The police and federal restructuringThere is a need to use federalism as an opportunity to address longstanding security sector reform issues.
Governments across the world are using stringent lockdown measures to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. Maintaining public safety, enforcing lockdowns, and assisting health providers during such crises is an immense burden shouldered by law enforcement agencies. It is, therefore, pertinent to soberly consider government policy towards the preparation of such agencies to respond effectively, which implies the establishment and strengthening of appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks, strategic leadership capacity, and intergovernmental coordination ahead of crises.
Historically, policymaking in Nepal has often overlooked national interest, functional competence and evidence, and has instead veered between narrow group interest and ad hocism. For Nepal’s security sector, this attitude towards policymaking has had grave consequences, both near and long term, which will continue if left unaddressed. The most recent example of this is a much-publicised disagreement between the Nepal Police and the Ministry of Home Affairs on the adjustment of the police force through reduction of personnel—specifically the reduction of the number of Deputy Inspectors Generals (DIGs). In a transitional governance context, wherein law enforcement functions and needs for provinces are yet to be rationalised, the Home Ministry’s unilateral proposal appears premature and arbitrary from a technical perspective.
The institutionalisation of federalism in Nepal mandates the restructuring of Nepal Police from a centralised organisation to seven new provincial ones. Almost five years since the adoption of the constitution in 2015, there remains uncertainty and apprehension regarding this transition among the rank and file of Nepal Police. Combined with working conditions and wages that are poor in comparison to other security sector agencies, and a growing number of resignations, the reduction of officers in leadership positions adds further organisational instability, resentment, and deepening of chaos in this crucial public service.
For advocates of federalism and devolution, the proposed leadership structure also does not provide much hope. Before federalism, DIGs were the regional heads of Nepal Police, tasked to operational activities with minimal policy responsibilities. In the current restructuring plan, a DIG will be the Chief of Provincial Police. A provincial police chief requires more experience and maturity than previous regional police chiefs. These are requirements that are readily met by AIGs, whose number should ideally be increased to accommodate appointment to provincial leadership. Taking the currently well-established operational role of a DIG and adding several other roles is ill-conceived in strategy as it does not take advantage of existing policy leadership expertise; it also runs the risk of degrading overall law enforcement function at the provincial level.
Other long standing issues of critical importance relate to service term limits, performance-based career development, and political influence. The 30-year service term limit (Section 127 (1-D) of Nepal Police Regulation), is stunting leadership, limiting career advancement, and eroding professionalism in the organisation. It is also inconsistent with rules set for other state agencies. In recent years, the general trend has been for all officers of AIG rank and sometimes even senior DIGs to retire on the same day as the outgoing Inspector General. The incoming police chief is appointed from a relatively inexperienced pool. Further, it is rare for any Inspector General to complete a full term as police chief because of the 30-year service term limit. The recently appointed IGP will only serve for 5 months; both his immediate predecessors served less than two years.
While reform of the service term has become even more critical as the country institutionalises federalism across provinces, matching reforms are required in performance evaluation processes and fast track options to support career development in a fair and transparent manner. In fact, the 30-year service term limit is symptomatic of a general tendency to avoid a merit-based process of promotion, which typically uses objective measures of performance and is potentially less vulnerable to manipulation. A perverse outcome of this outdated regulation is that it also drives desperate behaviour: police officers in the latter half of their career often resort to nefarious methods to get ahead or resign early from service to pursue better opportunities.
Political interference, bureaucratic meddling, and favouritism inside the police organisation have perverted leadership succession and affected organisational integrity. The high rate of resignation is partly due to frustration with the personalised, opaque process of promotion in the service. Recruitment, appointment, transfers and promotion of officers, which ideally should be decided through predictable processes using merit-based criteria, are routinely undermined because of political pressure. The unhealthy nexus of police with politicians and bureaucrats has undermined police credibility. Reforms are required to insulate, protect, and motivate Nepal Police, provincial police, and other new law enforcement organisations. An independent oversight mechanism is valuable in this regard.
Fitting security agencies to purpose while staying true to a federal system of governance makes collaborative strategic planning and engagement imperative. Nepal Police has the most burden in the first instance with regard to public safety and security. Therefore, decision making regarding the adjustment of police organisations in federal Nepal must include the considered views of Nepal Police. This collaborative policy engagement would also strategically prepare police organisations, as well as other security agencies, to respond more effectively as frontline civil servants during crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. There is an immediate need to establish a functional relationship between the Nepal Police and its counterpart bureaucracy. There is a need to use federalism as an opportunity to address longstanding security sector reform issues and rationalise change management based on purpose, function, and affordability.
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