13-19 December 2013 #685

THE ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY

The people have understood the link between grassroots democracy and development, most politicians still haven’t

JON APPEL
It took only a few years after the first people’s movement in 1990 for quarrelsome political leaders to get bogged down with greed. The rot started at the top, but at the grassroots democracy was taking root.

Local elections were guaranteeing accountable local leaders who had to perform to get re-elected and to rise up the ranks to national politics. The Decentralisation and Local Self Governance Act of 1998 wasn’t perfect, but it empowered elected local bodies and institutionalised the political authority of VDCs, DDCs, and municipalities.

Like politics, all governance is local. The success stories of the past two decades all happened because communities were democratically empowered. Community forestry wouldn’t have taken off without local democracy. The result actually changed Nepal’s midhill landscape (see page 16-17). Grassroots democracy is not possible without participation, which is not possible without communication, and Nepal’s community radio revolution dovetailed ideally with grassroots democracy. When given command over their own destiny, elected local bodies have successfully protected their forests, managed schools and health-posts, repaired bridges and trails, and built their own microhydro plants.

What happened after 1996 is a part of the fateful dismantling of local democracy by the insurgent Maoists who saw it as a threat to their armed struggle. By the time the conflict ended in 2006, nearly all the 4,000 VDC buildings across Nepal had been physically destroyed, many elected representatives were killed, others fled to the cities.

Another threat to local democracy came from national democratic leaders themselves. Since the 1997 local elections had been swept by the UML. When the time came in 2002 for the next local polls, the NC Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba used the excuse of the war to cancel them and he refused to legally extend their term. It was a blunder that cost the country dearly and together with the conflict pushed the country’s development back by decades.

Ever since, Local Development Officers and bureaucrats appointed by Kathmandu have been running local councils. Since 2008, the ruling parties set up a ‘four-party mechanism’ to oversee local development and the VDCs and DDCs were soon infected with the corrosive and corrupt politics at the centre. Forestry user groups and school committees are now politically polarised. In the absence of elected municipal councils, Nepal’s cities are bursting at the seams with unplanned growth, crumbling infrastructure, mountains of garbage, and rivers that have turned into sewers.

The reason everyone has been reluctant to go for local elections is because of the fear of losing. But after the November’s CA election, there is new interest among the UML and NC. There is nothing to prevent local elections from being held by April, the Election Commission says it can do it with electronic voting.

The Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey in May showed people are dissatisfied with the prolonged absence of local representatives. Asked when there should be new local elections, nearly half the respondents said ‘right away’. The people have understood the relationship between local democracy and development, most politicians still haven’t.

The Maoists, still smarting from their humiliating defeat, should see local elections as a chance to redeem some of their lost support. By eschewing violence and projecting itself as a party of change, local polls can be a golden opportunity for the former revolutionaries.

Politics abhors a vacuum and it is time to fill the void at the local level so that the engine of development can be kickstarted after 18 years. The parties are bickering again about whether or not to change the president, but announcing local elections should be the new parliament’s first order of business.

At the village or district level, it doesn’t really matter which party a candidate belongs to, as the best and most honest managers get the job. Local development can decentralise decision-making, spur local development, create jobs in agriculture and infrastructure, improve services, reduce urban pressure, and most of all improve the lives of the majority of Nepalis who live in rural areas. We just have to make sure that local councils are more inclusive than they were in the 1990s and truly representative of Nepal’s diversity in order to give hitherto neglected communities a say.

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