The recent CA dissolution and announcement of fresh elections serve as yet another test to Nepal’s commitment to its nascent democracy. Parties have been unable to forge agreements to resolve outstanding debates on state restructuring, ethnic federalism and decentralization. Much has been written about the various failures of engagement at the political helm, but this piece will focus on some local processes from the outskirts of Kathmandu to show that pre-existing institutions and attitudes could be institutionalized to maintain and promote democratic practices.
Sabin Limbu’s Twisted Democracy (July 9) provided a powerful portrayal of how “‘democracy’, ‘equality’ and ‘change’ have become starkly conspicuous by their absence” in local contexts. He found development processes to be extremely gendered and ‘big men’ unfairly dictated local terms. These findings are both sobering and representative of political and development processes across the nation. However, equally, there is a need to highlight, and possibly replicate, formal and informal organizations that continue to coherently strive for democracy, change and development. The Guthi (or Trust) in Peepli village (name changed) provides one such example.
This guthi was founded by one Newar and seven Magar families in 1964 (2021 BS), but has now expanded to include most of the village. The guthi meets on the first Saturday of each Nepali month to discuss village proceedings. The meeting takes place in the guthi Chair’s balcony, led by a working committee of 11 members.
The committee and the participants are diverse, with the Tamangs, Thapa Magars, Newars, and Chettris that make up the village composition well represented. There are two women in the committee, and ten of forty or so participants were women. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the women were active participants rather than removed observers throughout.
At this meeting, each household paid Rs 30 that went towards the guthi fund, used for communal purposes. When a villager dies, all members contribute four mana of rice (almost two kilogram) and Rs 10, and the guthi provides Rs 5,000 to the family. These contributions provide some respite to grieving families simultaneously facing the emotional and economic brunt of funerals.
Despite being within spitting distance of the capital, the village remains largely unconnected to the city, and vehicular transportation remains sporadic. The guthi invests in public goods to ease this isolation. There are no catering companies, so the guthi has bought large cooking utensils and party supplies for private and public celebrations.
This meeting discussed acquiring a few more things for the village. Their only wooden stretcher (that they recently used to take an elderly woman to the hospital late at night) is heavy and beyond repair. The meeting approved the purchase of a lighter stretcher so that their sick can be transported to hospitals with ease. Wary of the regular power cuts during the wedding season, the meeting also approved the purchase of a small generator to provide backup during village functions.
The guthi manages the water supply in the village. The state does not provide any mechanisms to provide water, so the guthi maintains a tank atop a hill. The water collects directly from the source, and the guthi employs some guards to distribute water at specific times. Households contribute Rs 50 each month for its general upkeep, and the water distribution takes place through communal taps interspersed throughout the village.
The guthi’s development interests extend to include road projects. The villagers filed a budget application with the Village Development Committee (VDC) and were provided Rs 90,000 to plaster 25 meter of the steepest slope. Most of the windy, hilly road to the village is not pitched or plastered right now, but the villagers were able to finish this phase of work, which triggered another budgetary support for Rs 3,40,000. A further Rs 5,60,000 was to be released upon the completion of the first phase. The villagers were expected to contribute 20 percent worth of the total sum to the project through labour donation (shraam daan), so the meeting decided to mobilize labour based on the constituent households.
The village coordinator for the project stated that the first initiative helped them learn. They made some mistakes, and were unable to mobilize enough people to donate labour, which meant that they went Rs 32,000 over budget. However, they learned how to do the work, where to buy the material, how to organize village labour, and where to use them most productively. Consequently, they were able to effectively pursue future road projects, meeting their monetary and road construction targets with ease.
This portrayal of the functioning of the guthi is not meant to either suggest that all villagers agreed with the decisions or to romanticize the institution entirely. There was a healthy dose of disagreement while undertaking each decision. For instance, the funds to build roads were not enough to cover the entire roadway to the village, so decisions had to be made to pick the slopes for intervention. Many people discussed these priority spots at great length, and although some got what they wanted and others did not, every dissenting voice was heard and deliberated.
The guthi emphasized a meaningful balance between collective and individual responsibility. After each decision, specific individuals were selected to coordinate those outcomes. Three people were chosen to buy the stretcher, three more to investigate generator prices, and a team of nine people were assigned specific responsibilities to complete various components of the project. At a time when political parties bicker in the name of consensus, these villagers illustrate how assigned responsibility can facilitate effective action.
The experiences from this village are also instructive in understanding ethnic harmony. There are four other smaller guthis in the village. These guthis are ethnically homogeneous, and are responsible for dealing with cultural functions related to each group. However, when it comes to matters pertaining to the entire village, the constituent guthi meets to decide future course of action, without interference from the ethnic guthis. These groups complement each other and exist in harmony rather than impede the others.
The guthi provides a powerful platform for discussion, debate and ultimately democracy. It is the epitome of what successful decentralization should look like.
As a Tamang villager put it: “We have been living here for generations, and so have the Newars. If someone wants to call this region Newa district, I don’t understand the problem with that name as long as we continue to get to live like we have in the past. Equally, I also don’t understand why the name has to be specifically Newa. We need roads, schools, and jobs...why do they want to make us fight over the names instead of helping us all make a living?”
Life is not rosy in this village by any means, but they have sustained meaningful engagement for decades now. The guthi provides a powerful platform for discussion, debate, and ultimately democracy.
Even as there is a crisis of legitimacy at the national level, these processes compensate somewhat for the failures of the state by uniting villagers to achieve their own ends, and in their own terms: the epitome of what successful decentralization should look like. Even the explosive issue of ethnicity appears to be under control here, as people recognize and embody their ethnic identity while also effectively collaborating with others. Future conversations on macro issues should thus begin from successful engagements in the grassroots, not only from the centre, where democratic processes have largely failed.