The current debate on the kind of federalism the new constitution should incorporate doesn't take into account Nepal's experience with decentralised development in the 1990s. The devolution of political power to elected local councils was beginning to deliver services to the grassroots. While governance at the national level floundered, village and district councils proved accountability was the key.
This success was itself based on Nepal's tradition of community management of water and forests by local groups ? a system that has been historically undervalued by successive central governments. Modern governance structures choked these practices, and community groups were, and remain, largely forgotten.
Until now. The Nobel prize in economics awarded to Elinor Ostrom last week brought much-needed recognition to the exemplary work of communities. Ostrom's research demonstrates that goods like water, which can be fairly inexpensively rationed, may be better managed collectively within communities than if privatised. It echoes, indeed draws inspiration from, Nepal's own experience with community initiatives. And it validates grassroots democracy in the country and the region at a time when it has become fashionable to be cynical about it. Democracy isn't just fair, it's good economics.
Ostrom goes further, saying that the more democratic a community initiative is internally (the more of a say resource users have in the rules by which they are used) the more successful it is likely to be. The implications can be revolutionary: it means caste-obsessed villagers will have to stomach their reservations and cooperate with the lower castes to buy into proven community forestry or irrigation programs.
Nepal's 40-year experience with community forestry bears this out, having done much to restore canopy cover and address poverty and discrimination. It now accounts for 40 per cent of forestry activities in the country, and plans are afoot to ensure its benefits are spread more equitably. Community forestry also showed what a blunder the nationalisation of forests in the 1960s was, and how quickly villages bounced back once ownership was transferred to grassroots groups.
To be sure, not everything has gone smoothly. Bureaucrats who can score a tidy commission by privatising public resources are trying to assert control. And despite the social changes they've wrought, communities are still dominated by the local elite. The government will have to step in as regulator. In an email this week, Ostrom told us: "When democratic national regimes recognise the rights of local peoples to self-organise, their rights are usually better protected. Due, however, to the earlier academic and policy presumption that 'the' government needs to handle most problems related to common-pool resources, even democratic regimes have failed to recognise the rights to self-organise at a local or regional level."
But however we qualify these successes, it's hard to deny an important lesson they teach us about democracy. Democracy has paid off in community initiatives only because they've been imaginatively designed and the incentives worked out in ways that factor in human frailties and psychology.
And the lesson of the Nepal experience is that grassroots democracy isn't just theory, it works beautifully in practice.
Government matters, by CK Lal - FROM ISSUE #473 (23 OCT 2009 - 29 OCT 2009)