Nepalis are paying a heavy price for the absence of local elections
As Bhim Neupane walked up the dusty trail to the village of Katunje he greeted women carryingÂ oversized loads of fodder grass, asking how the children were doing in school. He stopped at theÂ tea shop, and was welcomed warmly with smiles and namastes. He stopped to speak to farmers andÂ asked about their water buffaloes, whose individual names he seemed to know by heart.
That was in 2000, and Bhim Neupane had been re-elected chairman of Kushadevi VDC. He told meÂ then: âPeople are now aware, they are able to plan and work together to improve their livingÂ standards.â
Fifteen years later, I was walking again with Bhim Neupane along the same path, which is now aÂ motorable road. VDCs were dissolved by Sher Bahadur Deuba government in 2002, local bodiesÂ across Nepal have had no elected councils since. Even so, Neupane is approached by families whoÂ want citizenship papers certified, and he is still asking them about their water buffaloes.
After visiting Kavre, Dang, and Rupendehi in 2000 to meet elected village leaders like Neupane, itÂ was clear grassroots democracy was finally delivering development. Cynics who said democracy wasÂ a luxury for a poor and illiterate country like Nepal could not have been more wrong.
To be sure, national level politics was a mess back then, as it is now. The Maoists were impatientÂ for regime change, their bloody insurgency had entered its fourth year. Local elected officials wereÂ their first targets, and by the end of the conflict three-fourths of the 3,900 VDCs across Nepal hadÂ been destroyed. Kushadeviâs VDC block which also housed a health post and training centre wasÂ bombed twice, and the Maoists killed charismatic and respected local leaders like Krishna SapkotaÂ in 2002. Sapkota was tortured and decapitated, his head displayed in the village square to terroriseÂ others. Neupane stayed in Kushadevi through it all.
Today, there is little sign that there was ever a war here. The VDC has been rebuilt, Kushadevi hasÂ prospered because of proximity to Kathmandu. Bhim Neupane surveys his scenic village from aÂ hilltop, and says: âThis is what local democracy can do, we made this happen.â
Indeed, it was during his two five-year tenures as VDC chairman that Neupane upgradedÂ government schools, added a 10+2 campus, rehabilitated health posts, built 50 km of roads thatÂ today provide access to markets for Kushadeviâs dairy and vegetable farmers. He brought drinkingÂ water to far-flung wards, irrigation for off-season vegetables, and Kushadevi was lit up at night
with microhydro power.
The VDC also stood guarantee for insurance so farmers were not ruined if the costly animals died.Â âBuying a buffalo was a gamble, but insurance reduced the risk and it lifted many farmers here outÂ of poverty,â Neupane recalls.
Across Nepal, VDCs have been run by an unelected club of the three main parties and aÂ government-appointed secretary. But people still turn to charismatic chairmen like Neupane forÂ leadership and advice. Villagers in Kushadevi have given up on the government, and now take theirÂ own initiative when something needs to be done.
âNothing has been built here in the last 12 years,â says Laxman Humagain, a Kushadevi native.Â Kathmandu-based quarry tycoons have bought off entire mountainsides to feed the capitalâsÂ construction boom. Families have been displaced, springs have gone dry as excavators claw at theÂ slope and tipper trucks groan through clouds of dust. Neupane says the quarries would be strictlyÂ regulated if there was an elected village council.
Neupane gazes out to the east at folds of mountains in fading shades of blue, and says wistfully:Â âWe were elected then, we were accountable to the people, and there was a sense of collectiveÂ destiny. Without elections there is no accountability, and people have no motivation to workÂ together.â
Kunda Dixit in Kavre