In 1999, the Nepali government came up with a 14-step procedure to devise local level development plans. Steps 1-8 occur at the village development committee (VDC) level where local level stakeholders meet and propose development plans. Steps 9-14 occur at the district development committee (DDC) level, where district level authorities assess the plans forwarded by VDCs. This 14-step procedure is followed by government bureaucrats regardless of whether the VDC or DDC has elected officials.
My interactions with local citizens, political actors and local bureaucrats in Dhading, Gorkha and Chitwan this month suggest that in the absence of elected officials, VDC secretaries fulfill the roles of 57 different elected officials while handling local level duties of 22 different ministries. In addition, not every VDC has an appointed VDC secretary. So the reality is that a VDC secretary has been burdened with duties of multiple VDCs in the district. Sometimes, the VDCs are on opposite ends of the district, making the work of the VDC secretary even more difficult. Given this state of affairs, to say that many of our VDC secretaries are overworked and overburdened would be an understatement. In addition, the VDC secretaries have been blamed for incompetence, corruption and abuse of power. Some of these blames are justified while others aren’t.
To help these overburdened local level bureaucrats the national government in 2006 devised a policy of All Party Mechanism (APM) at the local level. As a result, all 3,915 VDCs and 58 municipalities got an APM under the direction of central government. The basic idea of APM was promising. It would fill the void of locally elected officials through mutual cooperation among political parties at the local level. Political parties at VDC and municipality levels would send their representatives to APMs, which would listen to people’s demands and make decisions—budgetary and allocation—on local development. In general Nepali citizens at local level approve of APMs, even while they grumble that the “listening to the people” part has never been honored.
In the absence of locally elected officials—and before the formation of APMs—VDC secretaries were designated decision makers for local bodies. However, once APMs came into existence, ensuring accountability at local level became difficult. APMs deflected accountability issues to VDC secretaries, and vice versa. One blamed the other for poor decision making regarding local projects and needs. As a result, local budget was misused and misappropriated, with nobody being held accountable for poor results. Budget allocated for women and youth activities were spent on roads and teej parties. This misuse is due to the absence of clear breakdown of how and where the allocated budgets can be used.
Local journalists report that even some supposed members of local development committees are unaware of project and budget decisions made by such committees. They also claim that a number of VDC secretaries have been found renting rooms in district headquarters instead of staying in the VDCs that they serve. This has continued despite government efforts to curb the practice by paying an extra Rs 1,500 in allowances each month to VDC secretaries as an incentive to stay in their respective workplaces. These abuses, misuses and lack of responsibility of local political actors and bureaucrats show that absence of locally elected officials has hurt local level progress in Nepal.
The most recent local level elections were held in 1997, and tenure of those elected officials ended in 2001. So there have been no local level elected officials in Nepali VDCs and municipalities for over 11 years. Since a bureaucrat is only interested in and obliged to follow rules and regulations specified by national government, local level bureaucrats may not be very interested and invested in hearing the voices and identifying critical needs of local citizenry. As it is, local level bureaucrats are accountable not to the local citizenry but to higher level officials in respective ministries. The government had hoped that formation of APMs would take care of this bureaucratic hurdle by providing a mechanism at local level that actually listened to what local citizenry had to say about development needs and formulated plans accordingly. However, when rampant corruption in APMs was exposed, the government dissolved them in 2012.
It has become evident that we need locally elected officials to listen to public concerns and needs, and to guide planning and decision making in local level development processes. However, both local and national level political actors today do not want local elections. Although APMs have now been dissolved, local political actors from different parties—big and small—are still informally engaged in local level development planning and decision making. These local political actors, especially ones from smaller political parties, stand to lose their share of corruption money they currently enjoy through informal APMs if there is an elected official handling planning and decision making duties.
National level political leaders do not want local elections because the current system of informal APMs allows them to appoint handpicked local political individuals in these APMs. This ensures that these individuals in APMs are accountable and obedient to national level political leaders, and not to local citizenry. This system has allowed national leaders to have a firm grip on local development process, the kind of grip that they never enjoyed before. If local elections are held, local citizens would get a chance to elect somebody unapproachable or a rogue politician not in cahoots with national level leaders. That would disrupt the power stranglehold that today’s national level political leaders enjoy at local levels. This is the reason national level politicians do not want local elections.
People blame the local bureaucrats, most of whom are not local residents, of not hearing them out and not bothering about local issues. Add to that the nature of their tenure at a particular locality—which varies from six months to a year—and locals feel that government bureaucrats are not invested and interested in resolving local issues. However, if there were locally elected officials present as decision makers, local development process and planning would improve significantly because of increasing accountability that locally elected officials are subjected to.
My interaction with locals in Dhading, Gorkha and Chitwan this month suggests that Nepalis care more about local elections than national elections. They believe that their access and reach to national level government and policymakers have weakened due to the absence of locally elected officials. They also believe that the high level of corruption taking place in the absence of locally elected officials—especially in APMs under the aegis of national level political leaders—will go down significantly if citizens can elect their own officials again