Growing pains of an ad hoc countryThe shift to federalism was not meant to be smooth but Nepali society made the choice on its own.
Since a few weeks ago, Nepali social media has been rife with a creatively invented phrase—‘Dollarwadi’. Some opinion-makers have been using it to discredit progressive movements as being imported. According to them, feminist ideas in this bog of patriarchy are imported. Dalit consciousness and Adivasi-Janajati consciousness are imported to bash the pious traditionalist order. Madheshi consciousness is imported to create divisions in the country. And, the whole concept of federalism—which represents the aspirations of the marginalised people—and decentralisation are also considered imported.
People often indulge in willful amnesia. Some of us have forgotten how federalism in Nepal came about in the first place. In the first decade after democracy was introduced in 1951, Nepal Tarai Congress proposed a federal set-up in Nepal. Decades after that, the Maoists demanded autonomous regions for marginalised ethnicities. The Madhesh movement in 2007 forced Girija Prasad Koirala’s government to concede to a federal form of government in the Interim Constitution. Finally, Nepal promulgated the constitution in 2015 with the current federal structure, although with Madhesh-based parties still being disgruntled. The federal structure emerged as a compromise between the political parties.
Given that, how can it be said that the federal structure was imported? If this stream of conservative thought is followed, its logical conclusion would be: All that is new and progressive is imported. This extends to concepts such as democracy, freedom of the press, gender equality and social justice—What remains is the thick sediment of a centrally governed country led by Hindu aristocracy. But we need to remind ourselves that those regressive times are gone. The country has turned a new leaf now.
The citizenry demanded federalism for two reasons: identity consciousness and decentralised development. Although there are many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ on explaining whether Nepal will be able to achieve what it has promised, it has embarked on a road that has moved ahead from the failed centralised governance of the past.
The country has started conducting regular elections from 2017. That year, Nepalis elected a renewed local level structure after 20 years, 7 provincial governments for the first time and a federal government.
Obviously, Nepal has not been able to streamline functions of the three tiers of government. Numerous confusions and concerns remain about the functions that are yet to be resolved. Most, if not all, chief ministers of the provinces have complained time and again that the federal government has been hesitant in respecting the autonomy of provinces and local levels as enshrined in the constitution. Where the federal government has tried to reconcile with the provincial governments by sending civil servants to provincial governments, many of them rejected the transfer. There are reports from certain districts that unelected husbands of deputy-mayors practice actual power at the local level.
On the other hand, the old guard of the centralised system, Nepali bureaucracy, has effectively decreased the net percentage of quota while recruiting a new cohort of civil servants.
Give it time
But no matter how much the federal structure is decried, it is important to remember that it is only three years old. What we are experiencing right now is growing pains. When India became independent from the United Kingdom in 1947, there were misgivings and fear that India would not be able to hold itself together. Especially, former colonial officers and writers had predicted that India would succumb to its diversity of religions, languages and people. Nevertheless, India as a country has survived. Perhaps, its survival was intrinsically linked to its respect for diversity.
It is equally important to remember that those who are fighting federalism tooth and nail have rejected it right from the start. Some influential lawyers and politicians were ideologically opposed to a federal form of governance and they would be happy to see it fail. However, it is upon those political parties and people who have dreamt of decentralisation and empowerment of the marginalised to make the system successful.
Gradually, conflicts within the federal system are being resolved and the system is being smoothened as a better service provider than the previous centralised system. Provinces are gradually getting their names from provincial assemblies like in the cases of Gandaki Province and Sudur Paschim Province. With enough deliberation, other provinces will also decide their names sooner or later. The compulsory inclusion of women and Dalits at the municipal and ward levels have at least given them an opportunity to participate in democracy en masse for the first time historically.
The push and pull between the three tiers of government is bound to continue for several years ahead—until there is a consensus on the practice of federal governance. The wrangling for clarity between federal, provincial and local governments is also a part of the federalist political process. Over the years, the process is sure to provide adequate administrative power to provincial and local levels.
Corruption trickling down to provincial and local levels has vilified the whole federal system. However, the challenge now is not to throw the baby with the bathwater. Corruption itself needs to be tackled; provincial and local level elected representatives need to be made accountable, as do those in the federal government. Nevertheless, the weakness of governance in Nepal, which has existed since the centralised system, cannot be solely attributed to the federal system.
This federal structure with a relatively progressive outlook is very much ours and it is here to stay. In the globalised world, when our government itself has many programmes supported by friendly nations and UN agencies, the federal structure established from Nepali people’s various movements should not be discredited as being imported. There are problems of governance and there is always a room for the marginalised groups to push the envelope of the system. But the federal governance structure is what we have and we need to make it work.
Paudel is a Kathmandu-based researcher.