Bulldozing democracy

During most of the decade after the conflict ended in 2006, Nepal was ruled by a three-party cartel which took turns running the country. It was euphemistically called the High-Level Political Mechanism, and its top-down structure ensured that the triad controlled all decision-making at the national, zonal, district, village and even ward level. 

The composition and relative strength of each party in the Mechanism reflected the results of the CA elections of 2008 and 2013, and also depended on which coalition was in power in Kathmandu at the time. Nepal was a three-party dictatorship, and the rulers divided up the spoils.

The euphoria of peace soon evaporated, and with it the dream of the country reaping a development dividend. This perpetuated a leadership accountable to none, which squandered the opportunity provided by the peace process.  

With added distractions like the Madhes Movement, the earthquake and the Indian Blockade, the leaders had easy excuses about not focusing on the urgent problems of the Nepali people. Whatever progress was made in the reduction of poverty in that period was not due to any government action to create jobs, but because of remittances from hard-working Nepalis abroad

Read also: From nowhere to nowhereBasanta Pratap Singh in Bajhang

The lingering legacy of that lost decade was the sudden unleashing of ‘development’ on the land. The violence of the war was replaced by ‘bulldozer terrorism’. Mountains were ravaged by heavy earthmovers, carving out roads where no roads were needed, building tracks that led from nowhere to nowhere. Meanwhile, contracts for existing bridges and highways that needed urgent maintenance or upgrading were allowed to languish because of collusion between contractors and their political protectors.

The futile road-building was so rampant excavators were sometimes at work opening parallel tracks on the same slopes, to and from the same two villages. This absurdity was the result of a pandemic of nationwide corruption for which the almighty Mechanism was responsible, and could not be held to account. 

Local officials were on the take from contractors and renters of heavy equipment to sanction pointless and wasteful road-building. And because it was so pervasive, media exposes of the practice, while they raised eyebrows, did not lead to any action. Impunity emboldened the kleptocracy, and the contagion spread.

The Decade of Destruction left mountains scarred by landslides, rivers ravaged by sand and boulder mining, forests denuded by encroachment and illegal logging. Meanwhile, essential infrastructure like arterial highways and bridges languished, national pride projects were never completed because of greedy plutocrats.

Despite a constant barrage of exposes in the media and public outrage, Nepalis pinned their hopes on long-awaited elections. For the first time in 20 years last year we elected mayors and village council heads hoping that local elections would usher in a new era of accountability and uprightness in public life. Finally, we would have elected local governments responsive to the real needs of the people. The 70-85% voter turnout proved that despite past corruption, there was optimism and confidence that devolution of power to local governments would improve delivery. 

It has now been more than a year since those elections. Aside from a few notable exceptions, we have seen local governments have behaved in much the same irresponsible and non-transparent manner as before. In some cases, honest and motivated leaders have been strait-jacketed by the power elite in Kathmandu refusing to let go purse-strings. Nepal is actually more centralised than ever before.

In many cities, towns and villages, newly-elected leaders have been busy feathering their own nests: self-sanctioning allowances and facilities, buying SUVs, requisitioning buildings, erecting useless gates and statues. 

Worse, a recent investigation in this paper showed that a third of the elected mayors and village heads were contractors — the same ones who had been bulldozing the mountains.

Contractors found it to be a much sounder business  proposition to invest money in getting themselves elected, rather than bribe officials to get road contracts. Instead of removing the malignant development of the past 11 years, elections made municipalities even less accountable.

An investigative report by Basanta Pratap Singh from Bajhang in this edition shows how one district has been devastated by rampant and random roadbuilding sanctioned by kickback-driven planning. Farmers have lost crops and terraces to landslides and rockfalls from poorly-designed roads. Rivers are in danger of being blocked, irrigation channels have been destroyed, water supply systems have gone dry. Haphazard feeder roads have triggered landslides that have blocked important inter-district highways. In Kathmandu, the federal budget set aside Rs6 billion for a Chure Highway we don’t need because it duplicates other east-west roads. 

This government came to power promising stability and prosperity. It has forgotten an important lesson that in a democracy legitimacy comes not just from winning a two-thirds majority in parliament, but in performance that fulfil promises.

  • Most read