Empowering chief district officers in Covid-19 fight tramples upon spirit of federalism, experts sayAmid criticism for its failure to contain virus spread, the Oli administration has ignored provincial and local governments and granted powers to district administration offices to issue prohibitory orders.
Amid criticism over its response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially after the decision to lift the lockdown on July 21, the Oli administration authorised chief district officers to take measures to contain the virus.
More than a half of the 77 districts across the country over the past weeks were put under prohibitory orders, which meant strict restrictions on public mobility and vehicular movements and a ban on all non-essential services. On Tuesday, the chief district officers of Kathmandu Valley too imposed prohibitory orders in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur for a week effective from Wednesday midnight.
The federal government’s decision to grant powers to the chief district officers to respond to the virus spread, however, has come into question, with many saying the move is against the spirit of the constitution and calling it Kathmandu’s double standard.
“Provincial and local governments should have been responding, in tandem with the federal government, to this crisis of national proportion,” said Shalikram Jamarkattel, minister for internal affairs and law of Bagmati Province. “Provincial and local governments have been at the forefront to fight the virus—from management of quarantine and isolation centres to facilitation for the treatment.”
According to Jamarkattel, the federal government, however, has undermined the provincial and local governments by empowering the chief district officers.
“The federal government’s decision is against the spirit of federalism enshrined in the constitution,” Jamarkattel told the Post.
More than four years since the promulgation of the constitution that guaranteed federalism in the country, politicians in the national capital Kathmandu have not been able to shed their penchant for the concept of chief district officers.
In the past, provinces had complained about the roles of chief district officers and the rationale behind having them to look after the administrative affairs even when provincial governments were elected.
The ministers for internal affairs and law of all the provinces, during their meeting with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Minister for Home Affairs Ram Bahadur Thapa on July 30, raised the problem of a lack of coordination between them and the chief district officers.
The concept of chief district officers has continued from the Panchayat era. Even after the restoration of democracy, chief district officers continued to enjoy immense power.
Experts say politicians in Kathmandu are yet to internalise the fact that in the federal system, the federal government needs to devolve powers to subnational governments. Since chief district officers are appointed by the federal government, they owe their allegiance to Kathmandu and report to the Home Ministry, thereby undermining the internal affairs and law ministry of the provinces.
Constitutional experts say the provincial and local governments’ demand that they should have a decisive voice in any decision that applies to their area is legitimate. According to them, the federal government has cited the outdated Infectious Disease Act from 1964 to grant discretionary powers to the chief district officers.
“There should be common decision-making in a situation like a pandemic where all tiers of government have their say,” Bipin Adhikari, former dean at Kathmandu University School of Law, told the Post. “Giving chief district officers the absolute authority to issue prohibitory orders is against the spirit of constitution and federalism.”
Schedule 6 of the constitution gives the provincial governments explicit authority to maintain peace and order in their provinces. Enforcing prohibitory orders and curfew is a part of maintaining law and order in the society.
“I won’t be surprised if one of the chief district officers in my province imposes prohibitory orders or curfew without my information,” said Gyanendra Yadav, minister for internal affairs and law in Province 2.
Critics say they would have not questioned this latest move of the federal government had it been able to contain the virus.
The Oli administration’s move of empowering chief district officers seems to stem from the fact that it failed to respond to the coronavirus crisis in an effective manner.
Many say the federal government decided to let chief district officers take charge of the fight against the virus so that it can wash its hands of, even though the chief district officers will be working at its behest.
When it imposed the nationwide lockdown on March 24, the number of cases in the country stood at just two. It, however, squandered the four months of lockdown—as it neither improved quarantine facilities nor increased isolation beds.
The economy took a beating due to the lockdown as people from lower economic strata suffered the most. The Oli administration was going broke with its coffers depleting. There was pressure to ease the lockdown, but on July 21, the government completely lifted the restrictions. By that time, Covid-19 cases had crossed the 17,000 mark.
Over the last one month since the lifting of the lockdown, there has been a sudden spike in cases across the country. The Valley too has reported a steady rise in infections.
As of Wednesday, 28,938 persons have been infected with the coronavirus across the country; 2,498 of the cases are in Kathmandu Valley. On Wednesday alone, 681 new cases were reported–159 in the Valley. The death toll stands at 120 with six fatalities reported in the past 24 hours. Twelve people have died from Covid-related conditions so far in Kathmandu Valley.
Not only provincial governments, the federal government’s move of granting powers to chief district officers to take their own decisions to contain the virus as per their assessment also undermines the local governments.
Municipalities are left with no role, as chief district officers, as per the direct orders from the federal government, are taking actions, according to Bhim Prasad Dhungana, general secretary of the Municipal Association Nepal, a grouping of municipalities across the country, who is also the mayor of Neelkantha Municipality in Dhading.
“Local governments hold information at the household level. They know better about the measures to be taken in the time of crisis,” Dhungana told the Post. “But by empowering chief district officers, the federal government has ignored local governments’ existence, while also directly controlling everything from Kathmandu.”
Jamarkattel said the decision to empower chief district officers also exposes the double standard of the federal government.
“It says it will work in close coordination with sub-national governments to fight the pandemic but empowers bureaucrats to assess the situation and impose restrictions accordingly,” he said.
Experts on federal affairs say the federal government’s recent decision is one more example of how Nepali politicians continue to work with the centralised mindset even though the country adopted the federal system five years ago.
“The main problem is that the federal government takes provincial and local governments as its subordinate bodies, not as parallel governments as envisioned by the constitution,” Khim Lal Devkota, who extensively writes on federal affairs, told the Post.
“The federal government’s failure to ensure proper coordination with the provincial and local governments is mainly responsible for the poor response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”