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Opinion

Nepal’s radical decentralisation: of surface winds and deep currents

Published on 12 March 2019

Image of Mireille Widmer
Mireille Widmer

PhD Student

Rarely is it possible to observe such drastic change in a political system as Nepal is currently undergoing. After decades of constitutional monarchy, ruling elites agreed to the principle of federalism in 2008, at the end of the so-called people’s war, and not without another uprising in the country’s Tarai region explicitly to this end. It then took two Constituent Assemblies and years of negotiations to hammer out the outlines of the new system. The Constitution was finally adopted in 2015. In September 2017, the last of three waves of local elections took place – the first time in 20 years that constituents could elect their local representatives. Electoral quotas meant hundreds of women and minorities across the country entered government for the first time at ward, municipal, provincial and federal level. From an institutional perspective, the change looks radical.

Still, how deep does this change actually run?

“Janakpur, 5 December 2018. Jagdish Yadav (centre) was elected chair of Ward 19 in the 'September 2017 local elections. He had already long been presiding over the Village Development Committee that previously governed this rural community.' © Bidhi Mandal / IDS
‘Janakpur, 5 December 2018. Jagdish Yadav (centre) was elected chair of Ward 19 in the September 2017 local elections. He had already long been presiding over the Village Development Committee that previously governed this rural community.’ © Bidhi Mandal / IDS

Janakpur as test tube

Research in Janakpur provides some cues. Janakpur is a sub-metropolitan city that also serves as new capital of Province 2, in Nepal’s Tarai region. It is an ancient city, a site of Hindu pilgrimage, but also one of the political centres on the frontlines of the country’s pro-democracy movements since the 1940s, and one of the hotspots of the Tarai protests between 2007 and 2015. This is where I have been conducting my PhD fieldwork since November 2018, probing the urban governance structure with my academic tweezers.

One of my first interviews when I arrived in Nepal was with a respected professor hailing from Janakpur. When I told him how I intended to document this spectacular transformation of governance, he smiled. Then he slowly shook his head. ‘Look, nothing really changed’, he said. My heart sunk.

Later I stumbled upon a book on Nepalese politics by Leo Rose and Margaret Fisher. It read: ‘the new political institutions mark a change in nomenclature rather than in the power or administrative structure.’ How insightful, I thought. And how eerie. That book was published in 1970.

Panchayat 2.0

Indeed it is not the first time that Nepal attempts to decentralise. In 1962, King Mahendra introduced the ‘partyless’ panchayat system as a way of including some elements of popular support to his government while retaining authoritarian control over decisions. The new structure featured four tiers of government – village, district, zone and national – in a hierarchy ultimately headed by himself. But five years later, contemporary (foreign) observers such as Rose, Fisher, as well as Frederick Gaige, agreed that the panchayat system did not noticeably change the underlying power structure, certainly in the Tarai. In those days, large landowners continued to hold power at village and district levels, where wealth and caste were better predictors of influence than holding an elected position. And at national level, the real locus of power was with the Palace, the Central Secretariat, and – albeit in a latent form – the Army.

Almost 60 years later, Nepal is in a different place. And yet, reading the news and talking politics in Janakpur, one wonders just how much of the old structures survive to this day.

High-level legislative storms

At national level, the main tussle is now played out in the legislative arena. Tensions between federal and provincial governments surfaced in October 2018 when Province 2 endorsed a Provincial Police Act before the long-awaited Federal Police Act had been finalised. The move triggered a firm response from Kathmandu. Ruling Nepal Communist Party Co-Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal warned Province 2 not to bypass the constitution, or they ‘would invite accident’ (Kathmandu Post, 23 October 2018). Still, on 28 October, the federal Cabinet passed an Executive Order allowing provinces to deploy police forces for maintaining law and order until the necessary federal laws are in place. The order only authorises the provincial police chief to mobilise personnel up to the sub-inspector level, which provinces consider woefully insufficient. But in a gesture of goodwill, Province 2 agreed to defer the introduction of its provincial police law.

Just how long the truce will last is not clear. The Federal Police Act features among the major pieces of legislation that lawmakers will not finalise as the winter session of parliament ends in mid-March. Furthermore, a parallel Peace and Security bill also in the works gives province-level executive powers for peace and security to Kathmandu-appointed Chief District Officers rather than provincial governments. Province 2 just issued a legislative counter-move in the form of a provincial peace and security bill creating district officers of its own (Kathmandu Post, 11 March 2019).

Municipal governments are also entering the fray, publicly accusing the federal government in early March 2019 of usurping their rights. The declaration referred to a new education bill whereby the federal assembly is legislating on issues that have been constitutionally devolved to local units.

Whether municipalities will receive the support of provincial governments in their struggle for recognition is unclear: Province 2 Chief Minister Lalbabu Raut was quoted saying that ‘Kathmandu has devolved too much authority to municipalities and village councils, bypassing provincial governments’ (Nepali Times, 14 June 2018).

Similar issues arise with the centralised bastion of national civil servants. In October 2018, a parliamentary committee on good governance accused the Chief Secretary in Kathmandu of not co-operating with the provincial governments to implement federalism. Provincial governments indeed suffer from serious human resource deficits, yet they are currently unable to recruit their own staff, relying instead on civil servants dispatched from the capital. This body of civil servants appears resistant to submit to the will of lower tiers of government.

Deep currents

Far from the limelight, Janakpur wards are largely unaffected by these high-level storms. Particularly in some of the rural wards that were only recently integrated within municipal boundaries, the ward chiefs are the mukhiyas of old, powerful traditional leaders who have often led these communities for decades. And if the quotas mean that there are now two women on every five-member ward committee, these generally complain of being ignored and side-lined in the management of ward affairs. Yet a slow transformation appears to be taking place. Since the elections in September 2017, some of the city’s 25 wards are now governed by a new generation of ward chiefs, young, educated leaders with fresh ideas for their community. And though still disempowered, women and minorities say their participation in ward committees allows them to quietly hone their governance skills.

So how deep was the change introduced by the 2015 Constitution? At the national level, the old triumvirate Frederick Gaige described in the late 1960s – Palace, Central Secretariat and Army – still seems firmly at the helm (the Palace in Kathmandu may not house a king anymore, but Singha Durbar is still the seat of the federal government). I have long given up on the illusion of observing a spectacular change of governance during my fieldwork. But my sense is that change is brewing in the depths of communities. Perhaps it is here, far below high politics, that the new constitution is currently deploying its most significant effects.

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