When the second wave hit Nepal in May 2021, city hospitals ran out of ICU beds and oxygen, and politicians in Kathmandu appeared helpless, local governments across Nepal sprang into action.
In Helambu, village chair Nima Galgen Sherpa set up action teams in each ward to go house-to-house looking for people with symptoms. They were tested on the spot and told to isolate or quarantine. This strategy did not burden overwhelmed hospitals, and helped contain the contagion.
Chair Laxmi Pandey and vice-chair Kopila Malla of Hupsekot of Nawalparasi district worked together to trace, test, and treat Covid-19. Ever since they were elected in 2017, these two women leaders, despite belonging to different political parties, have set a new benchmark for education, agriculture and nature conservation in rural Nepal.
Dhawal Shumsher Rana was re-elected mayor of Nepalganj in 2017, and built on a solid track record of good governance and transparency to upgrade urban infrastructure, and improve service delivery in his border city.
All these local government leaders have one thing in common: serving their constituents. That is what politics is all about, not the mad scramble for power in Kathmandu that has held Nepal back for decades. The mayors and their deputies may be from different parties, but that almost does not seem to matter since the needs of their constituents are the same.
Even as national-level politicians in Kathmandu dither about local election dates, these grassroots leaders have shown in just five years what is possible when the people they serve are put first.
To be sure, not all local leaders have been honest and accountable. A survey in this paper in 2018 showed that more than one-third of elected mayors were contractors. They went on to take corruption to new heights, as illustrated in our investigation of illegal sand-mining in the Tarai.
Putting aside these bad apples, there are plenty of examples of responsive and responsible local governments who have now served five years. Local elections cannot be postponed just because some national leaders think they will lose. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba must over-ride opposition from two of his coalition partners, follow the Constitution and safeguard the gains of the past five years.
Srijana Tamang is vice-chair of Jugal Rural Municipality, and together with other local leaders we profile in this edition she best understands what the needs of her people are.
“They know where we live, they have our number, it is easy for people to tell us about their needs. They can come to our homes and complain about the work we are doing or encourage us to do better,” Tamang told us.
Local government elections were the first to be held after Nepal moved to federalism following the 2015 Constitution, so it was up to elected representatives to institutionalise it. It became a learning platform for the other two governments in the exercise of federalism and democracy.
There were also many good practices that came with the 2017 local elections. For one, it was significant in advancing female representation in the political sphere of Nepal, and helped bring minorities forward in local governments. Each local tier of government could also function on its own, making policies and taking action to answer the needs of their constituencies.
As per Nepal’s Local Election Act 2017, voting for all 753 local units must be held by 19 March. The EC has proposed 27 April and 5 May dates. Leaders of the Maoist Centre and Unified Socialists are so wary of faring badly in local polls, that they want to use a loophole in the law to have it postponed.
But all the local leaders Nepali Times spoke to this week spoke with one voice: local elections should be held as scheduled. Local government elections are a mechanism that allows Nepalis to vote for the leaders they want: keep the ones who have done good work, replace those who have not lived up to expectations. Or, maybe experiment with a new face altogether.
Pushing back the dates or aborting local elections will be a disservice to Nepalis, undermine the democratic values the nation stands on, and push back development.
Arjun Mabuhang, Chair of Laligurans Municipality in Tehrathum sums it up: “It is written in the Constitution that local elections have to be held on time. Choosing their local representatives is the people’s right. Whether they want to keep us or replace us is up to them. The national parties in government should respect that.”