Federal transgressions and the pandemicThe federal government is overstepping its constitutional jurisdiction in the name of the Covid-19 response.
What started as a health emergency has now turned into a governance crisis that is testing all three tiers of government. When the federal government imposed a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it failed to gauge basic human behaviour—that families seek each other out for support during times of stress. The reverse migration of hundreds of thousands of people, travelling for several days on foot from various cities and towns to get back to their homes, could hardly be prevented by policing highway checkpoints. A mechanism for safe travel, coordinated with the respective provinces and municipalities, could have prevented the tragic scenes that made international headlines. The limitations of policing citizens into following directives should have been quite clear to the government by then.
But what followed showed that the federal government learnt no lessons. Thousands of people returning home from across the border in India were prevented from entering the country by security forces at the checkpoints on both sides. Some of them died due to exhaustion and lack of medical care along the way, but others found their way in through the porous border. When the returnee migrants eventually managed to reach their villages and towns, the provincial and municipal governments were overwhelmed. The over-crowded, understaffed and ill-equipped quarantine facilities quickly turned into a hotbed for infection.
The spectacular failure that brought us to where we are today, from a relative position of low infection and mortality rate, had already been foretold by many experts, and cannot be casually blamed on the decision to end the lockdown. This is a failure of imagination at the centre—on the part of the architects of the system—and the Nepal Communist Party leadership should accept the larger share of the blame by virtue of their position in the current government. When news of the ill-equipped and unsanitary quarantine facilities repeatedly appeared in the media, the provincial and municipal governments were urging the federal government to send in equipment and manpower to support them. However, there was neither the urgency nor the required level of collaboration between the three tiers of government to work closely in managing the unprecedented crisis.
Instead, the federal government’s controversial decision to allow it to mobilise provincial and municipal bureaucrats could further jeopardise their relations. The fact that the federal Home Ministry continues to delegate more executive powers to the District Administration Offices run by non-elected technocrats rather than strengthening collaboration with the provincial and municipal governments exposes how the new federal system is being undermined by the very institutions of power that are entrusted with the task of nurturing and empowering it.
The blanket approach of shutting down the country to contain the infections, without actually assessing the sectoral weaknesses and the risks posed by the pandemic, will only make our problems go from bad to worse. Already, there is frustration among frontline service providers like health workers, local businesses, bankers and shopkeepers who are providing essential supplies and services. Bankers are warning of halting their services due to obstructions in their movement, while groceries and other supplies are running low due to travel obstructions. Farmers are worried about poor yield due to lack of fertiliser while health workers are struggling to cope amid the lack of infrastructure and equipment. Many are complaining that they have not even received the allowances promised by the government as an incentive.
Nepal adopted a decentralised federal system of governance because the government in Singha Durbar was too far and detached from the everyday problems faced by the people at the community level. Provincial and municipal governments were elected so that they could see the problems up close and address them, in consultation and participation with those that are affected by them. Some local governments are already doing a commendable job that can be replicated elsewhere.
Bhaktapur Municipality’s exemplary work in mobilising the community to lead in the post-earthquake relief and reconstruction is well known and has lessons that can be replicated during disasters and crises. Similarly, the Province 5 government’s willingness to engage and resolve long-standing policy constraints in mainstreaming madrasa education underscores how the provincial governments are well placed to address policy issues of marginalised communities that often fall through the cracks at the national level.
Responding to crises
Even in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Banepa Municipality’s efforts to expand and upgrade its health infrastructure and Tokha Municipality’s decision to provide nutrition allowances to Covid-19 patients and mobilise health volunteers at the ward level show that decentralised governance can be effective in responding to crises. In his recent conversation with former health minister and Nepali Congress lawmaker Gagan Thapa, infectious disease physician Anup Subedi also urged the federal government to collaborate more closely with its provincial and municipal counterparts for effective contact tracing and containing the spread of infections.
Covid-19 has disrupted Nepal’s evolving federal governance processes, especially in the provinces and municipalities where the capacity of elected representatives and the infrastructure need more strengthening. However, that does not justify the federal government’s unilateralism and undermining of constitutional jurisdictions. Besides, there is little good work and evidence so far to justify such transgressions.
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