void
The royal regime was toppled just a few months later, and the parliamentary parties, in alliance with the Maoists, came to control state affairs. Thus began, in mid-2006, the third phase of Nepal's decentralisation process. Most of the attention of the political parties was focused – and continues to be focused – on the difficult negotiations of the post-conflict period. Nepal had changed dramatically in the previous decade; demands for self-governance and devolution of power had become so radical that they went beyond anything envisaged in the LSGA. The political class accepted these demands, and it was declared that Nepal would be federalised. The LSGA of 1999 thus lost its authority less than a decade after its promulgation.

To devise a federal framework of governance was, however, to be a painful and protracted task. In the interim, it was necessary to revive local government structures to make them functional – and there was no option but to take the LSGA as the basis for transitional local governance. Yet it was still impossible to hold local elections, as the country's entire energies for the first two years after the peace process were expended on holding the April 2008 elections to the Constituent Assembly. Subsequently, there were other intense disagreements in which the parties became embroiled.

For a period during 2008 and 2009, the parties did explicitly recognise the void that existed at the district, village and municipal levels. There was some talk of holding local elections, but everyone was still reeling from the effects of the conflict, and there was therefore no appetite or capacity for undertaking such a massive venture. In any case, the traditional parliamentary parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), were in no mood to enter into another political contest with the Maoists so soon after they had received a major drubbing in the April 2008 elections. The Maoists then floated the proposal that control of local bodies be divided among parties proportionally according to the results of that election, in which they had emerged as the strongest party. As this too would allow the Maoists, with 40 percent of the seats in the House, great control over local governments, the other parties prevaricated and ultimately rejected this proposal.

Nepal's local bodies thus are currently functioning according to the transitional arrangements laid down in the Interim Constitution of 2007. All executive authority granted to elected representatives by the 1999 LSGA are now invested in civil servants from the Ministry of Local Development (MoLD). At the district level, the local development officer (LDO) holds office in lieu of the District Development Committee (DDC) chairperson; at the municipality level, it is the executive officer of the municipality who holds office in lieu of the mayor; and at the village level it is the VDC secretary who holds power in lieu of the VDC chairperson. A 'mechanism', consisting of representatives of all parties that participated directly in the Constituent Assembly elections, has also been formed within every local body. Its task is formally limited to providing advice to the civil servant in charge.

There are variations across the country in the manner in which these arrangements have been translated into practice. But it can generally be said that the influence of the political parties is substantially larger than that which has been formally granted. The civil servant, sent by the government and in almost all cases a non-native of the area in which he serves (all LDOs, executive officers and VDC secretaries are almost invariably male), thus finds it difficult to deal with local complexities and withstand political pressure. He thus cedes the right to take decisions regarding the allocation of grants provided by the government, for instance, to the political-party mechanism.

In areas where a somewhat equitable balance of power exists between the parties, representatives of the political mechanism come to decisions through negotiations among themselves and in consensus. In areas where a particular party is dominant – the Maoists in Gorkha district, for instance – this party seeks to push through decisions unilaterally in an aggressive and sometimes violent manner. The local civil servant's task is often merely to mediate claims between parties, and to provide them with the required information. The one positive aspect of these arrangements is that it has served a 'peace-building' function. The involvement of the Maoists in these mechanisms has forced them to negotiate on specifics with members of other parties in a somewhat reasonable manner. They have come under pressure from other social forces as well, and have had to abandon, at least in areas where their strength is not overwhelmingly superior, the violent and aggressive methods that were so widespread during the first two years after the signing of the peace agreements.

Endless interim
In most other ways, the situation is bleak. The political-party mechanism consists of members simply nominated by the political parties; responsibility is divided among them. In any case, they have not been granted any formal rights or responsibilities beyond that of simply providing advice to bureaucrats. Further, not having been elected, their sense of accountability towards the population is low. Having to share power with other parties, they have no incentive to form and implement longer-term plans. Rather, the energy of each party is expended devising strategies to gain access to resources from the local bodies and spend them in a way that will bring the party direct political benefit. If a party wishes to build a road in an area where it has many supporters, for instance, another party will demand that a road be built in another area where the latter is influential.

The limited resources of the local bodies are thus fragmented and spent on small projects of use to small sections of the population, instead of ambitious ones that could have a major, encompassing impact. And, it should be noted, this is the situation that prevails in the better-governed local bodies. Among the more dysfunctional of DDCs, municipalities and VDCs, the chief task of the political mechanism has been to treat the resources provided by the state and collected through local revenue generation as loot to be distributed amongst themselves. The pretence that these funds are to be spent on the development of infrastructure exists only on paper.

The ability to hold political parties to account is almost non-existent. In Nepal, since the coming of democracy in 1990 it had been the case that parties in opposition would keep an eye on and check the misappropriation of resources by the party in power. Currently, however, the parties work in total connivance, and there is no external body that can oversee their activities. Civil society is weak and, in any case, polarised along partisan lines; neither can the central government do anything to control the parties. After all, according to regulations, if malfeasance occurs in local bodies it is the local civil servants who are to be held accountable. The MoLD, for instance, discovered major financial irregularities earlier this year in the south-central district of Bara, where, among other things, extraordinarily large sums had been distributed to party organisations. A central-level decision was taken to suspend the LDO, but he subsequently complained that he had acted according to the directions of the political parties, whose pressure it had been impossible for him to withstand.

Nevertheless, someone needed to be punished. As there is currently no rule or law with which to take action against representatives of the political-party mechanism, who serve formally only in an advisory capacity, it was the civil servant who got the rap.

Officials at the MoLD in Kathmandu, having received complaints from civil servants across the country, are deeply aware of this state of affairs. They have thus come up with some recommendations for the reform of the transitional arrangements to improve local governance. Their primary suggestion is for local elections to be held, so that there is once again firm political leadership in districts, municipalities and villages. There is recognition, however, that this is almost certainly not feasible at the moment. As an alternative, they have recommended that the political-party mechanisms be formally invested with executive power. In theory, this is meant to inculcate a sense of greater responsibility among the parties, and a sense that they will be held accountable for their decisions. Given the rampant impunity that party cadres at all levels enjoy from their patrons in Kathmandu, however, the implementation of this recommendation is unlikely to lead to much of a substantive change. At best, it can be expected that civil servants will not be unfairly punished.

Despite great promises of local empowerment and autonomy, the fate of local governments continues to be dependent on the political process in Kathmandu. They will begin to become functional only when the parties reach a resolution on the federal structure to be adopted, begin the slow process of establishing institutions in line with this agreement, and hold local elections. This will undoubtedly take years. In the interim, any effort can consist only of small-scale tinkering that will have a limited impact.

~ Aditya Adhikari is a journalist based in Kathmandu who frequently writes for the Kathmandu Post.

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