Nepali Times Asian Paints
Power to the people


As the new Maoist-led government takes power in Kathmandu, past experience has shown the fastest way to ensure development at the grassroots is to devolve that power to local units.

For this, the Maoists must rebuild the elected village and district committees that they dismantled during the war. Three thousand of the 4,000 VDC buildings were bombed, members were chased out, DDCs were not allowed to function properly.

Here in Khusadebi village, the VDC building was firebombed by the Maoists in 2003 (right) and there are ruins of the village councils all over the district overgrown with vegetation.

"Ten years ago, we had found the path to rapid rural development," recalls Khusadebi's elected UML VDC chairman, Bhim Neupane, "local elected officials were forced to be accountable and we had to deliver schools, health services, roads to markets. There was a direct link between grassroots democracy and development."

All that was destroyed in the war. There hasn't been local elections for 10 years. VDCs function with just a secretary, if at all. When Parliament passed the Local Self Governance Act in 1998, it broke conventional and cultural barriers and transferred not just decision-making authority but also the right to frame local laws to elected village and district committees. Where these committees began to exercise new powers, decentralisation delivered development.

"The strength of the Act was that it recognised that devolution was necessary for development," says Dwarika Dhungel, a researcher at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies. But in July 2002, local elections could not be held and the Local Self Governance Act has remained in limbo ever since.

As the process of writing a new constitution begins, experts say that the CA members need to learn from past mistakes and build on the successes of rural democracy of the 1990s. "As a concept, decentralisation is quite simple: empower those who are most affected by any development practice," says development expert Bihari Krishna Shrestha.

Nepal is committed to fulfilling various international commitments, including achieving Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Experts say the central government should focus on national projects and leave the districts alone to plan out their own futures. "If the government actually wants devolution to work this time, it needs to start rebuilding the destroyed VDCs and DDCs," says Khem Raj Nepal at the Institute of Local Governance Studies. But simply giving power to local people is not enough, he says, VDCs need resources to implement plans.

The 1998 Local Self Government Act gave power to local authorities, but in the past five years the VDCs are run by government bureaucrats. Says Krishna Prasad Sapkota, CA member from Kabhre-3: "It is absurd that a VDC secretary in Manang has to be sent from Singha Darbar. There's no accountability. If that officer makes a mistake in one VDC, he is immediately transferred to another. They have to be locally elected."

Despite being the first country in South Asia to attempt devolution, Nepal's progress with decentralisation was first stalled by the war and now by the lack of preparation for local elections.

But it is a model that can easily be revived. The 2007 interim constitution endorsed a federal system of governance, but some fear that even within a federal structure there could be the concentration of key powers in the centre. Warns researcher Dwarika Dhungel: "Power could still be centred in the provincial capitals and with little devolution to the grassroots."

Sowing doubts - FROM ISSUE #414 (22 AUG 2008 - 28 AUG 2008)
Land and peace - FROM ISSUE #414 (22 AUG 2008 - 28 AUG 2008)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)