Local government by the people, for the people, of the people

Illustration: SWORUP NHASIJU

In the five years since transitioning into the federal system, Nepal’s local governments have garnered much more trust among voters than the country’s provincial and federal governments.

The 2017 local elections were the first in two decades, so elected representatives had a lot of catching up to do, and large gaps to fill. Some performed better than others, mostly rural municipalities and wards.

A 2021 survey by the Sharecast Initiative Nepal confirmed that half the respondents nationwide were satisfied with the performance of their grassroots leaders. In comparison, only a third of the respondents said they were happy with provincial and federal governments.

A similar poll by the Asia Foundation and Kathmandu University in 2020 was even more revealing: almost 70% of respondents were satisfied with local governments. More than 85% of them said they trusted their local representatives.

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Indeed, Nepal’s local bodies and elected officials have consistently ranked above average in performance evaluations and institutional self-assessments in the last five years. Political insiders also agree that local levels have done a better job at governance than their federal and provincial counterparts.

“The work and conduct of leadership at our federal level in these five years does not inspire confidence at all,” says former finance secretary Rameshore Khanal. “However, Nepal’s future development will be very much driven by the local governments.”

Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration Gopi Krishna Khanal agrees, adding that Nepal has successfully adapted to the federal system in a relatively short period in large part due to elected grassroots leaders.

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“Local governments have ensured that our public schools and health posts no longer have leaking roofs,'' he says, “roads and infrastructure have improved, markets have been decentralised from district headquarters to reach the hinterland.”

Local governments were more effective in responding to the impact of the pandemic, often leading from the front to set up tracing, testing, quarantine and isolation centres, tightening security measures, and distributing relief materials— with some elected officials personally stepping up to transport the sick to hospitals.

"While our unstable federal government was embroiled in controversy and provincial governments struggled to adjust, local governments that started from scratch have given Nepalis a sense of how governments should function,” says self-governance expert Shyam Krishna Bhurtel.

Former prime minister K P Oli, whose opposition UML party has dominated local governments in the past two elections, publicly thanked local leaders in Parliament recently, saying: "The role of locally elected representatives in times of crisis has never been clearer than it is now, as these officials worked tirelessly to prevent the spread of the virus and to provide relief to families in their communities. ”

While the federal government bungled, and was embroiled in allegations of corruption in the import of testing kits and could not ensure adequate oxygen supply to hospitals, local governments were quick off the mark and saved countless lives.

Indeed, the report of the Auditor General shows that much of the relief provided to those affected by poverty, unemployment as well as victims of natural disasters have come from Nepal’s local governments.

Elected mayors and ward council members for the past five years have been reaching their constituents with improved access to health care, providing citizenship certificates and other essential documents, government allowances, agricultural resources and information, and many other services previously limited to bureaucrats at district headquarters.

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“Access to essential government services at the community level have ensured that Nepalis can reach out to elected officials about any problems,” says Kavita Dhungana, deputy chief of Nuwakot’s Belkotgadi Municipality.

Nepal’s local governments have also been granted the power to make and implement acts, directives, and legal procedures within their jurisdiction under the Local Government Operation Act 2018.

Rajendra Prasad Pyakurel, executive director of the National Federation of Village Municipalities of Nepal, says that while citizens have valid criticisms regarding local governments, that censure does not extend to the access to and delivery of essential services.

Sanju Kumari Chaudhary, deputy chief of Banke’s Kohalpur municipality, agrees. "Officials are aware that inefficient work equals a lost vote,” she says. “Such concern about their political future is enough to ensure that services are provided promptly and competently.”

Local institutions have also made it easy for Nepalis to access and exercise their judicial rights. Constitutionally mandated three-member Judicial Committees headed by the Deputy Chiefs of local governments take complaints regarding domestic, community, agricultural, and other local infrastructural disputes, facilitating hearings and reconciliation — often mitigating problems and administering justice before issues become more serious and have to be taken to court.

“The Judicial Committees have taken a lot of pressure off Nepal’s district courts,” says Kavita Dhungana, deputy chief of the Belkotgadi municipality, and vice-chairperson of the Nepal Municipal Association.

Local-level institutional self-assessments have consistently identified judicial performance as one of the most effective functions of local government. Indeed, judicial committees have been key to settling land and agricultural disputes in districts from Mahottari to Kanchanpur. In Banke, reconciliation centres have been set up in every ward to facilitate solutions to minor disputes.

The 2021 Sharecast survey identified three main tasks of the government prioritised by respondents: job creation, poverty alleviation and road construction. Of the three, road connectivity has also been the priority for many of Nepal’s local governments, as evidenced by their budget allocation.

Morang’s Kanepokhari Municipality, where local politicians campaigned on a platform of new road infrastructure in 2017 has upgraded 118 km of roads and asphalted 29 km. Similarly, Jhapa’s Kankai and Syangja’s Waling municipalities have also blacktopped most of their roads.

In 2020, Nepal’s local governments expended 44% of their budgets on social development, 27% on infrastructure, and 17% on administrative functions. Collectively they spent 64% of the Rs2.44 billion budget allocated to them.

Their performance shows that drinking water services, electricity, agriculture and irrigation, education and health care are priority areas. Many local governments have invested in fire engines and ambulances. They have made considerable progress in clean energy.

Dang’s Ghorahi Sub-metropolitan City has begun producing bio-gas, with plans to deliver it to households through a pipeline. Palpa’s Nisdi village has facilitated wind-powered electricity to 150 households, while 300 households in Surkhet’s Chowkune village have electricity from solar arrays.

Elected leaders in Rawaveshi village of Khotang have provided water supply to 256 households, while in Batteswor village of Dhanusha 14 modern wells have been drilled to provide irrigation water.

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Many local governments have also taken strides in socio-cultural preservation and development. Humla’s Namkha Municipality introduced grammar textbooks to preserve its Homlu Bhote-Lama language spoken by the local community. Ilam’s Rong municipality has added Lepcha curriculum in its primary schools, while Ramnagar village in Sarlahi developed a local syllabus for the preservation of the endangered Bajji language.

Rautahat’s Durga Bhagwati Municipality provides housing to under-served Dom families, while the Manahari Municipality of Makwanpur built homes for Bote families.

Many local governments have prioritised economic development and income generation, facilitating agriculture and small businesses across communities. In Dhankuta Municipality, known as Nepal’s ‘Avocado Capital’, farmers have been given subsidies. Gulmi's Isma village has been providing cash incentives to dairy and meat farmers to increase production, while villagers in Gulmi’s Dhurkot get support for bringing  barren land under cultivation.

Local governments have also been working on social awareness and reform. In Tatopani village of Jumla, the government launched a campaign to mobilise mothers’ groups and children’s clubs to remove chhaupadi cowsheds where women are banished during menstruation. Budhinanda municipality of Bajura enacted a policy that deprives houses with such menstrual sheds of government facilities.

Such successes of local governments are in large part due to the new Constitution’s affirmative action policies, which have ensured that communities are represented by a diverse variety of voices and experiences, facilitating inclusion and leadership development.

Of the 35,041 elected officials in the 2017 local elections, 40% were women, and 93% of the elected women became deputy chiefs of their local governments. As many as 29 elected officials across the country belong to the Dalit community. Self-governance expert Bhurtel believes that the very women and Dalits who were elected but unable to be appointed Chiefs now have the chance in upcoming elections now to contest for leadership positions.

“Previously elected local representatives from underserved and minority communities have been empowered enough by their experience to run for top leadership this time around,” says Bhurtel.

The Centre Still Holds

For all of its achievements, the conduct of Nepal’s local government has not been without flaws. Municipalities and wards, in particular, have been pulled up for budget discrepancies.

The 58th report of the Office of the Auditor General showed that Rs40.83 billion out of the Rs814 billion allocated to the local government was unaccounted for during the 2020 fiscal year, with metropolises accounting for a larger part of the mismanagement.

At some level, this has been attributed to corruption at the local levels, but there is also insufficient training in proper financial management of budgets.

“Discrepancies might have occurred due to improper book-keeping, and a lack of accounting knowledge on the part of local officials,” says Rameshore Khanal. “This will improve local governments take the steps to become aware of accounting practices.”

Corruption is indeed rife at all three levels of government, be it irregularities in job recruitment, commission for government services, favouritism and nepotism, as well as bribery to circumvent government-mandated policies.

Nearly 30% of complaints lodged at the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) since municipal elections in 2017 pertain to local institutions and officials. However, experts say this does not mean that local bodies are more or less corrupt than other government bodies, since complaints lodged at the CIAA are not limited to corruption.

Dhulikhel mayor and Nepal Municipal Association chair Ashok Banju disagrees that local governments are more corruption-ridden, citing transparency in the local political mechanism.

“Details of our spending and decision-making processes are subject to public knowledge,” says Banju. “This has strengthened the local democracy.”

Balananda Poudel, chair of the National Natural Resources and Finance Commission, agrees that local leaders are closer to the people, and this forces them to be more accountable.

He adds, “Citizens find it difficult to find out what national or provincial leaders are up to. But across local communities, they have close access to their local representatives to hold them responsible for any act of political and personal extravagance.”

More than two-thirds of the total spending of the local governments is facilitated by financial transfers from provincial and federal levels. In the 2021 fiscal year, Rs259 billion out of Rs391 billion spent by the local governments came through grants provided by the provincial and federal government, which local governments were generating only a small proportion of internal revenue.

National Assembly member Khim Lal Devkota says that although there are plenty of opportunities for Nepal’s local governments to earn more revenue through taxes, they have not been able to make use of them. However, there are some municipalities like Chandranagar of Sarlahi district, which have contracted 21 acres of land for fish farming, earning up to Rs16.5 million annually in tax revenue.

The general consensus is that the performance of Nepal’s local governments has exceeded expectations, considering the confusion and limited guidelines for them to operate under the new federal system. In fact, most local leaders did not even have offices and buildings to work out of five years ago.

Indeed, when local governments were elected in 2017, there were no specific legal mechanism representatives could look to for guidance, until the Local Government Operation Act 2018 was ratified a year later, which meant that they were nomads for one year.

Experts blame the inability of Nepal’s local governments to function at maximum capacity to a lack of cooperation and support on the part of the federal government in Kathmandu. The local level has not been able to exercise its right to access funds due to the absence of legislation.

A lack of guidance in staff management has meant that about 200 local institutions have been forced to rely on acting administrative heads who might not have the proper experience and human resources. Most ward offices are still without secretaries and are short-staffed.

All local governments are required to have an auditor, secretary, overseer, engineer, agriculture and livestock manpower, and an environmental expert. However, local leaders say much of the development work in their constituencies have been put on hold because of the lack of these personnel. This is compounded by the absence of an integrated data collection system on local level performance and expenditure to track the progress.

Dhulikhel Mayor Ashok Banju adds that local governments face difficulties because the federal government has still not been able to do away with the centralised political mechanism, setting agendas that have led to duplication of development programs at the local level.

The absence of coordination and the lack of implementation of a three-tiered structure that would give local governments autonomy have seriously affected the efficiency of the local level, from minor administrative work to budget implementation, agrees Khim Lal Devkota.

Indeed, even though there are village and municipal councils with authority, they have not been able to legislate and enforce their jurisdictions.

"Local governments have not been able to exercise its intervening power,” says Rajendra Pyakurel, executive director of the National Federation of Rural Municipalities. “We should not be waiting for the go-ahead from any other authority because we are the authority.”

Another major weakness of Nepal’s local governments is the lack of communication with the people they serve. Works are undertaken largely without social mobilisation, or any input from the local civil society.

Local government expert Bhurtel acknowledges the lack of cooperation with local and rural organisations and partnerships with community organisations in planning, implementation and decision-making processes.

"The local government is not there to serve only those who voted for the representatives,” says Bhurtel. “Governance should not cater to the majority, but be open to participation from all citizens.”

As the country approaches its second local government elections on 13 May, experts stress the need for capable and committed elected leadership across Nepal’s local communities. But filling leadership positions alone will not be enough.

“Existing vacancies at local levels need to be filled, and resources need to be increased on par with the responsibilities of the local level,” says Gopi Krishna Khanal, joint secretary at the Ministry of Federal Affairs. “The power of the local government cannot be reduced. The more grassroots our government becomes, the stronger democracy and system of governance will be.”

Deputy Chairman of Madhes Planning Commission Bhogendra Jha also sees the need to change the way Nepalis look at positions of power.

Says Jha: “At present, personal gain, not public welfare, prevails at all levels of government. Only when we change that thought-process will we be able to deliver on our promises of good governance.”

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