What if the elected local governments fail to carry out the big tasks assigned to them by the constitution?
There is excitement in the air, right across the country, about May 14 election. There is a good reason for this pre-election euphoria. All efforts to derail local election seem to be failing. With official backing from international community and what seems like a silent ‘go ahead’ signal from India, even the forces that once vowed to foil the election at any cost have started to carefully choose words while making anti-election remarks. The most important actor to generate hope has been Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav. When I spoke to him few days back his confidence enthralled me. “Nothing can stop May 14 vote,” he said, “elections will happen, come hell or high water.”
Election atmosphere is building in such a way and people have gone so far with it that any decision to defer it, or any visible or invisible maneuvering by any elements (domestic or foreign) to postpone it, is going to be met with strong backlash. The rest of the country is not going to let certain leaders of Madheshi Morcha deprive them of their right to vote.
Needless to say, when 14,054,482 voters elect 36,000 representatives for 744 local governments on May 14 and when these units start functioning, Nepal will not be the same. It will solve half of our political problems. But what if the local governments fail to carry out the tasks assigned to them by the constitution? So far we have only concentrated on electoral prospects of political parties. We have not considered the consequences of political parties, or their representatives, failing to govern local entities.
To be sure, election can change landscape of local development. The constitution has given such sweeping powers to local level that it can function as an autonomous government. It can frame laws and policies on as vital issues like health and education for the local level. It will be fully autonomous in managing, operating and recruiting human resources for providing services on areas ranging from security (municipal and village police), cooperatives, basic and secondary education, health, local infrastructure, preservation and development of local language and culture, taxation, and so many other administrative, judicial and legislative functions. If you read the list of powers given to local government by the constitution (read Schedule 8), you will not only be taken by awe but also doubt whether the local governments will be able to perform the mammoth job.
So a Tamang dominated village/ municipality of, say Sindhupalchowk, can take a decision to formulate curriculum and impart education in Tamang language. Urban/rural municipality in Janakpur can do so in Maithili or Bhojpuri.
Mayor and village chief will be as powerful as a minister. A good leader can transform development landscape as well as addressing grievances related to identity and language. Imagine the wonders if a certain elected village chief comes up with credible plans to rejuvenate rural agriculture. This will not only revitalize agriculture in the hills where more than half of fertile lands remain barren but also encourage the youth to stay back and engage in farming. When a government of one local entity starts competing with others in service delivery and overall governance, it will spur all of them to excel.
But this will happen only if local government falls into the right hands.
A wrong candidate can mess up everything. Suppose that a village/municipal chief, instead of improving public health and education, which are on the verge of collapse, instead decides to allow private sector to do business in health and education. This will make these services more unaffordable for commoners. Or he may misuse the funds allocated for local government. Locals will have to bear with him for five years.
A good leader, on the other hand, can also spoil ambition of self-serving politicians. Madheshi leaders’ demand to put local levels under provinces should be seen in this light. In Nepal’s dirty politics leaders thrive and stay relevant only so long as they can thwart the emergence of innovative leadership.
Decentralized local governance system is a characteristic of Nepali politics. Historical records show Nepal practiced decentralized system of government as far back as Kirat rule. Decentralized governance became official when in 1930 Bhim Shamsher introduced ‘Panchayat law.’ In 1960, King Mahendra revived village panchayat, what was then promised to the people as system of “government by villagers, for villagers, of villagers.” In principle, village and municipal panchayat had been given autonomy but in practice they were monitored and controlled by the center. Post-1990, Nepal’s local government system was short-lived owing to Maoist insurgency.
We are holding local election not only because we have not had one for the past 20 years, or because our local government systems are completely defunct. Even under existing local bodies, various mechanisms were in place to ensure participation of all and ensure transparency and accountability in service delivery. We had Ward Citizen Front (WCF), Citizen Awareness Center (CAC), Users Committees (UCs), Monitoring and Evaluation Committees, Local Civil Society Forums and so on to identify development needs and to ensure that those needs are met. Likewise, we had a number of laws, regulations and guidelines to ensure accountability and transparency. It was mandatory for every VDC/Municipality to allocate 35 percent budget for target groups and this budget had to be spent for their cause only. Every VDC/Municipality had to conduct social audit, public audit and public hearing on the works they carried out.
Every local government office or its units had to maintain citizen’s charter (with information on procedures, fees, officers to contact, documents required for service seekers) with clear mention of whom to complain if the service they are seeking is not available. The service seeker was liable to compensation if service providing institutions failed to provide service within certain time. Likewise, each local government unit had to put up a complaint box for registering complaints, such boxes had to be opened at least once in three days and all grievances had to be addressed. If all these provisions had been effectively implemented, we would not even need to restructure local levels.
Government bureaucrats, who became de facto rulers of local level, found an excuse for their lax service delivery in absence of elected representatives. Members of all-party mechanisms made lack of election an excuse for poor service delivery. Budget was not the issue, nor mechanisms and legal provisions. It was lack of political will.
This time around we are electing local representatives with greater powers and autonomy. They have no liberty not to do their jobs well. It is critical to make local executives functional because we don’t know when provincial and federal elections will take place. Even if federalism cannot be implemented, and other two elections cannot take place, we will have something to fall back on. But if the local executives fail, chaos will follow.
So how can we make local executives functional? Several factors will determine their fate but most important of all will be those who head local governments. In a number of places the same-old faces, who lack vision and innovative ideas, have shown interest to stand again. Such leaders will only misuse vital resources and make local government dysfunctional in no time.
As political parties are approaching the deadline to file nomination for election, they should not only consider qualifications set in the constitution and Local Level Election Act, according to which even a man without proven competence can stand for polls. They should choose candidates who are at least aware of powers and functions of local executives and who can deliver services as envisioned in the constitution. They should look for someone who has the vision to revive local government.
Baisakh 31, 2074 (May 14) could be the defining day in Nepal’s history if local bodies to be formed after the election can function well. But it can prove to be disastrous if the political parties fail in their duty. Parties have the responsibility to make May 14 a happy day to remember for Nepalis. On that note, Happy New Year!