Nepal’s post-conflict political transition is posing a severe implication to its local governance system. The Local Self Governance Act (LSGA), pereceived as a model legislation for advancing local democratic governance in Nepal in the late 1990s, has now suffered a serious setback in the absence of Local Bodies’ (LBs) elections for over a decade. These local governments which need to be led by people’s representatives are running on ad hoc basis with bureaucrats assuming the role of head of LBs. It has created the impression that these LBs are like line agencies of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development.
Absence of elected representatives in LBs since 2002 has jeopardized democratic functions at the grassroots and paralyzed local service delivery system. This protracted vacuum has led us to compromise on the fundamental principles of representative democracy and downward accountability. Political parties are not yet serous enough about the local elections. It seems that they do not even comprehend the importance of local democratic governance. Nepal’s ruling political class suffers from a psychosis that if elections to the LBs are held, it will dilute the federal agenda. Local governments are the lowest units of service delivery and are closest to the people. Election for the local government should be of high priority and importance to a country like Nepal emerging from armed conflict. Even the Sri Lankan government soon after winning the war with the separatist rebels conducted local government elections in war-torn Jaffna province on 23 June, 2011 before the provincial elections.
Though we can’t compare Nepal with Sri Lanka as we are in a relatively peaceful situation, we have been postponing local elections for no reason at all. This raises a question. How long can we afford to prolong the local democratic deficit in the name of political transition? It’s time to rethink. The SLGA offers many democratic provisions and principles of decentralization by virtue of which local bodies can plan, allocate and collect resources locally. But lack of LBs’ election has made them vulnerable to corruption. Significant increase in LBs annual grants because of ‘competitive populism’ has offered enormous opportunities for corruption. Block grants provided to the LBs were just Rs 4.3 billion in fiscal year 2005/06. This rose to Rs 12 billion in 2009/10, almost a three-fold increase.
Though the grants to the LBs have been inflated, their institutional capacity to effectively allocate, manage and monitor the use of funds is questionable. Annually, Rs 45 billion is being spent without major development outcomes. Just inflating grants will take our development nowhere if we fail to streamline development process and monitor the use of these expenses every year through the elected representatives. One of the common plagues at the local level is ‘consensual corruption’. Political influence has the upper hand in disbursement of grants. These civil servants and local political persons have failed to ensure transparency and accountability in allocation, management and use of billions of rupees annually because of ‘excessive informalization’ of the system. Without elected officials, these grassroots
democratic institutions have turned into lucrative space for consensual corruption mutually shared by government officials, political parties and User’s Committees (UCs). Recent spate of corruption in LBs in some Tarai districts speaks volumes about the intensity of the problem.
The concept of UC was initially good as it encouraged local community and beneficiaries to own, monitor and participate in the execution of development works by themselves. But UCs have now turned into a platform of ‘elite capture’ by local politicians to misuse public funds. There is no transparency in formation of the UCs and political parties enlist their men
as members to these committees.
Local democratic governance in Nepal is also grappling with serious institutional problems. More than 1,000 Village Development Committees (VDCs) yet don’t have their office buildings since they were destroyed during the conflict. Not even a half of them have been reconstructed yet. Unavailability of VDC offices is a good excuse for many secretaries to confine themselves to the district headquarters. Even those having VDC offices are holding up in district headquarters. At the receiving end, people will have to walk for hours to reach the district headquarters to meet secretaries for their works.
Many VDCs are understaffed and a secretary has to look after at least two to three adjoining VDCs. This has overburdened them and landed them in difficulties while distributing social security allowances, convening village councils, disbursing development budget and monitoring the use of grants. A secretary has to coordinate and implement all development programs, keep accounts and perform administrative tasks as well. There are still more than 600 VDCs without secretaries. Most of all, the political problem has taken a toll on Nepal’s local governance system at present. This has made local service delivery more problematic and cumbersome. Thus, without much ado, we need to find a quick fix for this malaise. The quick fix is local election.