Reflections from the field: Federalism in Nepal

25 May

For the last few days I was in the field, visiting various municipalities of Province 1 in Nepal. We mostly visited the Terai districts (Morang and Jhapa) and parts of mid-hill district of Udaypur. I have been visiting Terai regularly since 2015 when we started the solar pump irrigation project in Saptari district. However, this is the first time that I visited after federalism came into effect vide the Constitution promulgated in September 2015. Nepal’s current Constitution is progressive and inclusive in almost all respects, though there are controversies around citizenship rules that doesn’t allow women to pass on Nepali citizenship to her children. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about here, check this opinion piece for knowing more on the citizenship controversy.

What’s the new federal structure? Under the new Constitution, there are three levels of government – Central, Provincial and Local (urban and rural municipalities). One might say, well, that’s the same as in India – but wait, it’s not, because unlike India, local governments are way more powerful than the Provincial Governments. As almost everyone will agree, a Mayor of a Municipality is in many ways more powerful than the Chief Minister of a state. I can’t say I understand the new power structure and dynamics way too well yet, but as the new federal structure unfolds, my researcher’s eyes would remain riveted on the developments.

What I already saw in the field was fascinating enough. First, is the sheer hope, positivity and empowerment among these Mayors. Earlier, when we visited Village Development Committees (the lowest unit of government then), we found a lot of enthusiasm for projects on solar pumps or work on spring revival and the willingness to participate as a beneficiary. However, what’s new now is also the capacity to say that, “your program is relevant for us, please bring it to our municipality and we will make budgetary provisions, including cost sharing arrangements”. Given that the major responsibility for development program planning and implementation is with the local governments now, they are getting injected with funds directly from the Central Government, as well as from the Provincial Governments. In addition, they can raise their own taxes too. They are also hiring experts and consultants on relevant areas of priority, for instance, in one Municipality, they had hired an agricultural engineer, in another, they were discussing the need for a renewable energy expert. During the course of our discussions, I could see two gaps emerging – one that of technical capacity – not all the central and provincial ministries had staff at the local level. Some like agriculture, and animal husbandry staff were well represented at the local level, while none from irrigation or renewable energy were. Second, we saw a lot of duplication of efforts – for instance, everyone we talked to, from the Central agency, down to the local agency, wanted to install solar pumps for irrigation, but were doing so either independently, or trying to build up coalitions, which were taking time to fructify.

Having said that, the kind of decentralisation path that Nepal has embarked upon is phenomenal – I am not aware of any other developing country in our part of the world, with this level of decentralised decision making where local elected representatives are making the rules. Rules, especially around coordination among the provincial and local governments are still emerging and this fluidity and flexibility offers enormous scope for understanding and streamlining decision making processes. I hope that scores of other researchers are just as fascinated as I am and will embark on policy relevant research that can inform this decentralised mode of governance.

Good time to a rural Nepali now when their voices can be heard at the local level, and when decisions can be taken at the local level too.

 

 

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