As a mentor Bidi Rai immediately came face to face with the powerful idea of letting local people decide local issues. “When I was younger I used to wonder why Kathmandu made all the decisions about our community without knowing anything about local problems. The elected local leaders I interacted with knew everyone in their village, and this forced them to be more accountable to people,” she says.
“Is he really a people’s leader if he rides a horse to meetings?”
Chiranjivi Pandey was also struck that decentralisation of government was beginning to allow people to channel their grievances. One day, he heard someone say at a municipality training in Karnali Province: “Is he really a people’s leader if he rides a horse to meetings?” It showed to him that federalism had empowered local people to speak up.
“Suddenly, they could stop the representatives they elected anywhere and anytime to vent their problems,” he adds.
Contrary to his experience in Karnali, Chiranjivi found less political awareness amongst the people as well as local representatives in Madhes. His colleague Indra Nath Mishra, who has experience working in both the mountains and plains, has an explanation for this.
He says, “The mountains have geographical complexities which are not man-made, they are of a topographical nature. The problems in Madhes are man-made. Important leadership positions in local governments are held by old-generation leaders who are still in the Panchayat era. They do politics for their own political or economic gain, they don’t care for us, they don’t fear us.”
He adds that the problems do not end there. Many elected representatives, such as ward council members lack a basic understanding of their roles and responsibilities under federalism. They are the ones whose decision-making capacity and accountability have to be enhanced. But the trainings are conducted by so called ‘senior’ (and mostly retired) experts who are rigid in their ways, and lack the empathy to support the devolution process.
“We stayed in a few trainings they delivered, and I observed a disrespectful attitude towards the locally elected representatives,” says Pandey. “They think local politicians don’t know anything. The PowerPoint slides provide fragmented information, and they often miss the bigger picture. There is no follow-up, it’s like a one-time job for them. Unfortunately, the government and development partners often go after them.”
After attending a few of these trainings in the mountains, mid-hills and Tarai, Pandey is convinced that it is in the Madhes where the capacity building through mentorship is needed the most.
He also feels that political parties have deceived the people by their choice of candidates for the reserved posts of historically excluded groups. “Even when more politically aware candidates from these groups were available, the ones chosen are often the silent, pliant individuals who do not question their authority. I wonder if this was a calculated move by the parties,” Pandey adds.
As a member of the Dalit community himself, Nara Sunar feels that there is still a long way to go, even within the federal system, towards meaningful inclusion in social and political spaces.
“The Dalit and women are there only because of the quota. Even then, a few influential ones have captured the power, and other representatives are silent observers. I have had Dalit representatives come to me asking to come along while presenting their plans in the meeting because they would not be heard if they were alone,” says Sunar, while admitting that it is because of the mandatory quotas that the dynamics of political space is more favourable to change than the social space.
“The biggest change is that the minorities are there and they know that they have equal rights and a share of the resources. The question in front of us now is how to support them and make the best use of those resources and it’s not easy,” Sunar adds.
Bidi Rai blames the lack of deliberation around the planning process for this anomaly. “There is no proper assessment of problems. The budget distribution, especially for the women and Dalit is considered as a checklist. How does a one-day pickle-making training or a celebration of women’s day serve to change the lives of women?” she asks.
“Nothing is apolitical”
Born to a privileged family in Kathmandu, Melissa Shrestha, 25, got her education abroad. Staying in Karnali, Melissa learnt the hardships of rural life, the basic day-to-day necessities they struggle to meet that she took for granted.
“My parents were opposed to me joining this program till the last minute, but I wanted to get out of my bubble,” Shrestha says. “I used to post only pretty pictures on Facebook so that they did not force me to return. Coming here helped me examine my privileges and understand the dynamics of governance.”