Sheer underrepresentationThe nation appears jubilant at the success of the first phase of the local level elections. The celebrations in the 34 districts where the elections have been held seem to overshadow the fact that two-thirds of the people are yet to exercise their suffrage.
The nation appears jubilant at the success of the first phase of the local level elections. The celebrations in the 34 districts where the elections have been held seem to overshadow the fact that two-thirds of the people are yet to exercise their suffrage. The fervour seems to be nationwide, primarily because elections were held in Kathmandu, the national Capital, and because they were held after two long decades. However, uncertainty over the second phase of the local polls slated for June 14 still looms large. To ensure that the second phase takes place on the stipulated date, major political parties must agree to bring the Rastriya Janata Party (RJP)—a new alliance of six Madesh-based parties—on board. If the RJP does not relent on its threats of boycotting the polls until its demands are met through a constitutional amendment, the difficulty in conducting the second phase will grow—particularly because it is almost impossible for the amendment bill to pass, which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The amendment proposes to re-delineate the borders of Province 5 and add a number of local government units ‘in proportion’ to the population in the southern plains. The unyielding stance of the main opposition party, the CPN-UML, makes meeting the magic number of parliamentarians required for passing the amendment bill almost impossible. So the only way to make polls possible would be to mobilise security forces in the polling areas that are likely to be disrupted. Of course, this is not a desirable solution. As such, the prime minister’s claim that the success of the first phase of local polls was the crowning glory to his tenure in office is premature.
How near is government?
The oft-touted justification for local governments in the federal scheme is that the people at the grassroots are truly empowered. Platitudes are aplenty: The local governments will get to enjoy the constitutionally ensured executive, legislative and (quasi?) judicial authority; the local polls have taken Singha Durbar to people’s doorsteps, meaning true devolution of state power is now a reality; with the polls, the constitution has entered the implementation phase.
No doubt, polls at all three levels of the state structure—federal, provincial and local—are inevitable. But the plausibility of actual empowerment is contingent on the principles and methods employed to determine the numbers and jurisdiction of state and local levels, and their functionality. Putting aside the state case for now, we have probably missed the bus while determining the size and provisions of representation at the local levels. The objective of ‘taking Singha Durbar to people’s doorsteps’ was perhaps defeated in the process. Although the representation system in the municipalities was largely left unchanged, the representation in the village bodies (gaunpalika) has been drastically truncated in the course of creating new, larger entities that combine several village development committees (VDCs).
In the erstwhile VDCs, there were nine wards. Each ward elected five executives, including a ward chairperson. The total number of elected representatives in a VDC used to be 52, including a VDC chair and a deputy, along with five nominated members under the inclusion principle. Now, these VDCs have been converted into wards of the new gaunpalikas or municipalities. The number of elected representatives in each of the new wards is reduced to five, including a chairperson. So electing a familiar person to represent the locals has become almost impossible.
Such underrepresentation at the local level has apparent disadvantages. Some of the regular services provided by the local governments are the certification/attestation of personal credentials and the registration of personal events like birth, death, marriages etc. In the VDCs, the existence of an adequately represented system meant that a ward member or chairperson personally knew the entire family history of his electorates. The service delivery was relatively hassle-free and less dependent on bureaucratic mercy. The new system, with only five representatives for an area previously managed by 52 elected people, will definitely not have a similarly entrenched affinity for electorates. These are clearly cases of sheer underrepresentation and, therefore, a complete antithesis to the very concept of federalism.
Another fallout of the recent realignment, which deserves a separate analysis, is the case of the personal home address system, particularly in village bodies. In the old system, an address was assigned labelling the VDC, the ward number, the particular village within the ward and the individual household, in that order. But now, the old wards have vanished and large areas of the VDCs have been converted into new wards, without numerical identification below that level.
The trade off
The size of the local governments in a federal system is determined under two, often conflicting, considerations—economic efficiency and service delivery. Local units that are too fragmented in terms of geographical area or population size may be less productive than the administrative costs they incur. This is exactly why several VDCs were annexed so as to create a sizable economy of a gaunpalika. While drastically reducing the number of elected representatives, a slimmer and more efficient administration might have been the focus. But this is only one side of the coin.
It was equally important to ensure adequate representation in decision-making and improved service delivery—a change that people could actually feel and appreciate. Both these crucial aspects were apparently ignored while creating new local government units.
No doubt the constitution through its Schedule-8 has given unprecedented power and authority to the local level.
But mobilisation of resources without adequate representation of people at the executive level is surely going to cause difficulties and constrain service delivery. The idea of public servants manning local development and service delivery despite an already available option of assigning that responsibility to elected representatives is essentially an anti-democratic hangover.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst