In filling public sector jobs, the federal government is making mistakesIt keeps forgetting about federalism and inclusiveness.
Writing just days after the 75th anniversary of D-Day, one cannot help but draw parallels between Hitler’s strategy in that war and what is going on in our country. Not so much about the totalitarianism that marked Nazi Germany, even if KP Sharma Oli has aptly demonstrated pretensions of a wannabe führer. But, rather to recall that one of the main reasons for Hitler’s ultimate undoing was his having opened up too many fronts at the same time. Our current government appears to be similarly inclined. In just these past few weeks, it has concurrently butted heads with different interest groups: the media is riled up due to the proposed media council; contractors opposed changes to the public procurement rules; heritage conservationists are up in arms against the guthi bill; and the opening up of vacancies to jobs in local governments is contributing to protests from marginalised groups.
We still have three years to go before we find out how all of this collective discontent will factor into the next round of elections even if fears have begun to be expressed by members of the ruling party. The government has backtracked in only one of the four instances mentioned above. No points for guessing that it was the contractors who managed to get their way given the very strong nexus between Nepal’s political elite and the business community, as was detailed in the latest issue of Himal Khabarpatrika. In all the other cases, the government has dug its heels and is readying for confrontation even if it means undercutting some of the very values it was elected to defend: freedom of expression as well as federalism and local autonomy, and inclusion.
Although all the three remaining issues have huge potential for mistakes should the government not tread carefully, it is especially so regarding the question of local government jobs. The advertisement by the Public Service Commission (PSC) for 9,161 local government positions tramples on the spirit of federalism since filling vacancies in local governments is the mandate given by the constitution to provincial public service commissions. The main source of ire though is the drastic reduction in the number of seats in the reserved category.
To use one example from the analysis by activist Tula Narayan Shah, in the general administration category, there are 2,921 seats, with 585 at the gazetted officer level and 2,336 at the non-gazetted. In the PSC opening, at the gazetted officer level, 81 percent of the seats are in the ‘open’ category and 19 percent in the ‘inclusion’ category, and at the non-gazetted level, 60 and 40 percent respectively—far different from the 55:45 percent that has been the norm by law since 2007.
The PSC ad came in the heels of the cabinet decision of 20 May 2019 that invoked a section in the Employee Adjustment Act of 2017 to fill the thousands of vacancies in local governments. As its preamble states unambiguously, the Employee Adjustment Act was a law specifically meant to find a mechanism to depute employees of the erstwhile Government of Nepal to federal, provincial and local governments. For the present federal government to defend its actions by citing a provision in the act that can be resorted to only when public service commissions at the provincial level had not been set up, and which happened because the federal laws required for the same was delayed at the centre, is nothing more than open dissimulation. All the more so, when we learn that Province 5 has already passed a law for the formation of its own PSC, and discussions are well underway in Provinces 2 and 7 (Sudurpaschim) on their respective laws, with plans to ‘fast-track’ the process in the latter.
The PSC itself appears to be caught in a cleft since it has been asked to fulfil its constitutional mandate of filling civil service vacancies while defending the basis it has used to calculate the number of open and reserved seats. One can understand its rationale of having to consider each local government as a separate unit, since by law they are separate and autonomous. The PSC advert actually informs the hopefuls that their appointments will come from local governments along with the terms and conditions of employment. But, that also means reducing the number of openings in each local government. The fewer seats there are, the smaller the number of reserved seats: if there is only one seat, there is no reserved category; in two, one is open, one is reserved; in three, two are open and one is reserved, and so on. Since there is only one seat for a number of positions available in many local governments, we end up with a situation such as the 81:19 percent ratio mentioned above.
In defence of the PSC, one can argue that outlining the parameters of federalism is not its job. Such a task, particularly in this time of transition to federalism, is the federal government’s. But, that government is being led by someone who has been among the most trenchant critics of both federalism and inclusion (with freedom of expression not actually a trait associated with a party that swears by Mao and Lenin). With repeated actions taken over the months to undermine federalism, seemingly with the intent to actually lead to its demise through a thousand cuts, one cannot but conclude that the government’s intentions were quite mala fide.
A way out
It is quite clear where the source of the current impasse lies. As Bimal Koirala, a former chief secretary of the Nepali government said in these pages: ‘The federal government failed to ensure enough staff for local governments during the employee adjustment process even though it kept making tall claims that the first priority would be meeting the staff needs of local governments.’
Krishna Pokhrel, public commentator and a former member of the Public Service Commission, has said that the PSC notice is against the principles of inclusion and has proposed two solutions. The first is to wait for the provincial PSCs to be formed and hand over the matter to them. The second is to consider all vacancies to be clustered at the provincial level instead of the local, thus increasing the number of reserved seats. Since the former is likely to be time-consuming and demoralising to those who plan to apply, he thinks the second option is the best way out.
Neither federalism nor inclusion is an issue that the majority in either the ruling party or the opposition appears to take full ownership of. In fact, I have yet to notice anyone from the Nepali Congress venturing an opinion on the current PSC imbroglio. That is rather unfortunate since it was changes wrought by federalism and inclusion in the state structure that arguably have been able to contribute to this period of peace after the Maoist insurgency. How such peace can be further strengthened by a more inclusive civil service can best be summed up in a quote used by Umesh Prasad Mainali, the current chair of the PSC. In one of his papers. Mainali appreciatively cites American scholar, Margo L Bailey, to declare: ‘Culturally competent public administration is a respect for, understanding of diverse ethnic and cultural groups, their history, traditions, beliefs and value system.’
We can consider ourselves quite lucky to have avoided the fate of the nearly 60 percent of post-conflict countries that lapse into renewed fighting. Our politicians would like to forget how close we came to the brink in our recent past, and but it is our duty as a nation to continually remind them.