The Nepali Parliament is winding down its monsoon session amidst the most rowdy inter-party squabble the Lower House has ever seen, reminding one of the bedlam that overtook the Uttar Pradesh state legislature only a few months ago. The cause of the floor-fight, which left some furniture and a Danish-funded mike system as casualties, was a local self-government bill up for passage. No, the honourable members were not battling about the philosophical issues behind the landmark bill, which has the ability to make or break the system of governance nationwide. Their bickering was limited to the fact that one article allowed members of local-level councils to switch political parties after elections. This was against the prevailing interests of, particularly, the United Marxist-Leninists (UML) which feared that its splinter party, the recently formed Marxist-Leninists (ML), would stand to gain from the provision. (The ML is presently cohabiting with the Nepali Congress in government.)
Even though the governing coalition had the required majority to pass the bill, the main opposition uml was determined to do its utmost to block it; hence, the fracas. The larger issues emanating from the Local Self-Government Act, which was finally adopted, seemed to be far from the minds of the legislators.
There is no doubt that the Act is most significant, and not only in terms of its size -a hefty volume of 268 articles, the result of three years of work by experts and House committees. It was sent to the House after 33 meetings in committee where some of the articles were adopted through separate votes — quite unlike the consensus decisions that have been the rule.
The Act, which now only requires King Birendra´s automatic assent, is extremely ´trusting´, for want of a better word. If it is implemented in the spirit that it has been drafted, there is no doubt that it will bring about a social, administrative, political and economic turnaround nationwide as it liberally grants authority to district, municipal and village councils over an array of economic, legal and administrative matters. This devolution of powers is very welcome as far as it goes, but no one really believes that the centralised administrative structures of the country and those who are ominously termed the “power centres” will allow the Act to be applied in full.
And that is the danger, for partial application of the Act will result directly in the distortion of the polity. Till now, it has been national-level politics that have been affected by corruption and malfeasance, but the fear is that a half-hearted implementation of the Local Self-Government Act will spread the rot through the districts and towns, right down to the grassroots. The traditional balance of power would then be shaken loose, and there would be nothing better to replace it with.
Partial implementation of the Act would, in short, provide power without responsibility to locally elected executives and representatives all over the country. For example, local-level councils may now collect taxes and decide upon a dozen different types of conflicts. But then, there are no mechanisms to make the local authorities answerable for their action, the way there are with the civil service. In fact, the local authorities have been coddled to the extent that as long as the jail term is not of more than three years, they may not be removed from their seats or posts even if they have been tried and jailed for criminal offences! This provision was added to the bill in the later stages of its preparation, and the intention is clear.
Even more worrisome is the fact that the public will find it hard to obtain redress for overweening or illegal actions by local authorities. This is because redress procedures are not spelt out in the legislation. Waiting for five years to vote an erring official or council out of power is hardly an efficient answer.
The fear is all too real that the inter-party rivalries which have brought the national-level administration to a near standstill will now be transferred countrywide. One reason the parties fought so keenly for and against the bill at the monsoon sitting was that they see substantial power has now been transferred to local authorities. While this is of course the very philosophy behind decentralisation, the fear for the moment is that now party-based politicking will swamp the new system and make all political structures, and not just at the national level, unwieldy.
This indulgent Act of Parliament is by now a fait accompli. But because it will in all probability not be allowed to be applied in full, it bears careful watching in the days ahead. The provisions are clearly the result of an idealised and ´funded´ law-drafting process, which has failed to consider the realities of Nepali society and politics. Instead, a piece of legislation that would be ideal for, say, Nebraska (which was, in fact, one model considered by the drafters) has been crafted. There would have come a time, not far in the future, when Nepal would have been ready for the Act, but since Nepalis have now had it gifted before time, they will just have to be alert in using it to advantage.