Nepali Times
"Where decentralisation has brought development, you don’t see Maoists."

Krishna P Sapkota is the elected chairman of the District Development Committee of Kavre. A staunch UML activist, Sapkota represents a new breed of grassroots leaders who have the vision and commitment to take Nepal forward. He believes the future lies in local self-governance and genuine participation by the people in shaping their own destiny. He spoke to Nepali Times last week in Dhulikhel.

Is self-governance just a slogan, or is it really working?
The central government has not been able to create an environment for self-governance. The pre-requisite is that the central government has to be positive about decentralisation. It isn't. At the grassroots we are convinced that self-governance cannot move forward without decentralisation. Kathmandu still wants to hold on to power and concentrate resources in its own hands. This creates a lot of problems at the local level.

How can things be changed?
We think provisions have to be made in the Constitution first. We have a good Constitution, it lays out in the preamble that people should be allowed to participate in governing themselves through decentralisation. The Constitution should go a little beyond that and lay out the norms for facilitating that process. All political parties now realise that was an oversight while writing the Constitution, so if we can incorporate those provisions, we can ensure that existing criteria for local governance cannot be changed by changing laws and rules by the central government. Then we need laws to implement decentralisation.

But already have a decentralisation law.
Yes, there is a decentralisation act, but other laws that contradict its provisions still exist. These laws go against the spirit and content of decentralisation and they have not been repealed or amended. The Association of District Development Committees has even drafted the amendments that are needed and listed laws that need to be repealed. The government has initiated the process to change only 10-11 laws that affect decentralisation, not all. The laws that are actually creating problems in decentralisation have not been taken to parliament for changes.

For example, which ones?
The laws relating to community forests, water resources and mines are all contradictory. This has made it very difficult for local bodies to function. On forests, for instance, there are many pending law suits between the district forest offices and the DDCs, even at the Supreme Court. We want the older laws to be repealed, but this is not happening because of the lack of political will.

Then there is the vexing question of administrative autonomy. Even civil servants in local government institutions are sent by the central government. The secretary at the DDC or the Local Development Officer, for example, is hired by the Local Development Ministry. Decentralisation has been working in some places, mainly because the staff and elected officials are committed. But that is not always the case.

So what is holding things up?
People talk about need for decentralisation only when they are out of power. When they are in Kathmandu, where they can actually make it happen, they do nothing. It's all about power, and how to keep it. On one hand we don't have authority to fix the tax rates and on the other the grants from the state are minimal, which is why local units have to depend on others for development projects.

Last year you organised a rally against forest regulations, did it get any result?
After that the government called off the ban on local bodies selling timber from community forests, but they are still plotting to take over forests that communities have nurtured and managed.

Convince us that decentralisation is the only way to go.
Without decentralisation, the people cannot participate in self-governance. They cannot participate in decision-making. We say people are sovereign, but that power is not about only being able to vote once in five years and be ruled the way the rulers like. The citizen's role is reduced to just carrying party flags. I believe it is more important to involve citizens in planning, decision-making, building and maintaining projects which are important for their lives. Unless there is genuine decentralisation, I don't see the VDC or DDC being empowered to carry out local development. And until they have full authority, people at the grassroots will not have a say in governance, and will not feel an ownership towards activities designed to make their lives beter.

This may seem like I am spouting jargon, but democracy, decentralisation, people's participation and sustainable development complement each other. Until we have true decentralisation, we cannot talk about autonomy, without autonomy people won't get their powers, and will not participate and won't take ownership of projects. Speedy and sustainable development cannot happen in the absence of decentralisation.

How is grassroots development going now?
It is full of contradictions. School enrolment is low and we want to raise that through formal education-this year we even ran an enrolment campaign. Many students came to school but there was not enough classroom space for them. The BPEP (Basic and Primary Education Project) has money for construction, but we don't get the money on time. So we plan projects and they are not funded. What happens when the people's expectations are raised and there is no delivery? It will just turn young people into extremists.

Now there are other players like NGOs and how do you rate their performance and donor efforts to support them?
In a democracy, both people and people's organisations have to be strengthened. If organisations are strong then there could be dictatorial tendencies, if people are too strong then there could be chaos-I believe balancing the two is critical. So it is not a question of either/or between supporting the DDC or supporting an NGO. It is civil society as a whole that has to be strengthened, because NGOs come from there. I believe that many of today's NGOs do not represent civil society, and their activities are not sustainable. All DDCs are not capable either, so capacity building, power and resources should come together. Their monitoring systems also have to be improved. We shouldn't only be decentralising projects, but devolving power to local units. That is when strong and accountable elected local bodies can finally deliver development.

Your district is said to be among the ones where some decentralisation is working, how is it with the other districts?
At present the performance of a majority of the districts is good, as regards taking forward the process of decentralisation. Another good side of decentralisation is transparency. Millions may leak out of the system in the centre, but people may never get to know of that. But even small leakages in the villages and districts cannot be hidden because people know how much money is there and what it is to be spent on. This makes local officials much more accountable, and combining this with democracy means inefficient or corrupt politicians who do not deliver development don't get re-elected. Pressure from the people increases the chances of correcting the mistakes.

How is the Maoist insurgency affecting development in Kavre?
We have some problems, nothing major. In one VDC, the Maoists looted Rs 125,000 allocated to the Village Development Program. The people opposed it, and similar acts have not been repeated. They are said to have formed some "people's governments" in some villages but the VDCs there are still working. The situation here is not as bad as we hear about in other districts.

Could true decentralisation also be the antidote to the violence?
Where there is effective development, I don't think there can be Maoist supporters. The demand for regional and ethnic autonomy of the Maoists can be met through local autonomy. We cannot yield to regional and ethnic autonomy at this stage because that would weaken national unity. I repeat: decentralisation as the only way to ensure that people feel they are a part of the political process and actually participating in making their own lives and the lives of their children better. When people are involved in determining their own development, there are fewer people who are dissatisfied by what is not happening.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)