All politics is local
Last year, as Nepal plunged headlong into the second wave of Covid-19, cities around the country including Kathmandu Valley announced lockdowns, and people of Diprung Chuichumma Rural Municipality of Khotang streamed back home.
The people were home, but they also brought the virus with them. The only ambulance in the municipality could not attend to all the emergencies, so Chair Bhupendra Rai donned a PPE and started driving the infected to the health centre in his own car. Sometimes, he would go door-to-door carrying patients on his back to the car.
The municipality set up a 25-bed isolation centre, ramped up awareness campaigns, and carried out antigen tests. Vice-chair Sapana Rai was equally involved. Those who couldn’t be treated inside the municipality were taken to hospitals in Kathmandu and Biratnagar.
“We entered politics for the people. So, when they were suffering, we couldn’t just sit back and relax, we had to be hands-on in serving them and taking the lead from the front,” Bhupendra Rai told us on the phone from Khotang as he waits for word on the date for local elections slated for April.
This local government team was proof that elected grassroots politicians understand the need of their area, are more accountable, and are willing to serve their constituents.
The Omicron surge is spreading, but this time there are not as many cases of Covid-19 in the village. But the Rais are not taking any chances. The municipality has increased the number of antigen tests and encouraged the infected to isolate at home.
Kathmandu may have a shortage of cetamol painkillers, but there is plenty stockpiled here to meet villagers’ needs. And the municipality has deployed health volunteers to accelerate the vaccination drive.
“Whoever could walk to the centre are all vaccinated, now we need to reach those who cannot come on their own,” says Rai.
As schools nationwide remained closed during the lockdown, the municipality deployed more than 200 teachers with masks on who went house-to-house tutoring students. It also bought produce from local farmers who could not take it to market due to the lockdown and distributed to needy families. This ensured food security as well as income for the local farmers.
When Bhupendra Rai was elected in 2017, there were not enough roads in his rural municipality. Every monsoon, the constituency would be locked in as the Sunkosi and Sapsi river flooded. Today, a motorable bridge connects this remote village to the rest of the country. Every household has electricity and access to drinking water.
“All this would not have been possible without the local elections and local representatives in place, it forced us to perform,” says Rai.
To the east in Laligurans Municpality, Tehrathum Mayor Arjun Mabuhang also worked on connectivity as soon as he got elected five years ago. Having seen rampant corruption in road contracts, Mabuhang got the municipality to buy its own excavators to build roads with the help of locals, cancelling out middlemen.
“Now all the wards have roads and there is ownership amongst the people because they themselves were involved in building them,” says Mabuhang.
He also introduced a program to upgrade agriculture by supporting dairy farmers and offering grants for vegetable and fruit farming, poultry, and pig farms. The roads helped get the produce to market.
Says the mayor: “Because I am from here and I myself have seen the ground reality and know what the people here need, I work in the areas that benefit the people most. We did what we could with the budget we were given, but we need to work more on improving schools.”
In Sindhupalchok’s Jugal Rural Municipality, Deputy Chair Srijana Tamang has been single-mindedly working on improving education. As a child, she remembers walking for hours from home to school and back. In winter night fell quickly on her way home, and during the monsoon she would be covered from head to toe in leeches.
When she was elected five years ago, one of the first things Tamang and Chair Hom Narayan Shrestha worked on was to appoint new teachers and upgrade school buildings, some of them destroyed in the earthquake.
Having worked as a social worker in the past, Tamang recognised the priority areas for her rural municipality, and her background and familiarity with the people helped her not only gain an edge during the elections but prepared her to deal with the problems of her community.
“When I was elected, I really wanted to prioritise roads and education, but the pandemic meant we had to address more urgent issues,” adds Tamang, who offered RT PCR testing and monitored the spread of the disease, turning a local school into an isolation centre. With Omicron, Tamang believes the people are more aware, and better prepared.
“The pandemic was the first big challenge for me as a local representative,” says Tamang. “But knowing that we are working for our people and our families, there is always a greater sense of responsibility.”
In 2020, while Tamang was away on official business, a massive landslide at Lidi killed 39. She travelled overnight to help with the rescue and relief effort and got support to rehabilitate those made homeless. She got geologists to prepare a disaster risk map of her municipality to prevent future disasters, and prepare for them.
Jhapa’s, Kamal Rural Municipality has the distinction of being among four of the 753 municipalities around the country ranked cleanest in budget disbursement by the Office of Auditor General. It is a well-deserved recognition for Chair Menuka Kafle for whom tackling leakage and corruption was a priority.
For any project with a budget over Rs5 million, the municipality went through a strict tender process. It also stopped giving out advances for projects and kept track of expenditure.
“For the others to follow the rules, we had to lead by example, so we made sure that we were meticulous about accounting,” says Kafle.
Over the last five years, the rural municipality has constructed more than 70km of roads, upgraded bridges, and ensured that all wards have electricity. Kafle distributed carts to women fruit and vegetable vendors and launched income generation activities for women.
“When women are economically independent, they don’t have to depend on others and can make their own decisions,” says Kafle.
The municipality offered cash incentives to encourage pregnant women to visit health centres for regular check-ups and registration of new-borns. When Kafle first got elected, many people in the community did not believe that a woman could run the office.
During important meetings people would ignore her and seek out the male Deputy Chair. These days Kafle is in high demand.
Says Kafle: “We women who are in power have to work hard to build trust in the community and do everything within our power so that women who come after us don’t face so much difficulty.”