Govt officials make a mockery of federalism

- RUPAK D SHARMA, Kathmandu
What is even more surprising is that they have sought permission to open “branch offices” in provinces “to oversee different works”

Mar 9, 2018-After Nepal officially made a shift from unitary to federal government system, politicians and bureaucrats rushed to proclaim that authorities, including decision-making powers, would finally be devolved from Singha Durbar, the central administrative secretariat, to provinces and local bodies.

The announcement echoed provisions included in the constitution promulgated in September 2015, which envisage creation of powerful subnational governments to effectively and efficiently deliver public goods and services, accelerate the pace of infrastructure development and stimulate economic growth.

Lately, this statement has started sounding hollow, as different organs of Singha Durbar are keen on retaining the power in the centre to continue wielding influence in provinces and local bodies.

A glimpse into this mind-set was offered during meetings called recently by the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers (OPMCM). The meetings were held to get views of senior central-level ministry officials on restructuring of the central government’s administrative system.

The OPMCM has been holding series of these meetings since the launch of the government’s business rules several days ago. The new business rules -- which explain roles and responsibilities of various ministries -- have reduced the number of ministries at the central level to 18 from existing 30. With this reduction, number of departments, offices and divisions under these ministries are expected to come down.

The OPMCM is currently conducting organisation and management (O&M) survey to make these reductions, which will lead to creation of a lean government at the centre and reduce government’s expenses.

But it appears some of the senior officials of ministries, who took part in the O&M survey, still have not been able to grasp the concept of a lean government, as they are expressing reluctance to reduce the number of departments, offices and divisions. What is even more surprising is that they have sought permission to open “branch offices” in provinces “to oversee different works”.

“This idea was pitched on assumption that provinces will not be able to handle ongoing projects. If this prediction turns into reality, there are fears of projects being stranded. So, the officials think the central government should have presence in provinces for the time being,” said OPMCM Secretary Prem Kumar Rai, who is one of the three officials leading the O&M survey.

If this suggestion is heeded it will deal a fatal blow to the budding federalism and prevent an unsteady nation from gaining a more solid footing because of conflicts between central and provincial governments.

The country had embraced federal set-up to empower provinces and local bodies so that inclusive and bottom-up development could be promoted. Based on this concept, different ministries have been set up at provinces, and local bodies too have the authority to employ experts. This process of strengthening subnational governments has already cost billions of rupees and hundreds of billions more will have to be poured in the coming days to make local bodies and provinces stronger. But if the central government decides to poke its nose into businesses of provinces by establishing “branch offices”, costs will fly through the roof, making federalism unaffordable.

“We will not accept any decision that will unnecessarily drive up spending,” said Arjun Prasad Pokharel, spokesperson of the Ministry of Finance, which mobilises funds for public expenditure. “But we are confident the OPMCM will practice prudence.”

Like Pokharel, OPMCM Spokesperson Dilliram Sharma also believes the Prime Minister’s Office will not rubber-stamp the proposal that can destabilise federalism and add costs. “The central-level ministries can always coordinate with provincial ministries to keep tabs on the work of provinces. So the proposal of establishing wings of the central government in provinces is not very convincing,” Sharma said.

Yet the proposal made by government officials reflects the traditional bureaucratic mentality of creating hurdles for new entrants. This is likely to prevent central and subnational governments from maintaining a smooth relationship.

Already, the central government has started creating barriers for subnational governments by delaying transfer of projects and programmes from the centre to local bodies.

The current financial year’s fiscal policy has directed the central government to hand over projects and programmes of up to Rs5 million to rural municipalities, of up to Rs10 million to municipalities and of up to Rs20 million to sub-metropolitan and metropolitan cities.

These projects and programmes should have been transferred within mid-August along with funds.

“But none of the infrastructure project, especially those related to road, drinking water and rural infrastructure, has been handed over so far,” said Nirmal Hari Adhikari, head of the Budget and Programme Division at the Ministry of Finance.

Infrastructure projects generally include procurement process, which paves the way for government officials to demand kickbacks from contractors, according to officials of the Finance Ministry. So, many at the ministry are seeing the delay in handing over of projects suspiciously.

If the projects are not transferred by the end of this fiscal year, the Ministry of Finance will stop providing funds earmarked for these schemes to line ministries from next fiscal year, Adhikari said.

“This intervention may yield desired result. But we don’t want to make interventions every now and then, as it will delay federal system from attaining maturity. So, the central-level ministries must work sincerely and should not undertake jobs that are beyond their jurisdiction,” added Adhikari.

Published: 09-03-2018 09:02

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