Nepali Times Asian Paints
By The Way
By the people, for the people



BAGLUNG The deadlocked politics and protracted transition in Kathmandu has trickled down to the grassroots, and nowhere more so than here in this stunningly scenic district on the lap of Dhaulagiri.

The democratic deficit, the budget paralysis, and the fact that there have been no local elections for 12 years have seriously impacted development and the community spirit that this country was once famous for. Highways are blocked regularly by political groups, schools closed by extortion rackets, public health is in shambles, and the lack of investment has increased the exodus of young men from districts like Baglung.

But even when the absence of elected bodies at the national and local levels left a governance vacuum in the country, it was the communities that kept the grassroots democratic structures intact. Community forestry user groups, traditional community-managed irrigation, and micro-hydropower projects managed by elected local groups kept the country going.

Primary school teacher Netra KC from Chhisti VDC says villagers used the community forestry model of dividing households into social and economic categories to manage local schools. "We found that the model helped us provide the best to the most needy, also ensuring that the most-abled section took greater share of responsibilities," he told me.

In the absence of local elections, villages are governed by all-party mechanisms that reflect the power proportion from the 2008 elections in Kathmandu. These have lacked accountability, and have recently degenerated into a four-party dictatorship steeped in corruption and loot.

Nepal's long-suffering villages have been hit hardest as existing drinking water schemes were not maintained, irrigation and agriculture extension went into limbo, and VDCs and DDCs were only interested in creaming off budget allocations to award road contracts to themselves.

This eroded the acclaimed success of user groups in Nepal, particularly in forestry, irrigation, drinking water, and rural electrification. Many of them had become examples of inclusive development, successfully providing and administering services, accumulating savings. A user group in Baglung is investing the Rs 3 million of savings in a small hydropower project.

But despite their democratic structure and past success, user groups have so far been functioning as ad hoc institutions to make up for the absence of the state. There is no legal framework to define their role or regulate their actions. Now due to the lack of elected accountable officials, user groups are also being politicised and turning into hotbeds of corruption. Although regular elections are held within user groups, they are dominated by powerful local elites and party leaders who divide up the spoils.

There are over 15,000 community-based user groups in the country today. But the government is yet to formulate policies to determine their roles and jurisdiction. Moreover, there is a glaring disconnect between the working premise of various community user groups. This has hindered the growth and potential of the groups and eroded the gains of the community movement in Nepal.

The constitution has established local communities' rights over natural resources and there are sectoral policies (and acts) in place to harness these locally available resources. However, the overlapping provisions and inconsistency between various acts pose a major challenge.

For the last four years, Nepal's politics has revolved around few parties and their interests. People don't expect this to change in the near future. But if Kathmandu does not have any solution to offer rural Nepal, the least it can do is not become a part of the problem.

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The only way out of the current impasse is to hold fresh elections by first setting upon an inclusive government

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)