On 19 September, Nepal marked Constitution Day. It was on this day five years ago that the Constitution was hurriedly promulgated by a government facing severe criticism for being slow to respond to the deadly earthquakes earlier in 2015.
There was dissatisfaction with the draft Constitution in parts of the Tarai, but the coalition government of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala fast-tracked the statute despite India’s articulation of Madhesi concerns. The result was a blockade that lasted five months and devastated Nepal’s economy.
Today, the economy has been wrecked by an even bigger crisis. As masked and physically distanced dignitaries gathered last Saturday at the Tundikhel parade ground, Nepal Army helicopters showered rose petals on them – while at the adjacent Khula Manch, 600 out-of-work and hungry people were being fed, as they have been for five months, by youth volunteers doing the job of the government.
There could not have been a greater irony. After all, the Khula Manch was where pro-democracy protesters gathered in 1990 and again in 2006 in defiance of absolutist monarchies.
Fast forward five years, and what we have is a farce. Despite the Constitution having a progressive preamble, provisions for affirmative action, a commitment to abolish structural discrimination and protect social, economic and political rights, we have actually regressed.
The Constitution took one step forward, but the state has taken two steps back – especially after the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) government came to power. Not only are issues like transitional justice, impunity, freedom of expression, tolerance of dissent, independence of the judiciary flouted, but there is a pandemic of corruption and incompetent governance.
The public was increasingly fed up with the government’s poor performance even before the pandemic, but in the past six months has shown that the crisis is way beyond its capacity to handle so the welfare of the country’s most vulnerable is protected.
Through the Constitution-drafting process since 2008, we have often argued in this space against declaring Nepal a ‘federal’ state. Whatever it is called, genuine decentralisation and workable political devolution was more important for development and service delivery – whether it was during the Panchayat, the post-1990 era, or in the transition period after the war.
Indeed, it was after the decentralisation and local self-governance acts went into effect in Nepal in the 1990s that development got a boost. Giving communities a stake in decision-making led to direct and dramatic improvements in living standards in many districts. Indeed, most things that have worked well in Nepal in the past three decades have the word ‘community’ attached to it.
But ‘federalism’ became synonymous with ‘peace’ because that was why the war was waged, and later it was the price to be paid to meet demands for regional and ethnic autonomy. Political parties haggled for nearly a decade about how many federal provinces there should be, which way they should be demarcated, and what to name them, (some still have numbers). As it turned out, the boundaries of post-2017 ‘provinces’ roughly resemble the Panchayat-era anchal, and Bagmati, Karnali and Gandaki evern carry the same river names.
The ‘f’ word became politically correct and fashionable. But the past five years have shown that no matter what you call it, power in Nepal is as Kathmandu-centric as ever. In fact, there was probably more genuine devolution in the 1990s than now under federalism.
We should have known. Communists through modern history (Soviet Union, China under Mao) have used federalism as a façade to continue with their ideology of ‘democratic centralism’. It is no wonder, then, that today’s NCP government has more power than any other government since the days of the absolute monarchy, and it is all centralised not just in Singha Darbar but inside one room in Baluwatar.
The other obstacle to decentralisation under federalism is that except Province 2, all the others are governed by the NCP after 2017. Provincial leaders therefore have more allegiance to the party headquarters from where all power emanates.
As our report on Covid-19 shows, the way Province 2 and Tarai municipalities have handled testing and contact tracing during the pandemic despite the stranglehold of the federal government, is a lesson for Kathmandu. Most other places, the Home Ministry through CDOs and the Ministry of Health through provincial hospitals are still directing response – with often disastrous results.
Now that we are stuck with a federal state, let us try to make the best of it by practicing what it really means: true devolution of political decision-making, effective service delivery and resource distribution to local governments.