Nepali Times
Think nationally, act locally

The continuing Tarai unrest, brewing discontent among groups demanding self-determination, intractable tension within the party leading the coalition, the inability of the state to protect its citizens and improve their lives?these are just some of the crises Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal faces. And all the time, he has to prevent the peace process from being derailed and keep to the timetable on the constitution.

The job would have been difficult even if there was a consensus government, the coalition partners loved each other, the bureaucracy was clean and efficient and there was no looming global depression. What makes Dahal's job immensely more difficult is that his party is still behaving like it is in the jungles, and Kathmandu's politicians act as if they are still in the era of self-centred coalition politics of the 1990s.

Everything that has worked in Nepal since 1990 has the word 'community' attached to it. Grassroots democracy in Nepal has a demonstrated ability to deliver development. When given command over their own destiny, elected local bodies have protected their forests, managed schools and health-posts, repaired bridges and trails and built their own microhydro plants.

Like politics, all governance is local. The last local elections were held in 1997 in which nearly two-thirds of the elected officials were the UML. The 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.

The Maoists saw grassroots democracy as a threat and made elected local units their first targets. Over half of country's 4,000 VDC buildings were physically destroyed, many elected representatives were killed, some were abducted and others fled to the cities. Despite this, most VDCs continued to function.

In 2002, Sher Bahadur Deuba made the colossal blunder of scrapping local elections even though he could have legally extended their terms by a year. Ever since, bureaucrats and LDOs appointed by Kathmandu have been running VDCs, DDCs and municipalities, which is why they are such a mess.

Political parties recently agreed that until new elections can be held, local units will be governed by committees composed of political parties in proportion to their share of votes in the CA elections. This arrangement isn't exactly democratic, but will do for now. However, the whole deal has unraveled because the parties that didn't do so well in the elections are afraid that the Maoists will get their hands on the Rs 3 million grants for individual VDCs.

The NC is raising procedural issues, and a section of the UML now wants fresh local polls knowing fully well this can't happen until a new constitution is written. The direct casualty of this political bickering at the centre will be further setbacks to community participation in local development. The NC and UML need to think through the other consequence of their stonewalling: the Maoists will fill the continuing political vacuum in the village and district units.

For whatever it is worth, our suggestion would be to stick to the prior agreement on local committees, expedite the disbursement of VDC grants so that Nepal can carry on where it left off in 1997 with the proven correlation between local self-governance and grassroots development.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)