Nepal’s federal provinces: Missed opportunities

Thira Lal Bhusal

Thira Lal Bhusal

Nepal’s federal provinces: Missed opportunities

The map registered by Madhesi People’s Rights Forum Nepal at the State Restructuring Committee of the Constituent Assembly (CA) | Photo: CA Secretariat

The first tenure of three tiers of governments in the federal system practiced for the first time in Nepal's history is approaching its completion. The five-year term of local governments will be complete in May 2022 while the tenures of seven provincial assemblies and federal House of Representatives will expire in December 2022.

The first batch of representatives elected under the new structure and the federal system are now subject to review.

While federal, provincial and local governments work as three layers of the federal system, the middle layer (province) has faced scathing criticism from various quarters. This is mainly for two reasons: one has to do with historical context and the second with poor performance of provinces.

Local units: Strong social connections

One thing going for the local level is its strong connection to Nepali society. Local bodies composed of administrative units and elected representatives have been functioning in Nepal since before the introduction of a formal democratic system in the country.

The first local election was conducted in May 1947, a full 12 years before the election of the first parliament. It was only for Kathmandu Municipality. Local representatives in Lalitpur and Bhaktapur municipalities were elected a few months later. Similar elections were held in September 1953 and January 1958. All these local polls pre-dated the first parliamentary election in 1959. So, in a way, local polls can be taken as a harbinger of the democratic practice in Nepal.

In 1960, King Mahendra dissolved the parliamentary system and imposed a party-less autocratic Panchayat system. He however gave continuity to local elections in the party-less Rastriya Panchayat system as well. Local polls were held regularly throughout the 30 years of the Panchayat era. After the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990, Gau (village) Panchayats and Jilla (district) Panchayats were converted into Village Development Committees (VDCs) and District Development Committees (DDCs) respectively. And VDC and DDC elections were held based on multiparty competition. These units functioned effectively for a decade. After that, there was a gap of elected representatives at the local level owing to over a decade-long political upheaval in the country. It resumed only after the adoption of a new constitution and federal system.

Bardibas municipalityFree swab collection for Covid-19 testing at Bardibas Municipality

Elections in the Panchayat system were not fully democratic mainly due to party-less competition and programs like Gau Pharka Abhiyan (‘Return to the village campaign’) curtailed open competition as well as the role of the general public in electing representatives. However, in one way or the other, elected local representatives were active in villages and towns to carry out development activities, take care of social issues and various other facets that directly impacted general people’s livelihood.

Local servants were always among the public. Many of them were accused of corruption and abuse of authority. But locals had no option but to rely on them for social, public or official work. Corruption and abuse of authority made individual representatives unpopular. But be it in the Panchayat system, post-1990 multi-party democracy or the Federal Republic system, people always found local units relevant.

During Panchayat, the anchal panchayat (zonal body) and officials like anchaladhis (zonal head) became quite unpopular due to abuse of authority mainly in suppressing political and social activists. So the zonal level was the first casualty after the restoration of democracy in 1990. Pradhanpanchas and their lieutenants were infamous for their abuse of authority, but that didn't lead to the downfall of the local bodies themselves. Rather the Gau Panchayats and Jilla Panchayats were just renamed VDCs and DDCs and their heads were called VDC chair and DDC chair respectively. Thus while the zonal units were overthrown the local units were given continuity under an almost same structure.

The local units were deeply connected to the public, so much so that even the then banned political parties including Nepali Congress and CPN (Marxist-Leninist) fighting to overthrow the party-less panchayat system fielded their candidates in local elections with the objective of establishing better contact with the public. For example, Congress leader Haribol Bhattarai became Pradhanpanch of Kathmandu Municipality and 21-year-old Purushottam Paudel of CPN (ML) became Pradhanpanch of Nijgadh in local elections of 1987. At the time, Congress and ML had decided to utilize elections, fielding their representatives as janapakshiya (pro-people) candidates. Paudel would go on to be a minister in the government led by Sushil Koirala in 2015. The current Chief Minister of Bagamati Rajendra Pandey was District Panchayat President of Dhading.

In India it was only in the 1990s when local units were made vibrant with new constitutional rights.

Kamalamai municipalityKhadga Bahadur Khatri, mayor of Kamalamai Municipality, inquiring about the health of home-isolating people

After the 1990 political change, as Gaupanchayats were converted into VDCs, a large number of former Pradhanpanchas and their deputies adopted democratic avatars and became VDC heads and deputies from various political parties. Some panchayat hardliners stayed in low profile for a few years. They groomed youngsters and helped them gain local power through a political party. So even in the federal system, one can find a second generation of former Pradhanpanchas in VDC leadership and another generation at the helm of rural municipalities.

Local power-brokers always wanted to make their units, which they had been milking for generations, more powerful. On the other hand, general folks wanted effective and resourceful service-delivery at their doorsteps as they had no access to higher authorities and no connection with high-level political leadership. Hence, the local units got local ownership. With such a strong connection to the public, the local level got a strong base.

Despite some harsh criticism against them, local representatives are always there on people’s doorsteps. People can't ignore representatives even if they don't like them. For instance, even to get a birth certificate, marriage registration or death certificate, one must seek support from the local authority. Family affairs like ownership or handover of property or acquiring a citizenship certificate can't be completed without the local body’s authorization. Even small acts of non-cooperation from ward or municipal offices may force a citizen to make the rounds of district headquarters or higher authorities.

As local bodies are directly related to the public's day-to-day life, people don't take the risk of alienating local authorities. Reports of abuse of authority, corruption and other irregularities by local representatives are exposed on a regular basis but that is no challenge to local governance. In such cases, locals don't blame the system for the failure of the representatives. They rather accuse individual representatives. Thus, historically, local units have enjoyed a sort of immunity from public criticism.

But the opposite is the case when it comes to provinces. The provincial system has no base at all. Provinces are not connected to the public. A large section of the society supports it but only half-heartedly.

janakpur sub mteroOfficials of Janakpur Sub-Metropolitan City inspecting a local isolation center 

Provinces: Weak bases, poor performance

Nepal adopted a federal system following a strong campaigning and lobbying from various sections of the society including political parties and ethnic communities. The Maoist party, Madhesi parties and some ethnic groups strongly asked for it. The traditional parties seemed to have accepted the proposal for a federal system, sensing time wasn’t right to go against the tide. But within a matter of years, influential groups within major parties such as Congress, UML and Maoists started voicing their opposition to it. Also, various sections of society that were not in favor of the federal system but were silent for some years have now become vocal.

Of the three federal units, people took central and local levels as natural organs of the state. But the provincial level was considered additional and a burden for the people and state coffers.

While pro-federalists aggressively campaigned for the system, they didn't seem prepared to implement it. They were without planning and vision to run the federal system and make people feel the new system can make their life easier.

Madhes-based leaders were the first to demand a federal system. But their parties showed weak commitment to make the system work. They seemed lackadaisical from the beginning.

When leaders from various political parties wrangled over key issues such as determining the major bases to restructure the country and fixing names and numbers of provinces, those from Madhesi parties floated weak proposals. For long, they insisted on delineating a single province along the entire Tarai-Madhes region. The proponents of the federal system in the country, they should have had convincing vision and planning to this effect.

When leaders from Congress, UML and Maoist party were intensely debating the number of provinces in Madhes and hills, Madhesi leaders were insistent that a single province would do for the country's entire southern belt, while they didn’t even bother to mention the number of provinces in rest of the country. For example, the proposed map officially registered by the then Madhesi People's Rights Forum Nepal led by Upendra Yadav at the State Restructuring Committee of the Constituent Assembly shows a single province in the entire Tarai belt while other parts of the country are not delineated, as if it is not their responsibility to think about the rest of the country (see map).

Also read: The faces of local government 

They displayed a similar tendency while preparing the lists of powers for the three levels of government. Madhesi leaders wanted to devolve powers from the central to the provincial level while they strongly opposed the idea of giving more powers to the local level. Conversely, leaders from traditional political parties including Congress, UML, Rastriya Prajatantra Party and Rastriya Janamorcha were for empowering local units while giving less authority to the provinces.

Even after the promulgation of the new constitution and adoption of the federal system, leaders from pro-federalist parties couldn't work earnestly to make the federal system a vehicle to change people's livelihood and thus get them to ultimately own it.

No political party could do a good job of running the provinces. Provincial governments and assemblies should have worked harder than federal government and local units to prove the anti-federalists wrong. They could have undertaken noticeable work at least during the covid pandemic and other disasters, again if only to prove their relevance. But even during the pandemic they were nowhere to be seen. Amid the pandemic, the chief ministers and ministers resorted to horse-trading and every possible tactic to cling to power in various provinces.

Rival coalitions in Gandaki Province competed to please and get support of provincial members like gangster-turned-politician Deepak Manange and make him minister. They were hell-bent on prolonging their stay in power. Such activities in provinces further disenchanted the general public.

While most local governments are criticized for irregularities and abuse of authority, some municipalities have done exemplary work. But none of the seven provinces fared well. The first batch of provincial governments and assemblies should have come up with innovative programs and impressed the public to prove their relevance. Chief Ministers in most provinces have instead bifurcated ministries to accommodate more leaders as ministers, so as to get their support and prolong their stay in power. As of now, the number of ministries in seven provinces has reached 71. One-third of MPs in all seven provinces have become ministers. Instead of proving themselves relevant in the changed context, they are becoming a burden for taxpayers.

Also read: What if… the 2015 constitution had been delayed? 

Was federalism adopted overnight?

Many politicians even within Congress, UML and Maoists argued federalism was not their demand and that it was included overnight at the behest of certain interest groups. Even Netra Bikram Chand of the former Maoist party said so publicly. Mohan Baidya has given a similar statement. Poor performance of provinces has emboldened anti-federalists in major parties and they have now become more vocal in demanding review on some constitutional arrangements including the federal system. Also among general masses, those who didn't buy the argument previously, have now started to agree on the narrative that provinces are 'white elephants'.

Some continue to believe federalism was not the demand of all of Nepal and that it was pushed at the behest of certain international interest groups. It is true that the demand for a federal system wasn't raised continuously and strongly, unlike the demands for multiparty democracy and republic, for which at least three generations of Nepali people have shed blood, sweat and tears. Federalism wasn't a major demand even during the people's movement of 1990. However, it would be unfair to say it was included in the constitution overnight by a group of leaders in the midst of the statute writing process.

In 1951, the then Nepal Tarai Congress had demanded formation of an autonomous Tarai province, in what was the first time the concept of federating Nepal was floated. However, this couldn't be a major political agenda as political parties had to struggle for restoration of democracy until 1990. After the reinstatement of the multiparty system, the Sadbhawana Party first raised the issue of federalism in parliament. But the Madhes-based regional party couldn't establish it as a national agenda.

Various ethnic groups and sections have, over the years, stressed on the need for greater autonomy and self-governance. The Maoists took up this issue in order to get the support of ethnic and marginalized communities promising that the system would put them in the driving seat of national politics. This strategy helped the Maoists expand their support in ethnic constituencies. While Sadbhabana Party had raised this issue in parliament after the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1990, the then underground Maoists picked it up in 2000. However, the credit for the constitutional guarantee of federalism ultimately goes to the Madhesi People's Rights Forum led by Upendra Yadav. A day after promulgation of Interim Constitution in 15 January 2007, Yadav led a protest against the exclusion of federalism in the statute. The agitation spread across Tarai-Madhes, making the government concede federalism.

In both the first and second Constituent Assembly, the issue of federalism was the most disputed and debated agenda. It was as strongly debated outside the CA. Political parties made it a major agenda in both CA polls. Various independent groups, civil society organizations and experts were continuously engaged in intense debates on the matter. Federalism remained a buzzword in national media and public forums for at least a decade until 2015. It was only after rigorous debates across the country that the system was included in the new constitution.

Also read: The events that shaped Nepal in 2021 

Despite years-long debates, the decision to adopt federalism was divisive. Some aggressively lobbied for it while others fiercely criticized it. So, the first batch of the system’s beneficiaries, such as chief ministers and ministers in provincial governments and members of provincial assemblies, should have worked hard to prove that the federal system can work to the country’s benefit. But most of their activities disappointed the public and made provinces unpopular within a few years.

The way forward

The country has lost an opportunity to popularize the system and strengthen its base. However, we have no option but to improve and sustain it. Nepal cannot now revert to the old system. The country can't afford yet another political experiment. A better option is to improve service delivery and good governance in the provinces. For this, most important is for provincial assembly members, ministers and other officials to connect with the people. They can do so by working based on the list of powers the constitution grants to the provinces. There are a number of things directly related to the general people's life.

The statute has allocated vital powers like law and order, health and education, individual tax, property tax and land ownership tax to the provinces. Similarly, tourism, agriculture, issuance of citizenship and passport, land reform, use and conservation of local language, culture, religion and scripts, industrialization, trade and entrepreneurship and Guthi management, fall within their jurisdiction. If the provinces come up with innovative programs and improve things on these fronts, they can help strengthen relations with the public.

If the provinces, just like the local levels, can cut short the general people's travel to the federal capital and provide services closer home, people will start defending it. The way provinces are working at present doesn't help. Drastic reform in the present working style and prioritization of provinces has become essential. Again, there is no other option.

The author is a veteran journalist