Debunking political argumentsAccording to decentralisation experts, the ideal number of local bodies for a country like Nepal is about 300
Serving yet another reminder of the differences between political actors and the Local Level Restructuring Commission (LLRC) tasked with translating the vision of federal Nepal’s local governance in line with the constitution, a recent opinion piece by seasoned Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Paudel urged not to deviate from the current role of the districts as part of the local level restructuring.
Nepal’s political parties had consented to minimum changes in the structure of the local level—under the pretext that the local level elections should not be delayed. If the consensus was upheld, the local government bodies would number around 926, much higher than the 565 bodies that the LLRC is proposing as viable numbers of local bodies for the collaborative, mostly non-hierarchical federal system envisioned by the constitution. After the LLRC’s objection, the government on Monday retracted its earlier directive and extended the commission’s deadline by one month.
The earlier political position seems motivated by the need to keep the local level cadres happy, and thus, not much homework has gone into envisioning the actual operationalisation of federalism. Paudel’s article claims that doing away with the districts and creating fewer larger village councils will be like “demotion” of the people’s representatives who lead them. The latent message is: the need to create meaningful and empowered local structures is hostage to the local political cadres’ inflated egos. What seems to be forgotten is that fewer local structures to represent people entail more competition and stronger incentives to do good for the political aspirants.
What is often ignored in this entire debate is that the constitution envisions a collaborative, non-hierarchical federal model where the local, provincial and central tiers are not necessarily aligned in a watertight linear structure, but rather relate to each other in a circular way. This ensures better access of the local to the central level and vice versa. The province, despite being a key part of the tiers, does not necessarily play the mandatory role of the “go-between” between the local and the central levels. The need to have more clarity on the role and structure of provinces and exclusive functions of different tiers as well as to make them outweigh the concurrent functions is important for charting a clear roadmap for the implementation of federalism. But the focus on the need to retain a large number of local bodies and not to do away with the previous structures like the districts and Ilakas—simply to keep cadres happy—is misplaced.
Almost a decade since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which promised to undo the wrongs of exclusion, discrimination and inequality that bred the decade-long conflict, political parties of all stripes are exploring alleys to ensure that the overall local level restructuring of ‘New Nepal’ results in minimum changes to the old structures. Change is often too costly for elites and that explains their excessive resistance to it. In the case of Nepal, it seems it has come a full circle from the euphoria of signing the CPA, two CA elections, a series of unstable governments and often an unholy matrimony between ideologically opposing political parties taking turns at wielding power, often leading to the maintenance of the status quo. For example, the efforts to promote inclusion through a proportionate representation electoral system played into the hands of the elites, and the closed list of proportionate candidates comprised the near and dear ones of leaders. Now all the political arguments in relation to the local level restructuring also seem to be advocating minimum departure from the staus quo.
The need to take the government closer to the people is a no brainer. But to ensure that the local government is equipped and empowered enough to deliver those services is more important. As great as it sounds, service at the doorstep is an impossible ideal. According to decentralisation experts, the ideal number of local bodies for a country the size of Nepal—and with the amount of resources or infrastructures it has—is about 300.
So far, the political arguments have only been focused on the difficulties to change local structures—for example, as we do away with the districts or merge the VDCs to create larger village councils—but not enough thinking has gone into analysing and disseminating the ways in which the new system should create viable local structures with exclusive public functions. The debaters are conveniently choosing to ignore that our old structures are ill equipped to do that.
Political actors also posit that there will be a dearth of manpower for the local bodies as the services being provided by the districts will need to be divided into multiple village councils. But this argument ignores the fact that retaining a relatively small number of local bodies, say 565, will spare a large number of personnel experienced in the management of local affairs. Besides, following the local elections, local level representatives will be instated. Fewer local structures mean fewer seats and more competitive political victories, which might bode well to enhance local political accountability.
Addressing old wrongs
Nepal is a hierarchical state and politicians on the local restructuring process seem unable to think beyond existing structures. It is pivotal that citizens and politicians are clear about upcoming structures, their differences from old structures, how they will be viable in terms of ‘economies of scale’ that entail considerable management capacities, and how they will address the old wrongs to ensure better access and equality.
There is no denying that there will be a big capacity gap, given the exclusive functions and the non-hierarchical nature of the structures. This requires thinking beyond the challenges of the current structures. And given the constitutional approval, it is more of a technical question than a political one. Effective local restructuring would require meticulous technical vision and clarity around actual roles and structures of the levels of government, their capacity needs, viability, concerns around fiscal decentralisation, along with openness to prospects of radical changes that may sharply depart from our comfort zones—our old structures.
Karki was a programme analyst for UNDP, where she managed the Local Governance and Community Development Programme. She can be reached at email@example.com