Nepali Times
Guest Column
Devolution, not revolution


Whoever we may blame for the crisis of democracy in Nepal, we have to agree that all Nepalis are in this together. The other point most would accept, one that is the source of many of Nepal's current problems, is that political and economic power is concentrated in the capital. A federal system of government to devolve power across Nepal would be an essential first step in resolving the present crisis.

Kathmandu's over-importance, its pampered class and its unconcern are resented by many millions of Nepalis outside the Valley, and the Maoists have succeeded in taking advantage of that sentiment. The government, instead of only pursuing a military solution, must start thinking of a three-pronged strategy that includes security, economic development, and political change.

On the political front, a federal mechanism would preserve the constitutional monarchy and strengthen multiparty democracy, and it would not require any changes in our administratively-defined geographic units such as village councils, district units and development regions. The current constitutional provisions dealing with the monarchy, and legislative, executive and judicial power and responsibility would remain intact. Other changes would be required in the constitution, including:

. Introduce five regional assemblies. Two or three directly elected representatives from each district within the region would determine the size of the assemblies. The members of the village assemblies would elect the governor, avoiding a conflict of interest between the governor and the assembly members.
. The governor appoints a district officer or commissioner-a career civil servant-for each district to coordinate development efforts, but the district-level entity will not have the authority to levy taxes.
. Reduce the size of VDCs and the number of ward representatives.
. The governors pick experts who are not members of the assembly to form the cabinet. This ensures that there is no conflict of interest between the lawmakers and the members of the executive branch (the cabinet).
. Taxing power and responsibilities should be based on the size and scope of each level of government. The Planning Commission and the Monitoring Body can help in this regard. Any disputes among the three layers of governments about power and responsibilities can be settled by the Supreme Court.
. Give the central authority (eg, the Lower and Upper Houses based on two-thirds majority) the complete power to take over regional and local governments in case of a grave emergency situation, such as local and/or regional insurgency that threatens national security.
. The regional government should not be allowed to raise armed forces. It may be delegated some policing role.
. The regional legislative body should not pass laws that contradict national laws. Any disputes must be settled in the Supreme Court.

A parallel judiciary system, which is not discussed here, needs to be worked on eventually to fit the proposed institutional mechanism. A constitutional provision is needed to devolve power to the regional government and reduce the functionality of the district-level entity in order to avoid and reduce duplication, conflicts, and the expenses of coordination.

Unlike the republic demanded by the Maoists, the proposed decentralised political system encourages electoral participation and promotes accountability. And, under this system, the constitutional monarchy is actually strengthened. Strong regional governments would reduce the impact of national-level crises on ongoing development efforts outside the Valley much the same way as impeachment hearings in the United States did not impede the business of state level governments. Similarly, the national crises in New Delhi engross national legislators, but state governments move on with their economic growth and development plans.

The regional jurisdiction is much better equipped to fight for the rights and responsibilities of the fifteen or so districts within each district/ regional assembly. Under the current system, political bosses tend to take projects to their constituencies, often in eastern Nepal, and many weak districts in western Nepal get left out.

The central government will also be more efficient in dealing with five regional governments rather than a host of highly heterogeneous and fragmented district units. In addition, the provision of a direct voting mechanism ensures accountability, and puts into place checks and balances. Five regional governments in a geographically challenged country like Nepal will work, especially in the context of growing regional sentiments vis-?-vis the centre of power, Kathmandu.

Voters may vote for a party and its candidates at the national level on the basis of issues of national importance such as SAARC and SAFTA, immigration policy, trade with India, water resources, national security, discrimination against dalits and women, child labour, girl trafficking, information technology, income tax, and environmental damages and policies. At the same time, they may choose to be totally apolitical in the selection of their local, village-level leaders, and consider only their ability to look after local needs and issues such as law and order, sanitation, property taxes, health.

Similarly, regional level voting preferences may be based on completely different issues, such as the nature of the regional universities, exploitation of water resources, small hydro power, tourism, sales tax, property tax, business tax, emission standards, public school systems, or healthcare. Federalism and political decentralisation would also help achieve equity across different regions within a country.

It is likely that such a proposal would fall within the intersecting domain of negotiation of the political forces competing currently: the government and the Maoists. It may even lure the rebels back to the negotiating table. Luckily, Nepal does not suffer from a separatist movement as in Sri Lanka. Conflicts and dissension in democratic Nepal have mostly emanated from economic deprivation, regional disparities, and a sense of powerlessness. A well-articulated democratic regional structure of self-reliance will move the country towards a true form of political decentralisation process and may preempt any ethnically motivated dissent that may arise in the future.

The north-south regional structure as envisioned by the late King Birendra will perfectly map into the proposed plans. Paharis and madhesis from various districts of the region will have to work together for a common cause to develop their regions in areas of common interests such as feeder roads, schools, university, hospitals, taxes, agriculture stations, technical education, electricity, irrigation, and water resources.

People of the tarai will benefit from water resources coming down from the north, and will also enjoy tourism opportunities. At the same time, the hill people will be linked to industrial activities that are likely to take place in the plains. The bottom line is to empower the people so that they can chart their own destiny.

(Alok K Bohara is professor of economics at the University of New Mexico, USA and earned his Ph D at the University of Colorado in Boulder.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)