Sitting in the front yard of her bungalow, a local resident of Tikhedewal, Lalitpur, said this when asked how she goes about fixing broken things in and around her house: “When the street lamp doesn’t work, or the water pipe is broken, we do not go to the municipality or the local ward office. Involving government in such things takes unnecessarily long time. Instead, we call the ‘Tole Sudhar Samiti’ office. It’s more efficient.”And in case of inefficiency, blame the Samiti. Tole Sudhar Samiti (TSS), or Neighborhood Association, is a citizen-led initiative for organizing neighborhood governance that is mostly involved in providing basic services to neighborhood households such as drinking water supply, black-topping roads, sewage pipe management, neighborhood security and solid waste management. Operating under the rubric of public-private partnership (PPP) mandated by the Local Self Governance Act of 1999, associations like the one in Jupiter Tole forms a citizen-government relationship that can perhaps be called “efficient” for managing neighborhood governance.
RISE OF NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATIONS
In the aftermath of 2002, when locally elected government bodies were dissolved, the need of TSSs has become even more acute in the absence of the local state. Funds required for providing services are generated locally from individual households, which are also at times matched with partial funds available from the municipal government. However, the growing influence of such citizen-led associations could also indicate the local and municipal states’ declining presence in local governance because such associations are gradually absolving the state of its responsibility as service provider in the city. They may eventually replace the local state. In recognition of its role, a few years ago, the Lalitpur Municipality awarded Jupiter Tole as the ‘Ideal Neighborhood’. Ironic, one would think, to see the state celebrate its own demise as the service-provider by crowning someone else as ‘ideal’ in the role.
It is understandable to see the local residents of Jupiter Tole take pride in the recognition the municipal government conferred upon Jupiter TSS. After all, it acknowledges the active role that residents have played in making the neighborhood more functional and livable. However, while celebrating active citizenship at the grassroots is important, such praise should also be critically appraised, as it tends to mask fragmentation and inequality that citizen-led governance tends to (re)-produce in the absence of government.
Jupiter Tole is located in Nakhipot, adjacent to Tikhedewal. This is an area in the southwest end of Kathmandu valley just outside Ring Road. Tikhedewal is an older settlement with a mix of more ‘local’ inhabitants as well as old and recent migrants mostly of more affluent ‘British-Gurkha’ occupational background, or ‘lahurey’. Nakhipot on the other hand is a relatively new settlement comprised mostly of ‘lahurey’ families. It is more homogenous than Tikhedewal both along ethnic and income lines. In other words, markers of real and socially constructed differences such as household income and ethnicityare more visible in Tikhdewal than they are in Nakhipot.
In the pavements and storefronts of Tikhedewal, one notices more diversity in demography, while houses that line the street look expensive as well as ordinary. The street itself has a broken landscape. From Ring Road to Tikhedewal Temple, which borders Nakhipot, the street has been under-construction for a few years now; unpaved and uneven. Past the temple, as one walks towards a more residential Nakhipot, the uneven landscape gives way to a more uniform built form: paved streets and similar-looking three to four storey residences privately walled-off from one another with barricaded empty spaces interspersed in between. Jupiter TSS that serves a part of Nakhipot takes pride in the role it has played in building the built form. However, the façade of the built form glosses over and even masks some of the underlying problems. A closer observation of the fragmented landscape from Tikhdewal to Nakhipot would reveal that it is no more than a coincidence that social differences that mark these two neighborhoods differently, also manifest differently, spatially. After all, one could make a case that spatial formations are in a way reflective and constitutive of prevalent social differences and economic hierarchies. Neighborhood associations have a tendency to reinscribe such differences by giving them a rigid form.
For any infrastructural development works to be designed and implemented, Jupiter tole regulates all necessary aspects, in a sequential order: identifying service needs, calculating project budget, raising funds (usually total budget divided by total number of service recipients, if there is no matching fund from the government), selecting contractors and technicians, and overseeing the project on a day to day basis. Not all members of a neighborhood, including tenants, get to have a say in project identification; many are aware. Raising funds from individual households become more contentious as some projects, like laying down water pipes, are more expensive than others, like managing household waste. Some households cannot afford. For Jupiter tole, funds are not always a big issue because majority of the ‘lahurey’ families belong to middle to upper-middle class and can afford to pay. However, there are also households in Jupiter tole that cannot dole out, say Rs 20,000 as a bulk payment. The subtext here is that not only does such material inability ascribe the stigma of ‘poor’ to certain households, they are also excluded from access to service needs. So within the same neighborhood, some taps supply water, others run dry. Such inequality extends to other aspects of service provision as well.
IMPROVING LOCAL GOVERNANCE
Local governments will not automatically remove flaws of citizen-led governance. But this can be first step to democratic local governance.
While such discrepancy indicates how privately led governance can engender exclusion within the same neighborhood, the transition in road quality at the Tikhdewal temple, and the way it affects general quality of living as roads turn into dusty passages during summer and filthy mud during monsoon, are symbolic of fragmented urban landscapes that result when governance is unregulated. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to suggest that the disjointed landscape that makes up the stretch of the street from Tikhedewal to Nakhipot is a spatial manifestation of the municipal government’s fragmented approach and weak presence in ‘doing’ governance.
RE-INSTATING THE ‘LOCAL’
The current political conjuncture is that Nepal has pushed the ‘local’ to the margins in the debates on state restructuring. While ‘national’ scale is where debates around state restructuring takes place, it is also important not to undermine the significance of ‘local’ in state-formation as the primary site in which citizens come in contact with the state. And in the absence of the state—in this case the lack of strong municipal/local government—citizens take matter in their own hands to devise newer ways of ‘doing’ governance and democracy. Therefore, recourse to the ‘local’ is important for realizing LSGA’s goal of implementing decentralized local governance as a comprehensive local development agenda rather than a fragmented and piece-meal approach towards doing development; like the ones taking place in Tikhdewal and Nakhipot and in many more such neighborhoods in cities and towns in Nepal.
Re-instating the local governments will not automatically curb the regressive tendencies that citizen-led governance seems to reproduce. But this would certainly be a first step in the right direction for ensuring a more progressive and democratic local governance under a regulatory local state. In the mean time, local governments should also exercise accountability in retaining and harnessing the agency of active citizenship that has spawned under the LSGA for building vibrant and functional neighborhoods. It is rightfully argued that building the city for citizens is not possible without critically understanding how citizens build cities.