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DEVELOPMENT-NEPAL: Returning Power to Local Bodies is Critical

Mallika Aryal

KATHMANDU, Dec 9 2008 (IPS) - As members of Nepal’s newly-formed Constituent Assembly (CA) begin the process of a writing a new constitution for this former monarchy they will consider reviving devolution of power to local administrative bodies as the fastest way to ensure development.

But, for this to happen, they must rebuild the elected village and district committees that Maoist rebels dismantled during the civil war. Some 3,000 of the 4,000 Village Development Committees (VDCs) were bombed, members chased out and the higher, District Development Committees (DDC) not allowed to function properly.

Here in Panauti, some 40km from the capital of Kathmandu, the municipality building, which was firebombed by the Maoists during a night of intense fighting in March 2006, lies in ruins amidst thick vegetation.

Three months after that attack, the Maoists ended a decade of warfare and signed a peace accord under which it withdrew its fighters to camps under United Nations supervision and joined the political mainstream.

In April the political arm of the former rebels, the Communist Party of Nepal- Maoist (CPN-M), won most seats in elections to form the CA. The first order of business for the the new national assembly was to declare the nation a republic, ending rule by King Gyanendra’s 240-year-old dynasty.

“We were on the right track, 10 years ago, when we found that the secret to rural progress lay in building a direct link between grassroots democracy and development,” says Panauti local Mahesh Karmacharya.

Ten years ago, local elected officers were forced to be accountable and had to deliver schools, health services and roads.

But all that was destroyed in the war. There have been no local elections for 10 years. When Parliament passed the Local Self Governance Act in 1998, it broke conventional and cultural barriers and transferred not just decision-making authority but also the right to frame local laws to elected village and district committees. Where these committees began to exercise new powers, decentralisation delivered development.

“The strength of the Act was that it recognised that devolution [of power] was necessary for development,” says Dwarika Dhungel, a researcher at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies.

But in July 2002, scheduled local elections could not be held and the Act has remained in limbo ever since.

Experts say that the CA members need to learn from past mistakes and build on the successes of rural democracy of the 1990s. “As a concept, decentralisation is quite simple: empower those who are most affected by any development practice,” says development expert Bihari Krishna Shrestha.

Nepal is pledged to fulfill various international commitments, including achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Experts say the central government should focus on national projects and leave it to the districts to plan out their own future. “If the government actually wants devolution to work this time, it needs to start rebuilding the destroyed VDCs and DDCs,” says Khem Raj Nepal at the Institute of Local Governance Studies.

But simply giving power to local people is not enough, the VDCs need resources to implement plans, Nepal says.

The 1998 Act gave power to local authorities, but in the past five years the VDCs have been run by government bureaucrats.

Says Krishna Prasad Sapkota, CA member from Kabhre-3, east of Kathmandu: “It is absurd that a VDC secretary in remote far west Nepal has to be sent from Kathmandu. There’s no accountability. If that officer makes a mistake in one VDC, he is immediately transferred to another. The bureaucrats do not understand local problems, which is why it is imperative that the representatives be elected locally.

In Panauti, Karmacharya has seen his villagers suffer because there’s no local government and the link between the centre and the villages are broken.

“Although we are so close to the capital, Panauti doesn’t even have a good health centre so we have to go to another town for treatment. There are no colleges here for our kids and for emergencies we have to make our way to Kathmandu. The situation is worse in remote areas of Nepal… where do we go so that there are people who will listen to our problems?” asks Karmacharya.

Karmacharya says that the bureaucrats who are currently in the office all have political affiliations and are not motivated to listen to what the people have to say.

Despite being the first country in South Asia to attempt devolution, Nepal’s progress with decentralisation was first stalled by the war and now by the lack of preparation for local elections.

But it is a model that can easily be revived. The 2007 interim constitution endorsed a federal system of governance, but some fear that even within a federal structure there could be the concentration of power with insufficient devolution.

“Power could still be centered in the provincial capitals with little devolution to the grassroots,’’ warns Dhungel.

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