Feudalism to Federalism

Illustration: RABINDRA

Over the past 30 years since the first People’s Movement, we have seen that things start moving in Nepal when local governments are empowered. Devolution to village and district development councils in the 1990s forced local leaders to be accountable, especially in service delivery.

In fact, everything that has worked well in Nepal till now has the word ‘community’ in it: community radio, community forests, community women’s groups, community-managed schools and hospitals, community irrigation systems.

Unfortunately, political intrigue, the Maoist conflict and a return to an authoritarian monarchy meant that there were no local government elections for 20 years till 2017. Their five year tenure is now coming to an end, and the second local elections under the federal system are being held on 13 May in 460 rural municipalities, 260 municipalities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities and six metropolitan cities. Candidates are already on the campaign trail, and for many this is a chance to prove through performance that they deserve a second term.

These new mayors and ward chairs were guinea pigs. They not only had to make up for lost time but also deal with a complex maze of new overlapping regulations and jurisdictions. There was confusion galore on budget, revenue, civil service appointments.

Despite having swept the 2017 elections, bitter political strife within the ruling Nepal Communist Party led to its fragmentation into the UML, Maoist Centre and Unified Socialists last year. The stranglehold of political parties over the federal structure also meant that corruption and infighting got decentralised as well.

All this gave the ‘F’ word such a bad name that the alternative Bibeksheel Sajha Party in its manifesto even calls for scrapping federalism altogether. Much of this negative public perception is fed by cynical Kathmandu-centric analysts and commentators.

The reality is different. An evaluation by the National Natural Resource and Fiscal Commission (NNRFC) has given nearly all 753 municipalities above pass marks. In fact, the top three that scored more than 75 out of 100 points in the survey are all rural municipalities. Public opinion polls have shown that most respondents are happy with the functioning of local governments, especially in rural areas.

Read also: Nepal's local election gives power back to people, Rabin Giri

To be sure, many municipalities have been captured by corrupt contractors who got themselves elected in 2017. They rented out their own excavators to their municipalities, and awarded themselves road contracts.

This does not mean, however, that we should throw out the federalism baby with the bathwater.

Kathmandu’s Ward 14 is a model for how elected officials at the sub-municipal level should perform. Ward chair Sobha Sapkota has transformed her constituency by coordinating between various federal ministries, central-level agencies and Kathmandu Metropolitan City to sort out traffic, upgrade roads, and ensure water distribution.

Sapkota had noticed how women had to wait hours for water every morning and made improving supply a priority. She has proven why it is important to have women heading local governments, and brings a whole new perspective to service delivery.

In Bhaktapur, Mayor Sunil Prajapati set an example for other municipalities about how to serve a city’s citizens. He set a firm priority on quality education from pre-school to university, made basic health care affordable and door-to-door saving many lives during the pandemic. He rejected a €10 million German grant for post earthquake reconstruction of monuments because of too many strings attached, and restored 118 temples with local resources.

“Despite confusion and duplication we have seen that federalism has allowed true devolution of governance and service delivery,” says Balananda Poudel, Chair of the NNRFC. “In 2017, local governments had to start from zero and learnt as they went along.”

The past five years have also thrown up design defects in the decentralisation project. Instead of devolution some places have directed democracy with faux-federalism. It is not just Singha Darbar in Kathmandu that sets budgets and earmarked outlays for provincial and municipal governments, but a handful of men in the headquarters of political parties. These vestiges of feudalism co-exist with federalism.

Although we say there are three levels of government in the current system, there is actually a fourth: the district administration. Staffed by centrally-appointed bureaucrats, it is Kathmandu’s ears and eyes on the ground. It controls vital services like citizenship and passport issuance, and other registrations – functions that can easily be done by a department of municipalities or provinces.

District demarcations, district administrations and CDOs are obsolete and redundant. They do not align with the values of devolution and could be done away with to free us of the centralised mindset of the past.

Read also: Power to the periphery, Sonia Awale