A system that failed in the fight against pandemicFailure to empower sub-national governments and political games in Kathmandu impacted provinces, thereby deepening the virus crisis, experts say.
That the Covid-19 crisis has deepened with a more contagious and lethal second wave overwhelming the country, questions are now being raised at the federal government in Kathmandu over its spectacular failure to foresee it despite continuous warnings by public health experts and doctors. Many, however, also say that had the federal system–provincial governments for that matter–been strengthened, the crisis could have been averted to some extent.
Nepal’s all provinces but Karnali share a border with India, where the second wave started exploding about three weeks ago. The sudden spike in cases prompted people’s movement–many Nepalis started to return home through various border points. Karnali, however, is one of the provinces from where Nepalis in huge numbers go to India for work and are now returning through border points in the west.
On February 1, India’s daily coronavirus count was 11,427. Two months later, on April 1, the number of cases crossed the 80,000 mark. But in about three weeks, the number started hitting over 300,000.
The Oli government paid no heed, and provincial governments waited for orders from Kathmandu. That apart, the chain of political events that Oli had set in motion on December 20 by dissolving the House continued to have ripple effects on provinces.
Excessive focus on politics put the coronavirus threat on the back burner. None of the provinces worked to manage borders, leave aside preparing to deal with the disaster that was in the making.
In Nepalgunj of Lumbini Province, hospitals have run out of beds and oxygen. The town in western Nepal has become a Covid hotspot. The local administration imposed a lockdown on April 21, but by that time the virus had spread to the communities.
Health facilities in other provinces too are set to face a similar fate.
According to Somlal Subedi, a former chief secretary who holds a PhD on federalism and decentralisation, provincial governments were firstly never empowered enough and later on they failed to muster up the wherewithal to function on their own.
“The ongoing crisis has brought upon the danger that sub-national governments would lose their space and people’s trust,” Subedi told the Post.
Though the country elected provincial governments in 2018, the federal government’s failure to enact some umbrella laws made it difficult for them to function independently. Empowering chief district officers last year to take decisions when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country made provincial governments even more redundant when it came to fighting the virus.
But this time around, according to analysts, the dirty political games in Kathmandu moved to provinces, thereby taking the respective governments’ focus away from the core issues.
When the country held its first elections in 2017 under the new constitution which guaranteed federal republican set up, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) led governments in Kathmandu and six of the seven provinces with a comfortable majority.
Two weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Oli’s House dissolution, the top court on March 7 scrapped the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and revived the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre. That triggered the political games of a no-confidence motion.
Analysts say when the entire country was staring at an imminent crisis, provincial governments were busy crunching the numbers and looking to their masters in Kathmandu.
“Definitely the fluid political situation played a bigger role in aggravating the coronavirus crisis, but if we take a deep dive and think, the major reason is we could not internalise the federal system in its spirit,” said Khimlala Devkota, who also holds a PhD on fiscal federalism.
“We failed to create and strengthen institutions. We could not bring laws on time. No genuine efforts were made towards enabling the provinces and equipping them with manpower and resources.”
Nepal’s transition to federal system was considered a big leap towards a socio-political and economic transformation. The provincial and local governments with their own autonomy on governance were meant to decentralise resources in an equitable manner and serve the people’s grievances locally, at a faster pace. The spirit of the system also called for a quicker and effective response in the time of crises.
Analysts say the system the country adopted, however, was understood by Nepal’s politicians just as political demarcation. The system of governance remained somewhat the same, as Kathmandu continued to issue decrees to be followed by sub-national governments, according to them.
“The pandemic is a new crisis, but our federal system failed to find ownership since its inception,” said Devkota. Our provincial governments seem to be almost lost. We do not have a clear roadmap to sustain, empower and strengthen the federal system.”
How the dispensation in Kathmandu led by Oli views Nepal’s federal system is apparent from his statements. Prime Minister Oli has on more than one occasion called provincial governments “administrative units” of the federal government and that they don’t enjoy autonomy. The constitution, however, has clearly defined the sub-national governments’ authority and powers.
But the provinces were never allowed to exercise their powers. It was also evident from the way the leadership in Kathmandu decided names and capitals of at least two provinces, even though the respective provincial assemblies have been constitutionally vested with power to do so.
According to Subedi, all what happened over the years ever since the country adopted the federal system was never aimed at strengthening the provinces.
“Had we built a strong system, we would not have to worry about political games in Kathmandu, as provincial governments would have been functioning as per the mandate of the constitution,” said Subedi. “A strong system functions under the law and constitution, not at the behest of some political party or orders from the centre.”
As the coronavirus is overwhelming the country–the daily count on Sunday crossed the 3,000 mark and the 24-hour-period death tally hit 28–Nepal appears set to plunge into a deep political crisis.
Currently, there is a political stalemate, which has resulted in zero governance. As hospital beds are filling up and ventilators are running out of stock, major parties in Kathmandu are busy making their own political calculations. Oli has been trying to justify the House dissolution and the snap polls decision was right. Other parties, including the Nepali Congress, the main opposition, has failed to hold the government to account. The Maoist Centre is groping in the dark. It has neither been able to withdraw its support to Oli nor it has been able to convince the Nepali Congress and Janata Samajbadi Party for a coalition government.
The Janata Samajbadi, the fourth largest force in the lower house, is weighing options. Since these four parties are the major stakeholders in provinces, the provincial governments too have failed to deliver and act against the Covid-19 crisis.
A minister in the Gandaki provincial government, led by Prithvi Subba Gurung, one of Oli’s confidants, admitted that Covid-19 has failed to become their priority given the fluid political situation in Kathmandu.
“The coronavirus is a bigger problem we have to deal with,” the minister who did not wish to be named because he feared retribution, told the Post. “We hope to get some budget and resources [from the federal government] dedicated towards fighting the virus.”
But the federal budget is still a month away, as the constitution has mandated that the national budget must be unveiled on May 29.
The minister admitted that politics has become a priority and the virus is not even the topic of discussion, even if it is raging.
Over the last few weeks, Prime Minister Oli has spent most of his time gloating about his achievements rather than speaking anything specifically on measures his government is planning to take to fight the coronavirus.
Oli and leaders from his orbit, however, have been flouting the rules set by their own government–from holding a puja of Lord Ram and Goddess Sita to organising big party meetings to laying the foundation stone of the party office to inaugurating Dharahara.
“The federal government should have led by example,” said Devkota who also served as the first Vice-Chairman of Policy and Planning Commission of the provincial government of the Bagmati Province. “The role of the federal government is key to strengthening the provinces but in our case, it is simply not working. The Bagmati Province chief minister too has not said a word on Covid management.”
The country’s failure in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic has exposed that the whole system is flawed, leading to the current mess and provincial failure in implementation of the federal system, some say. According to them, the governments are struggling to stand on their feet.
Hari Roka, a political economist, wondered what some key federal agencies like the National Planning Commission and National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission are doing, as they are supposed to coordinate between the federal, provincial and local governments.
“Even big metropolitan cities like Birgunj, Nepalgunj and Biratnagar are failing to use their rights and powers,” Roka told the Post. “The role of the federal government is to facilitate provincial and local governments but the Finance Ministry in Kathmandu continues to sit above them. State’s resources and powers continue to reside in Kathmandu.”