Decentralisation In Nepal Taking Stock Of Local Governance : Pranav Bhattarai

A government can’t function without local governments, and no local government can perform effectively without decentralisation. It means that local governance and decentralisation go hand in hand. A decentralised local government has been a parameter for testing the democratic credentials of governments and state across the globe. How democratic a state is largely depends on the level of devolution of powers it has bestowed to the local bodies (LBs).

Thus, decentralisation is a key to local self-governance in democratic countries globally. In Nepal’s context too, if we look at the history of decentralised development and practice of local governments, it dates back to the Panchayat regime (1962 to 1990). Various local government Acts and Regulations were put in place in the last six decades. These legislation and legal frameworks served as a basis for decentralising power from the central government to the local governments at the village, municipality and district levels.

Decentralisation initiatives 

From the decentralisation perspective and initiatives taken so far since the early 1960s, Nepal has undergone three distinct phases of decentralisation. The first phase (1960-1990) was a ‘transition phase’, which included the articulation of a formal decentralisation policy framework in 1962 and the enactment of the Decentralisation Act in 1982 and its Regulations in 1984. The second phase (1990-2006) began with the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990, followed by three local government Acts enacted in 1991, local democratic elections in 1992 and in 1997, and the initiation of a fiscal transfer system from 1993. The local government system was consolidated through the enactment of the Local Self-Governance Act (LSGA) in 1999.

The third phase (2006-onwards) includes a period of post-conflict transition, April uprising (Jana Andolan-II-2006), and conduct of the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008 and in 2013 to pave the way for the promulgation of a new federal constitution. The people’s expectation is that it will provide a genuine opportunity for Nepal to formally embed the key decentralisation principles of devolution and citizen empowerment in the new constitution, to enhance local participatory governance and to improve delivery of efficient and equitable public services.

Considerable changes in the politics and mode of governance have occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, accelerating after 1990. Jeff Key in his article ‘Nepal in Crisis: Democratisation and Failure of Local Government’ strongly puts that though the power devolved away from the monarchy in the past and the monarch itself has been abolished for a republic system through the first meeting of the CA in 2008, Kathmandu’s central role in the national political life has not diminished. The government and mode of governance even in the changed political system continues to remain unitary despite the initiatives for evolving decentralised local governance.

Initiatives for decentralisation began in the Panchayat era by constituting the Administrative Power Decentralisation Commission (APDC) in 1962. As laid out by the APDC, it was recommended that all powers, except foreign policy and defense, ought to be devolved to the village Panchayats. Professor Krishna Hachhetu writes in “Local Democracy and Political Parties in Nepal: A Case Study of Dhanusha District”, following the APDC’s recommendations, a three-phase decentralization policy was taken up by the Panchayat government starting in 1965.

The first phase of policy revision made in 1967 emphasised ‘decentralisation for development’ and the second phase revision in 1975 had a policy of a ‘unified district administrative system’. Enactment of a full-fledged Decentralization Act in 1982 was the culmination of a third phase of the decentralisation initiative started by the Pachayati rulers that emphasised ‘people’s participation through a bottom-up planning process.

Though some efforts for decentralised local governance were made during those years too, the sovereignty was vested in the absolute monarchy by the constitution, and the people did not have much freedom to have a say in the local affairs.

Krishna Hachhetu also writes that despite these legal provisions and institutional designs for decentralisation and devolution of powers, the Panchayati model of decentralisation policy confronted self-contradiction and encountered difficulties in its operationalisation. The accountability structure then was vertical, as a result of which the so-called elected people in the Village, Nagar and District Panchayats remained accountable towards the king rather than to the people who they were supposed to serve and deliver services. The accountability gap was high between the citizens and people’s representatives, and there was no downward accountability.

The Decentralisation Act of 1982 created an environment for extending the outreach of government departments to the districts by establishing their respective offices and started delivering services to the citizens. But, powers only relating to planning and operational matters were delegated to the district line agencies. However, the power to allocate resources and programme design was still vested with the line departments/ministries. People did not have a genuine feel of ownership in the local affairs and were not allowed to decide and design programmes as per their local needs and priorities.

The legislation did not devolve any power in the real sense of the term but only fostered de-concentration of some powers on the line agencies and local governments in the name of decentralisation. As a result, legislation did not do much to promote and institutionalise decentralised local governance in those days, hence meaningful contribution to promoting a powerful and resourceful local government largely remained unfulfilled.

Future course?

As Nepal emerges out of the decade-long armed conflict and grapples with various problems, building local governance structures must warrant highest attention in the post-conflict situation. But it seems that this agenda has been overshadowed by other big political issues and agendas in the constitution-making process. As democracy underlies the principle of social contract between the people and their representatives, the long absence of elected representatives in the LBs has terminated this contract for over a decade.

Because of the protracted vacuum in the LBs, people are losing trust in these institutions as they have been deprived of their democratic right to participate in decentralised local governance and development process. Defunct local governance and its institutions have left a scar on the façade of local democracy, which has rolled back Nepal’s past efforts to promote decentralised local governance. Therefore, periodic local elections are the only alternative to injecting life into the almost dead local governance system and decentralisation initiatives of Nepal.

Source: The Rising Nepal. Date: 27 November, 2016