When Nepali Times decided last month to profile a dozen model mayors, we had no idea how difficult the job was going to be. There were not that many inspiring mayors who had set standards for integrity and vision.
Most are good-for-nothing puppets of their political masters, many are corrupt construction contractors behaving like foxes guarding the chicken coop, while a few who want to improve their cities or villages have no idea how to do it.
Still, we managed to find six mayors and one deputy mayor for special mention in this edition. They have struggled against all odds to perform, deliver and achieve. Collectively, they have to fight every inch of the way to force a status quoist bureaucracy in Kathmandu to devolve decision-making and yield more revenue-raising powers. The ruling Nepal Communist Party is not much help because its whole philosophy rests on centralising power, not in devolution.
Yet, despite being in Nepal’s culturally conservative western mountains, the people of Jumla last year elected women to be both mayor and deputy. Mayor Kantika Sejuwal is not letting traditional politicians block her efforts to raise living standards and give women more say.
In Pokhariya Muncipality of Parsa district, Deputy Mayor Salma Khatun has had to overcome double discrimination for being a woman and a Muslim. Both Sejuwal and Khatun harbour a deep sense of commitment to improve services, and a determination to make things better for the most vulnerable.
In Kathmandu Valley Madan Sundar Shrestha in Madhyapur Thimi stands out for thinking ahead to upgrade infrastructure, improve drainage, build sidewalks and bicycle lanes to enhance traffic safety. The only mayor to be re-elected in last year’s local election, and the only one with a PhD, is Dhawal Shumsher Rana in Nepalganj. He is now picking up where he left off in 2002, improving roads and urban management in the western Tarai city as it is poised for growth.
In Waling Municipality, we catch up with Mayor Dilip Pratap Khand, a descendant of former kings, who is inviting talented professionals from the diaspora back home to train the youth. For Mayor Khand, turning Waling into a ‘Smart City’ is not just a slogan.
The one thing common for all the mayors profiled, and the vital ingredient that makes them good performers, is that they put the people ahead of personal or party interests.
And non-performing mayors? There are too many to count. The man who is possibly the most inept of them all is Kathmandu’s Bidya Sundar Shakya. Just like fellow-communist Prime Minister KP Oli, who is Shakya’s godfather, Kathmandu’s mayor has a major sense of entitlement and arrogance that comes from commanding an absolute majority in the municipal council.
A hilarious meme on the Nepali social sphere portrayed the mayor dozing off on a heap of garbage, but none of this criticism seems to affect Shakya, who is often flying off on junkets. In fact, whenever Mayor Shakya does something, it turns out to be the wrong thing. He ruined Rani Pokhari and Kasthamandap, and has shown appalling indifference to the need for better roads, drainage and clean air.
Outside Kathmandu, mayors have been fighting it out with female deputies over petty things like who gets to ride the official car more often. One mayor took inaction to extremes when he just looked on as a woman was thrashed for practicing witchcraft, and then prevented the victim from filing a complaint.
We used to blame the absence of locally-elected representatives for the lack of accountability at the grassroots. It seems elected officials are no better because of flaws in the election system that makes them too expensive and discourages honest politicians from contesting. Candidates forced to accept unethical ‘donations’ from businesses need to pay back in contracts after assuming office. Mayors know they can ride their party’s structure for an election victory and do not need to perform. Also, they cannot be recalled for incompetence, which makes them complacent.
Mayors have their own complaints, some of which are genuine. A conference of mayors and deputy mayors issued the Kathmandu Declaration last week, urging the Centre to not intervene in their local affairs. They want Kathmandu to transfer authority regarding education, agriculture and land revenue.
Kathmandu’s myopic leaders must realise that Nepal is now a federal country, and they must devolve power. Also, if local representatives fail to deliver, they will lose the moral authority to fight for more autonomy. The Municipality Association of Nepal can take the lead to make every council follow a code of conduct.