29 Apr - 5 May 2016 #806

THINK NATIONALLY, ACT LOCALLY

Local elections would restore grassroots accountability, improve earthquake relief and kick-start development, but there is no political will for it

Nepal has not held local government elections since 1997. It has been a decade-and-a-half since the last elected district, village and municipality councils were dissolved. The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal has been run by unelected bureaucrats at the grassroots for the past 15 years.

In the early 1990s, Nepal was beginning to see the first signs of how local democracy could better deliver services in this rugged and predominantly-rural country. Backed by the Decentralisation and Self-Governance Act, local bodies were – for the first time in Nepal’s history -- forced to be accountable, because they were elected.

Development took off, with remarkable improvements in rural health care, school enrolment, community forestry, village-managed irrigation, and credit and savings schemes. It was largely due to decentralised decision-making that Nepal saw dramatic improvements in female literacy, which in turn sharply reduced both infant and maternal mortality rates. The momentum of the changes that swept rural Nepal is still being felt today in health and education.   

The Maoist conflict was the ruse Nepali Congress prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba used to cancel local elections in 2002, when in fact he feared that the UML would once more dominate village and district councils. What he did not anticipate -- or could not have cared less about -- was that the Maoists would use the vacuum at the local level to spread their influence, which is exactly what happened. The rebels used terror tactics, threatening elected local councilors and killing those who refused to toe the line, they bombed most of the 4,000 VDC and 75 DDC buildings. 

After the conflict ended, the presence of elected officials at the grassroots would have streamlined compensation for victims and their families. Local accountability would have also ensured more timely and efficient delivery of relief after last year’s earthquake. In the year after the earthquake we have seen CDOs and LDOs in many of the 14 districts doing a commendable job with emergency response, but in the presence of elected local councils they would have performed even more effectively distributing reconstruction grants, rebuilding schools and repairing infrastructure.  

National-level politicians are too busy bickering for power, or arguing about the new constitution, to pay attention to local elections. They spout the ‘federalism’ mantra, but they stopped practicing decentralisation long ago. Federalism is nothing more than self-governance and autonomy for local units of government, but Kathmandu today is more centralised than ever. Bureaucrats sent by Singha Darbar decide where to spend earthquake money or the development budget, even as politicians argue endlessly about the form of federalism and the boundaries of proposed provinces in the Tarai.

This young democratic republic is dysfunctional because of the lack of its basic tenets: periodic local elections, the rule of the majority and a vibrant opposition at the grassroots level.

Currently, a junior civil servant with no ties to a village or district disburses billions of rupees of the village or municipality budget like a mayor, and the local people have virtually no say over where it is spent. We are obsessed with slogans of federalism, but have forgotten the true spirit of decentralisation.

The only way to kick-start development and promote grassroots accountability is to hold local elections. But none of the major political parties could be bothered. The UML is the only one that has officially announced that it wants local polls, because of its strong grassroots support base. The UML’s coalition partner, RPP-N, did not win a single seat under direct elections in the last two CA elections, but its Chair Kamal Thapa, is demanding local elections only because he is also the local development minister. The NC is paying lip service, but is not a very keen proponent.

Those openly against local elections are the Maoists even though they promised polls in their 2013 election manifesto. Madhesi parties are understandably opposed to local elections saying local councils must be elected only after a final decision on the federal demarcation of Tarai districts.  

However, it would be fair to say that none of the parties – not even the NC or the UML – is in any particular hurry to have local elections, because they benefit so much from the absence of grassroots accountability. Village and district councils are dominated by so-called ‘all-party mechanisms’ with representatives of all political parties in proportion to their parliamentary strength. VDC and DDC secretaries listen to these unelected local leaders, not to people’s representatives, when it comes to disbursement of budgeted resources. The government declared all-party mechanisms illegal a few years ago, but they still rule the roost.

The Supreme Court has twice ruled that local elections should be held. Finalising the boundaries of federal provinces could take years, and it would be unwise to wait so long for local elections. Under Article 303 of the new constitution, which deals with the political system of transition, there is no obstacle to holding local body elections. In Nepal, it has been a clear-cut case of where there is no political will, there is no way.

Read also:

The roots of democracy, Editorial

Vacuum in the villages, Kunda Dixit

All politics is local, Ashutosh Tiwari

A decade of democratic deficit, Anurag Acharya

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