18-24 April 2014 #703

Centre against periphery

There is no political will for local elections among Kathmandu’s smug and self-absorbed rulers

Since the end of the conflict seven years ago, we have had as many governments. There have been two national elections for Constituent Assemblies. This is pretty dismal, but what is even more shameful is that we haven’t had local elections for more than 16 years now.

After deliberately being allowed to lapse in 2002, physically destroyed during the conflict, and then left in limbo without elected functionaries, the country’s village, district and municipality councils have been the target of every central government: be it an absolute monarchy, armed rebels, democratic coalitions, elected revolutionaries, or technocratic governments. Despite the lip service they pay to decentralisation, Kathmandu’s rulers, whatever their ilk, don’t seem to want to let go of their stranglehold on the central government.

No wonder the capital and other cities look the way they do. No wonder development is at a near standstill across rural Nepal. No wonder the Chure is desertifying in front of our eyes. No wonder ever more Nepalis are migrating for work because there are no jobs, and no hope for the future.

The Sher Bahadur Deuba government dissolved elected local councils in July 2002 using the war as an excuse, but really because the NC didn’t want the UML to win again. When King Gyanendra held local elections in February 2006, most didn’t bother to vote and not just because of Maoist threats.

Everything that has worked in Nepal since 1990 has been because of local ownership and community participation. Community forestry took off because grassroots democracy allowed user groups to set their own agenda. Democracy won’t work without participation, and participation is not possible without communication, and the success of Nepal’s community radio revolution fortified grassroots democracy. As we see in a field report from Kushadevi of Kavre district, when democracy empowers the people to force their elected VDC chairman to be accountable, miracles happen. By the late 1990s rural Nepalis were showing that they could take charge of their own destiny, manage health and education, preserve forests, and maintain irrigation canals on their own.

But even this achievement could not withstand the violent onslaught of the extreme left and the extreme right. The Maoists chopped off the feet of democracy in the countryside, and an autocratic king decapitated it in Kathmandu. What we are left with today is a headless and limbless torso, which is why it is taking so long to get democracy to work again.

Ever since the conflict ended in 2006, every successive government has used one pretext or other not to hold local elections. A deal worked out between the main parties last year stated that local elections would be held within a year. That deadline, like many others, has lapsed. Ever since their electoral defeat, the UCPN(M) has gone cold on local polls, although they should see it as a great chance to redeem their lost rural support.

Ask the people, like we did last year in a nationwide public opinion survey, and you find overwhelming support for immediate local elections to kickstart development. The people understand the relationship between local democracy and service delivery, most politicians don’t. Village and district councils are now run by bureaucrats, or by a ‘mechanism’ of local parties.

Corruption is endemic, central allocations for rural services and development are mostly plundered by local political hyenas. National infrastructure projects like the World Bank-funded transmission line from Tama Kosi is obstructed by a few local goons not answerable to the people. Major hydropower projects are delayed because of local extortionists.

Politics abhors a vacuum. The void at the local level is being filled by criminals, when it should be composed of elected councillors so we can make up for two lost decades of development. We just have to make sure local bodies are more inclusive than before by weighting representation by women and marginalised.

There is no reason why all this can’t happen while the debate on the constitution goes on, while we decide what kind of federalism to have, or while we discuss transitional justice. First you need the political will for local elections, a commodity that is sadly lacking among Kathmandu’s smug and self-absorbed rulers.

Read also:

Vacuum in the villages KUNDA DIXIT

High tension in Sindhuli Ramesh Kumar

All politics is local ASHUTOSH TIWARI

A wide open field

We, the people CK LAL

Infographic: High Tension in Sindhuli

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