Lead anewThe creation of new organisations of historically marginalised groups can lead to transformative change
For transformative change, tradition, social norms, and values that subconsciously shape human and organisational consciousness and action must evolve in the desired direction. A mere change in the formal ‘rules of the game’ cannot carve a sustainable path for achieving the constitutional aspiration of economic prosperity and social security.
Constitutional or legal change can generate rare opportunities—such as the future direction Nepal is presented with now. With the implementation of the federal system of governance and the successful completion of the three-tiered elections in 2017, several new organisations have emerged.
The new organisations, particularly those formed in local governments, have taken tangible steps to foster inclusivity for women and Dalit communities, among other historically marginalised groups. Federal Nepal has brought forth 753 municipal level governments with 35,041 of elected representatives. Of them, women make up 14,339, of which Dalit women are 6,793, and Dalit men comprise 994. Notably, youth also make up a significantly large portion of the total elected representatives.
The commitment to electoral inclusivity has generated public hope that the constitution, with all its flaws and imperfections, can turn out to be a catalyst for achieving the aspirations of all citizens. The constitutional guarantee of ‘Ending all forms of discrimination and oppression’ including caste and gender-based inequalities for ‘economic prosperity and social justice’ is attainable in our own lifetime. Though this slogan has been substituted with the apolitical agenda of ‘prosperous Nepal, happy Nepali’, the demonstrated strides to ensure that the government reflects all of Nepal’s diversity are positive steps forward.
However, numbers are one thing. Representation, on the other hand, is an issue that extends beyond quotas. In the current centralised decision-making system that has come to characterise Nepal’s political parties, youths, women, and Dalit representatives are not yet influential.
Still, having overcome numerous hurdles in the process, these groups have banned together to form a formidable force in proposing and advocating for new agendas, norms, and values. Concurrently with their efforts to forward the agenda of economic infrastructure, they play a powerful role in challenging dominant parliamentary and organisational discourse by shaping the behaviour and pathways of institutions that advocate for caste and gender equality.
Yet, the pathways that these organisations have adopted thus far have raised alarms for some. If the decisions and actions that occurred during the last one and a half years of local governance is any indication of our future trajectory, then there are reasons to be alarmed. Some leaders who claim to represent ‘New Nepal’ have simply begun to walk the same old paths. For them, development, which is cherished in Nepal as bikas, primarily means investments in infrastructural projects such as road and building construction.
This has been gradually leading them to untoward paths. The local governments are now set to break the record for allegations of corruption. Headlines capturing the lengths at which corruption is practiced in nepal checker headlines of national newspaper everyday. Actions such as investing in inadvertent road construction projects and the lavish spending on luxurious vehicles for personal and governmental use has been draining state coffers. The penchant to spend on luxurious lifestyles and the desire to become popular overnight by distributing tax payers’ hard-earned money has kept elected representatives away from identifying and addressing root causes of systemic issues. These structural problems include caste and gender-based discrimination among others, which, as per the Constitution, were ‘created by the feudal, autocratic, centralised and unitary system’ and ossified and sustained as social norms, values, custom, and tradition for centuries. They have infiltrated into the ways organisations that claim to represent marginalised groups are governed and fundamentally shape how decisions are made. These continued conscious and subconscious interferences in the decision-making process have barred the perpetuation of new norms such as democratic values and respect for all communities from flourishing.
Douglas North, the recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize for his work on economic history, terms these social norms, values, and custom as ‘informal institutions’. These institutions, along with the constitution, laws, and bylaws, form what he terms as the ‘rules of the game’: an often unwritten and unacknowledged set of codes that regulates behaviour and actions of both authorities and citizens. While it is easy to change the formal rules, the New Institutionalists argue that the informal institutions often ‘become self-reinforcing, or sticky, and reforms that attempted to shift the path of an institution are difficult to effect’. What can better clarify this than Nepal’s political struggles for change in its political economy?
Nepal’s hierarchical caste and patriarchal system influenced and shaped the Old Civil Code of 1854, which came into practice as late as 1963. Nepal’s democratic movements of 1951,1990, and 2006 mobilised people with promises of ‘doing away’ of caste and patriarchal-based hierarchical governance.
The Civil Code of 1964, the Constitution of Nepal 1990, and the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007, and their subsequent laws and bylaws renounced the caste and patriarchy based discrimination. Yet, women and marginalised groups such as Dalit communities continue to face discrimination and inequality for their meaningful participation in decision-making processes.
This recurring state of affairs will undoubtedly set a precedent that a change in the formal ‘rules of the game’ may not be able to address. The challenges lies in behavioural transformation and not just electoral representation. The reation of new organisations and arithmetic representation of historically marginalised groups can be a departing point. What we can utilise this opportunity for is divergence from the adverse informal institutions that have infiltrated the ways organisations are governed and decisions are made.
This departure requires deliberate exogenous and endogenous efforts to create an enabling environment for marginalised voices to present their thoughts in policy dialogue and decision-making. One way the state and its development partners can support these new organisations is by nurturing a culture of research and knowledge production—approaches that have the capacity to generate new narratives for renewed social norms and values.
Nepali is a policy analyst and Dalit Reader Activist.