If democracy was working in Nepal in the past 12 years, it was working at the grassroots. Locally elected bodies, self-government and decentralisation were flourishing, functioning and beginning to deliver development.
It was a process that took years to build, but it was destroyed in one fell swoop by Sher Bahadur Deuba in mid-July. He snatched local self-government away from the people, and thereby made the single most serious anti-democratic blunder of his career. As it turned out, that move helped no one but the Maoists by giving them a vacuum to fill at the local level.
The only silver lining in the dark clouds of the democratic process after 1990 was that Nepalis finally had control over their own decision-making in the 4,000 VDCs, 75 DDCs, and 58 municipalities all over the country.
The last two local elections were keenly contested throughout the country, with all the parties and many independents in the fray. The polls were on the whole free, fair and peaceful. The participation and turnout was so enthusiastic that the joke doing the rounds was that every Nepali was a neta. With five peoples' representatives to be elected from each ward and up to ten parties and independents in the fray, candidates almost outnumbered voters!
The prize was, of course, political power and the responsibility that comes out of being entrusted with the peoples' mandate to serve. Irrespective of the size or resources of the local entity, an elected representative had to show leadership qualities and a sense of accountability towards the people.
Good local-governance needs participation, rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, consensus orientation, equity, effectiveness and efficiency, accountability and strategic vision. And elected leaders have no alternative but to deliver since the voters see their leaders every day. They monitor your every move. Compared to politics at the national level, accountability at the grassroots is not just a slogan it is a political necessity.
Compared to national-level politics, the participation of women in local decision-making is much stronger. We got the feeling that we were laying the building blocks of democracy and development in our country. Locally-elected leaders were under pressure to deliver, and they did. They galvanised popular participation in infrastructure-building, environmental protection, good and responsive management, local taxation, health and sanitation, vocational training creating self employment and income generation, modernisation with the use of computerised record and book keeping.
Donor support was critical. They believed in the importance of local self-governance and some very successful programs were implemented with the help of UNDP's PDDP, the Town Development Fund, UDLE, ADB, UNICEF, Peace Corps, JICA, Plan International and others. The "Build your own village yourself" program was a huge success, with finances going directly to the village level to be supplemented by peoples participation.
To be sure, local bodies had their problems and there were setbacks in the path towards decentralisation. But these problems had their roots in the short-sighted policies of Kathmandu, and the rules they forced on local councils to prevent true devolution.
For example, the centre placed an administrative officer at all levels of local government citing their lack of capacity to run things as per government rules. Every central government wants to control local bodies to further the political and financial needs of their party cadre. This triggered haggling by members of local councils which were not compatible with the broader vision of the chairmen or mayors.
There were flaws in the structure or the electoral system, too, where the VDC Chairman and the Mayor were elected via the presidential system of adult franchise, but have to operate on a prime ministerial cabinet system. This caused a lot of confusion, heartburn and obstacles for elected leaders.
But on the whole, the Local Self- Government Act BS 2055 (1999) was positive. One clause allowing an elected member to change parties without losing the position, office or chair did cause controversy. On the face of it, it seems perfectly democratic to be able to change one's stand, but in our context we have seen it leads to horse-trading and corruption.
The national parties also need to play down their influence in running or controlling local affairs. Once elected, local leaders represent the whole electorate and not just their specific party or those who voted them to power. Such partisanship is most visible when carried out at the local level.
Then again, the central government has special tools to control local government through ministry directives or general circulars. The revenue or most local bodies is sent by the centre as a monthly "development fund". After the octroi tax was abolished, this constitutes the bulk of the revenue for municipalities. Since the centre controls the purse strings, it also tries to control the local bodies on the pretext of ensuring accountability.
The Deuba move not to renew the term of local bodies even though there was a constitutional provision to extend the term by a year was a cynical political move to get the UML-dominated local councils out of the way in case general elections were held.
Since polls could not be held because of the security problems, the most logical thing to do would have been to extend the term of local bodies. But logic, it seems, has no place when national politics is dominated by self-centred and short-sighted figures at the centre.
As is evident, this decision was a disaster. Local bodies have been left without elected representatives, affecting the people adversely. The field was left wide open for the Maoists. They now have de facto control of the grassroots, and for reasons only they know have destroyed one-third of all VDCs. In Rukum, Rolpa, Achham, Dadeldhura, Baglung and Dang there isn't a single VDC still functioning.
The Ministry of Local Development says more than Rs 450 million damage has been done. Municipalities and DDC buildings have not been spared. The physical infrastructure may be rebuilt, but by completing the job of dismantling democracy that Deuba began, the Maoists have set this country back a century or more.
Local bodies in Nepal had for the most part proved that democracy works and delivers because elected representatives are forced to be committed and accountable.
It is therefore in the interest of the people and the future of democracy in this country that local self-government units be revived at once. And since local elections are out of the question, reinstating village, district and municipality councils is the way to go.
(Dr Dhawal Shumshere JB Rana is the former UML mayor of Nepalganj.)