Renewed recourse to recentralisationUnless the centre devolves power, federalism cannot be exercised in its true sense.
The federal government now appears to be in an inexorable recourse to recentralisation by trampling on the country’s nascent federal constitutional edifice. Addressing a public function last week, Prime Minister KP Oli reiterated that provincial and local governments are units under the federal government. The statement only reinforced a similar statement made in Parliament on May 7th while responding to queries of federal lawmakers raised during the debate on the government’s policies and programmes. ‘The provincial and local governments are under the federal government and federal laws. They are not independent governments,’ he had asserted.
Treating both provincial and local governments merely as units of the federal government is not only against the global practice and norm of the self-and-shared rule but is also clearly detrimental to the spirit of our own constitutional provisions that, in particular, outline specific characteristics of the relationship between the different governments within the federation. According to Article 56(1) of the constitution, ‘The main structure of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal shall be of three levels, namely the federation, the state and the local level.’ As for the nature of the interaction, Article 232 provides: ‘The relations between the federation, states, and local level shall be based on the principles of cooperation, co-existence and coordination.’
Clearly, the idea of ‘cooperation, co-existence and coordination’ does not envision any form of decision hierarchy and ‘subordination’ by the federal government to provincial and/or local governments. Of course, the federal government as its duty has to assume critical national roles related to defence, diplomacy and sovereignty. But this cannot be the pretext to infringe upon the constitutionally defined rights of sub-national governments. And these sub-national jurisdictions, including the local levels, are obvious constituent units of the larger nation-state but the ‘governments’ in them are in no way subservient units of the federal government. The rationale and functionality of federalism as a system would remain intact only if the exclusive roles, responsibilities and independence as provided in the constitution are respected by the governments of all three tiers; particularly, by the strongest of all—the federal government.
The chicanery of centralisation is gradually becoming all-encompassing; beyond the anti-federal rhetoric of the prime minister and other members of his cabinet. A dreadfully uneasy political silence appears to be enveloping the entire democratic space. Bills curtailing media freedom, lame-docking the National Human Rights Commission and containing the activities of the civil society are often rushed through the federal parliament without proper deliberation. No doubt, the government has not only taken full advantage of an absolute majority of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in the House but the Oli one-upmanship has effectively reined in their tongues as well. More mysterious is the summary taciturn of the main opposition party, the Nepali Congress, to the extent often giving room for suspicion of collusion between the topmost leadership of the ruling and main opposition parties in exchange of some undisclosed, potentially large vested interests. Also, there is hardly any space for meaningful debate outside Parliament on any of these critical derailments, away from even basic democratic tenets.
Apart from Parliament being paralysed as such, the concept of separation of power—the unequivocal imperative to democracy—has now perceivably come under a draconian shadow of deliberate executive excesses. The constitutional bodies now function as the extended department of some government ministry. The scope of implementing federalism without the federal government being sincere in its commitment to strengthen democracy is hypocritical.
Not very surprisingly though, the expressed predilection of the federal government towards political recentralisation has provided a much-needed leeway to Nepal’s bureaucratic authoritarians. The pervasiveness of the true intent of preventing the devolution power in the federal scheme is now evident in the difficulties faced on implementing, specifically, administrative and fiscal federalism.
For the last two years now, since the completion of the first phase of local elections, one of the excruciating bottlenecks in making local governments convincingly functional is the unavailability of public servants at the service delivery point. The problem has persisted despite the federal government’s putatively honest and all-out efforts to send required personnel to all sub-national governments. Several initiatives to this end are allegedly often thwarted by the centralism-oriented bureaucracy.
In fact, the root of the problem runs much deeper than the unwillingness of the civil servants to be posted in remote hinterlands and the government’s inability to send them there. In retrospect, insertion of a faulty constitutional provision that assigns authority to the provincial government to hire civil servants required for the local governments seems apparently contrived during the constitution drafting by authoritarian bureaucrats and grossly overlooked even by federalist politicians.
This pro-centralism mentality has also been a major impediment to put both legal and institutional frameworks in place. The federal government, on the one hand, has shirked away from enacting several essential federal laws and bylaws, whereas, on the other has introduced bills indented to controlling the sub-national governments even in their fiscal and administrative operations. Instead of implementing due fiscal federalism framework, its obsession with parafiscal extraction also exhibits anti-federal machinations.
To reemphasise, without vesting adequate, if not all, constitutional authority to the local levels to man their respective governments and implement own fiscal policy, the federal system is bound to fail than to succeed. The current systematic manoeuvres of the federal government to recentralise power back from federalism would only add salt to the wounds.
However, despite these concerted efforts of recentralisation, there are still a few glimmers of hope which, if consolidated, cannot only deflect the recentralisation tantrums but also save the federal architecture. The elected representatives of both provincial and local levels have tasted power and also have visualised better prospects to deliver goods if they get ‘support’ to assert their authority, understand the public management process and capacitate them to consolidate their functions. The local elected executives at the moment are looking for immediate support in three main areas of already legally devolved authority.
First, they want to be able to frame their own finance bill by incorporating all its inevitable components, addressing the priorities of their economy. Second, they are desperate to understand the process of (basic) public financial management, including public procurement, so that they can at least utiliseavailable funds. Third, they are keen to learn the generally acceptable process of adjudication, a responsibility to be shouldered by the local governments as part of their judicial authority.
But, unfortunately, there is no agency to support their causes. Chief ministers are constantly raising concerns over centre’s increasingly leviathan behaviour but have found no or little political secondment to their voice. Local governments equally feel laid down by the federal government. Some of the international development partners keen to provide support to local capacity building are whipped to operate only through the finance ministry. Regretabbly, finance ministry itself is functioning as the key apparatus to centralisation.
Wagle is professor (adjunct) at Kathmandu University School of Management.