Biswas Baral and Kamal Dev Bhattarai speak to Khim Lal Devkota, a veteran analyst of federalism, about the problems in the implementation of federalism in Nepal
How did you interpret the diktat of Nepal Communist Party secretariat on the naming and capital city-selection of Province 3?
There are two sides to it. You have to understand that this is a complicated issue. The first Constituent Assembly (CA) was dissolved due to differences among parties over names and number of federal provinces. At that time, the issue of provincial capitals was not much discussed. Even the second CA could not resolve this dispute. The new constitution gave provincial assemblies the right to decide names and capital cities of their provinces. But we committed a mistake by not mentioning in the constitution that those issues would be resolved within a year of formation of the provincial governments. There is also a tendency among provincial level leaders to seek the center’s guidance. This is our first experience with federalism. Provincial leaders may be hesitant to take independent decisions for the fear that top leaders may be unhappy.
So you see no problem with the NCP secretariat decision?
As far as the decision of the secretariat is concerned, it should not have been done so publicly. This did not give the right message. The party can instruct its cadres, but the constitution also enables federal, provincial and local governments to make executive, legislative and judiciary decisions. There will be question on the efficacy of federalism if a provincial assembly is unable to exercise its rights.
In the past, there were big protests when the government decided to extend service centers to rural areas, in what was a minor issue. So there is fear among the politicians that protests could erupt over the naming of provincial capitals. They opt for status quo and defer big changes fearing backlash.
Are you happy with the process of selection of provincial capitals thus far?
Our development efforts till date are urban-centric, still concentrated in pockets like Pokhara, Nepalgunj, Dhangadi, Biratnagar, and Butwal. It would have been better if cities other than these would have been selected provincial capitals. With some established standards, choosing provincial capitals would not be difficult. Yes, it takes time and resources to build new infrastructure for provincial capitals. But choosing new cities as provincial capitals would have boosted decentralization.
How do you rate the performance of the current federal government in its implementation of federalism?
There are various issues about the implementation of federalism. We have made good progress on fiscal management. The bureaucracy has done well even in the absence of political leadership. We allocated common and separate rights to all three types of governments, but it was the bureaucracy which conducted detailed homework. The issue of fiscal transfers and grants is clearly mentioned in the new constitution, paving the way for their immediate implementation. Some works like the finalization of the number of provincial ministers were completed even before the formation of this government. The government has also done a praiseworthy job on civil servant management and transfers.
There is an inter-province coordination committee led by the prime minister, with chief ministers as its members. In the initial days, the chief ministers panicked. The situation in the provinces was critical due to lack of staff, insufficient laws, and scarce resources. There was confusion about service delivery. The central government was also unable to help. But things have improved.
How do you evaluate the relation between the federal and provincial governments?
I have been evaluating the practices in other countries. In the Indian constitution, there is a provision of inter-state council. The president forms the committee on the recommendation of the central government. But in India the council was formed only in 1990, 40 years after the adoption of the Indian constitution. And even today the body does not meet often.
In our case, a similar body was formulated with the promulgation of the new constitution. It has already met thrice and has prepared a 29-point blueprint for the implementation of federalism. The blueprint has recommended forming a fiscal commission, completing staff adjustment process soon, and making the bureaucracy functional at provincial levels.
Similarly, Australia adopted federal structure in 1901. But a council to look after federalism-related issues was formed only in 1972. Compared to other countries, inter-province coordination and relationship is much better in Nepal. There is another committee in Nepal led by the federal finance minister to look after fiscal issues, which is represented by finance ministers from all seven provinces. It also has representation from local units. Regular meetings of this mechanism has helped avert possible disputes. There used to be heated debate in the initial meetings, but now there are amicable discussions.
Despite your optimism, many reckon the federal experiment in Nepal is failing.
This is baseless. Look at the progress at the local levels. For example, citizens of Karnali Province had to travel to Kathmandu even for minor services. Now, they can get it done through the local units. The number of service seekers is gradually increasing at local levels. We are at an initial stage. It takes time to see more visible results. Still, it is true that our politicians have a centralized mindset and sometimes they are reluctant to delegate rights.
But, then, visit the Ministry of Federal Affairs today, and you will hardly find anyone working there. There aren’t many service seekers as well. This is because its work has been delegated. Resources, manpower, and powers have already reached the local level. This means people now get services in their own villages. But we are yet to communicate this progress effectively.
If so, why are the provincial-level leaders so unhappy with the central-level leaders?
In the initial phase, the provinces were unhappy with the federal government. Now, the situation has changed. But, then, local units are also not happy with the provincial governments. Instead of complaining, each of them has to perform their duties. The provincial government should first exercise the rights granted by the constitution. Now, it’s time for the provincial governments to deliver as they have the manpower, resources, and necessary laws. There is no room for blame-game; you have to show the result. Certainly, there are complaints on formation of police force and laws related to security agencies. For instance, the laws for provincial Public Service Commission have already been passed, but the provinces have not made any progress. And why are the provinces failing to take decisions on their names and capitals?
Nepal’s national economy has seen an uptick of late. Would you attribute this to federalism?
No economy in the world is doing very well right now. But our economy is making process. However, we cannot say this is because of federalism. It could rather be attributed to having a stable government. In the past we suffered from frequent government changes. Foreign investors are also willing to invest because of stability.
How is the relationship among the three tiers of government?
Article 232 of the constitution says that the relationship among the three tiers of government will be based on cooperation, coordination, and co-existence. Each has its own exclusive as well as shared rights. As per the constitution, all three tiers can exercise state power. Relations in Nepal are still hierarchical, especially when it comes to fiscal issues, grants, auditing, and accounting system. The federal government can instruct provincial and local governments on two issues: matters related to inter-province relations, and on national sovereignty and territorial integrity. If they do not abide by these instructions, the federal government can dissolve provincial government and parliament. Similarly, the federal government can instruct local units on any issue.
The relationship among the three tiers is always guided by federal laws. To handle disputes over federalism and constitution, there is a constitutional bench in the Supreme Court. The bench has already taken action on Sagarnath community forests and other issues. We have formed some laws and are in the process of forming others. There are two types of relations: formal and informal. It takes time to build the kind of informal relations that results in widespread cooperation. In our case, I would say that the three-way relations are on the right trajectory.
What could be the major challenges for the implementation of federalism in the next five years?
We have given many functions and responsibilities to local governments, and they don’t have much experience. More than that, disputes could arise between provinces. There could also be disputes between provinces and local governments or between local governments. Vertical disputes, that is, between the federal and provincial governments, could be less common. So I recommend increased engagement among provinces and local units.
There are regional council structures in India where states settle inter-state issues. We can do something similar in Nepal. For example, we can form a council for Karnali and Sudur Paschim provinces. In the council, they can share best practices. In the next five years, we will face many regional issues, and so we have to form regional level councils. They will handle disputes like the ones over utilization and allocation of natural resources.
Some foresee the disputes between the three tiers of government increasing, imperiling the whole federal project.
The conflict will not reach that level. But for that the institutional mechanisms mandated to maintain inter-state relations should be enhanced; they should meet and interact regularly. Now we have started linking even minor disputes between two or more villages, which have always been seen in Nepal, with federalism. Likewise, a minor tax dispute or the behavior of an individual local representative is seen as an example of federalism’s failure. There are certainly some anti-federal elements around. In this condition, it is vital that we also talk up the many achievements of federalism.