Nepal has restructured its polity and installed local, provincial and central governments. People have been promised economic prosperity and happiness by a Communist majority government at all three tiers of government.
Though there is confusion on the devolution of rights and responsibilities to local government, urban and rural municipalities have created plans for the benefit of the local populations.
Many elected representatives have also gone abroad on study tours to see how other ‘municipalika’s around the world serve their people. There are examples of recognized good work: The mayors of Seoul and London have gone on to become President and Prime Minister of their respective countries. And in the US a Democratic Party candidate for president is also a mayor.
Many of Nepal’s local governments have made tourism a key pillar of their economic development agenda. Tourism appears as low-hanging fruit until a deadly virus strikes, reminding us of the risks of dependence on visitors, and how having a beautiful landscape and monuments is not enough.
Many municipalities are in a Catch 22 situation because the things that they must do are not popular with their voters. How can an elected official start taxing the informal economy, fraudulent businesses and net tax evaders when these very people are his/her voters or party funders? This is the dark flip side of the democratic system that we have chosen. The right thing to do may not be the popular thing to do.
Local governments need to clean up the air and water, clear litter and manage waste if they are to make urban spaces more liveable, and if they are to benefit the local population from tourism income.
There were simpler times when we could drink from the neighbourhoodwater spout, well, or street-side tap. As water became polluted and spread disease, we were forced to buy and drink bottled water. We are not alone in this unfortunate trajectory. The world-famous brand Evian started selling bottled water in Switzerland in 1929 because of the fear of cholera.
What will we do if the air is as polluted? Breathe bottled air? That is already happening in some bars across the world that offer piped oxygen. The day may not be far away when we start seeing tourists at Darbar Square not just carrying bottled water but also oxygen cylinders in their backpacks. With the Covid19 scare, we are already seeing them masked.
If, god forbid, a disease outbreak were to occur in Nepal, could our elected officials impose a strict quarantine of the kind we have seen in Hubei? Can they clear illegally occupied land or river banks? Will they stop breweries from polluting rivers upstream from national parks? Or shut down an illegal asphalt factory in the middle of a residential area in the capital?
China can build a 1,000 bed hospital in two weeks because it never had free and fair elections. This is not the path Nepal has chosen, but something is not working if officials elected to protect the public only protect those who fund them.
The government wasted tax rupees to ‘train’ rivers by building gabion embankments which did not even last the next monsoon due to poor design and bad engineering. Local governments now make a fortune allowing corrupt contractors to extract of sand and boulders from rivers. Tipper trucks mine river beds and have killed the Trisuli, Sun Kosi and Indrawati rivers. They are not done yet: now they are moving upstream to damage watersheds and water sources.
Nepal needs a national compact to protect air, water sources, springs, wells, and watersheds like the Chure Hills. Timber, sand and boulders will allow contractors to make a fortune, and government officials to strike rich with kickbacks. But the people need water tomorrow for drinking and irrigation, and not so much that it floods the downstream Tarai.
Governments were elected to ensure development that can sustain us into the future, not to irreversibly destroy it. We must all work together to get our elected governments to protect open spaces for the next disaster, our monuments and cultural assets for the next generations, and plants, birds and animals for the sake of humanity. In a federal Nepal, these responsibilities are greater at the local level.
Anil Chitrakaris President of Siddharthinc.