7-13 July 2017 #866

Devolution revolution

One of the striking features of Nepal’s much-maligned 1991 Constitution was that it devolved power to local government units like DDCs, VDCs and municipalities. The Decentralisation and Local Self-governance Act of 1999 turned this concept into law. Much of the success of the community forestry program, the nationwide network of Female Community Health Volunteers, mothers’ and farmers’ groups, and the extraordinary progress in health and education in the past two decades were in large part because decision-making was handed over to elected district and village councillors.

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Unfortunately, it has been downhill ever since. First, the Maoists bombed VDC infrastructure out of existence. They killed or chased away local elected officials, mainly from the Nepali Congress (the same party, ironically, that the rump Maoists are in the coalition government with today). What was still intact was dismantled by King Gyanendra, who got current Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to call off the 2002 local elections, using the Maoist war as a convenient excuse. Nepal never really got to reap the peace dividend after 2006 because the two warring sides became part of a political cartel that took turns in government. They controlled local government units through ‘political mechanisms’, a euphemism for mafia-like syndicates.

Finally, two decades later, we are in the process of installing bigger and more empowered, elected village and municipal councils. The new Constitution has ensured that elections to these local governments are inclusive, and the results of the two phases of local elections have put unprecedented numbers of women and the marginalised into local policy- and decision-making positions. Despite misgivings and grievances among sections of Tarai-based parties about the Constitution which still need to be addressed, we are finally seeing the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

But there is a fly in the ointment. The political cartel suddenly realised it gave away too much to local governments and is trying to back pedal on devolution with a draft bill in Parliament that would essentially cut off the money supply to new village and municipal councils. This is treachery. It goes against the spirit of a Constitution that sought a revolution through devolution. By limiting the share of revenue from mining, hydropower, natural resource extraction, mountaineering and other fees to 5%, the cartel is trying to strangle these newly-elected local councils.

Its argument is that DDCs and VDCs had indiscriminately licensed the environmentally unsustainable extraction of natural resources through sand and boulder mining of rivers, logging of local forests and plunder of the Chure. But this plunder was actually made possible because district and village councils were governed by unelected political syndicates and centrally-appointed bureaucrats. After the recent local elections, they have been replaced with elected councilors more accountable to their constituencies.

Elected mayors and local councilors met in Dhulikhel this week to strongly reject this move to set the clock back. They want to have their rights to raise revenue guaranteed as per the Constitution. This voice must be heard because it represents the true voice of the people to ensure development for the people and by the people.

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Bhagbanda politics, Editorial

Trial and error democracy, Om Astha Rai

Deuba backs Dahal