Federal express

Kathmandu never really devolved power to provinces to give federalism a chance to work

All seven chief ministers and the number of seats won by the top four parties in the provincial assemblies in the 2022 elections.

Khim Lal Devkota is Nepal’s foremost expert on local government, and is the person journalists and even politicians turn to find out why it is so difficult to decentralise decision-making away from Kathmandu. 

He was summoned by the seven chief ministers of all provinces when they gathered in Hetauda last week to show them a way out.

“I told chief ministers that they need to come to Kathmandu and do a sit-in protest in front of Singha Darbar, nothing less will work,” recalls Devkota.

The Chief Ministers from all seven provinces have put up a united front against the centre with a list of demands that would devolve constitutionally guaranteed power to them. 

Among their demands is the passage of laws on autonomy, the authority over the police to be handed over, transfer of property currently used by the provincial governments, cooperation in law-making, use of natural resources including the forests, revenue collection and federal grants. They are demanding 50% of the share of national revenue to provinces and local governments, up from the existing 30%.

Read : The F word, Editorial

“Sub-national governments have been constitutionally empowered but only on paper,” says Devkota, adding that the provinces do not have enough civil service staff, which are still mobilised by the centre making them accountable only to the federal government.

The three levels of the government all have their roles clearly defined in the Constitution. The federal government is responsible for defence, foreign policy, and guarding the national border, as well as setting minimum standards for education and health care.

The provinces are supposed to create new job opportunities, develop infrastructure and municipalities are tasked with grassroots service delivery. 

But Kathmandu is still holding on to most of those powers and resources, not allowing provinces and local governments to actually function as per their mandate, says outgoing National Assembly member and former foreign minister from the UML Bimala Rai Paudyal.

“They do not have laws, they do not have enough civil service staff which means people cannot even access the little services they previously could. The centre is more in control than ever before, directing every move,” she adds.

Read also: Un-centralising the federal structure, Chandra Kishore

One of the main reasons for public frustration with federalism is the increased cost of maintaining provincial assemblies, ministers, line agencies in all seven provinces.

“Nepalis had thought federalism meant better service delivery, direct access to leaders they elected, but what they see instead is more and more ministers, their security guards and fancy cars, houses, it is natural that they are frustrated,” Rai Paudyal adds.

This means that those who were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, like Dalits and Madhesis in the Tarai are still where they were, and have felt no difference in their lives.

The public disenchantment is being exploited by parties like the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) which has conflated an anti-federalism platform with a call for a restoration of the Hindu kingdom — even though it is the fourth largest party in provincial assemblies.

Even the technocratic Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) has been ambivalent on federalism. It did not put up candidates in the 2022 provincial elections, but says that is because as a new party they were not ready but will contest the next provincial elections. 

Read also: How decentralised is federalism? Kiran Nepal

“Our line is very clear, we are for devolution of power,” explains Sumana Shrestha, a Member of Parliament who is with the RSP. “If you just look at the education bill, we are the only political party explicitly asking for teachers’ management at the local levels.”

She adds: “Politicians have depicted federalism as cure-all for everything but they are not living up to their own words as shown by the Education bill. There may have been improvements, yes such as the decline in maternal deaths but are they really sustainable given that such endevours have had quite a bit of support from development partners? They have abused both the system and power, they are not the people’s representatives.”

Many say the fault lies not in the system of governance but in the players at the very top of the game and the fact that they haven’t allowed federalism to really work. It is too early to judge the effectiveness of a system that has not been allowed to fully function, experts add. 

Federalism has changed some things for the better: Nepal now has over 33% women MPs, higher than that of the US, India, China and most European countries, and 60% of civil servants are deployed at sub-national levels. Local governments that were previously not even on the radar of the centre now get budget allocations.

“Nepal has had seven constitutions, we can’t keep changing our constitution every time there is an issue with governance. We can reform it, and force leaders to be responsible, and accountable,” says Devkota.

He adds: “Besides it is not the system that people are frustrated with so much as with the same old, tried, tested career politicians.”

Read also: Feudal federalism, editorial

Provinces have become a seven-way mirror of national politics, and a ruling coalition of parties with diametrically opposing ideologies.

The row over naming Kosi Province is a case in point with Prime Minister Dahal of the Maoist-Centre playing politics by supporting the Kirat nomenclature even though his coalition partners do not.

Madhes Province, which is where the demand for federalism first emerged after the end of the conflict, there is support for federalism but with a growing anti-secular movement influenced by faith-based pre-election politics in India. This has led to increased communal tension in the Tarai between groups which had coexisted peacefully in the past. 

Back in Kathmandu, the National Coordination Council chaired by the prime minister with members from each province has met only twice in the eight years since the Constitution was promulgated eight years ago.

Says Bimala Rai Paudyal: “At the very least the federal government could muster the courage to hold these meetings with the provincial heads to sort out their grievances.”

Read also: Federalism, rule of law and the judiciary, George Varughese and Iain Payne

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

  • Most read