Naive LLRC report

  • Devolution should be Nepal’s motto going forward—the proposed 719 local bodies will make this impossible
- Bihari Krishna Shrestha

Feb 17, 2017-

By definition, an expert is expected to be able to scientifically explain why a proposed solution would be better than the situation that exists. But unfortunately, based on the information that has come out in the public domain, the Local Level Restructuring Commission (LLRC) has failed to explain why its proposed 719 local bodies (Gaonpalikas and Nagarpalikas) are likely to deliver better results than the existing Village District Committees (VDCs), municipalities, and District Development Committees (DDCs). The members of the Constitutional Assembly, in the best of their judgment, have assigned a host of functions and authorities to the local bodies as provided in Schedule 8 of the new constitution. 

But it should be noted that the 

provisions of the earlier statutes concerning local bodies—for instance, the existing Local Self Governance Act (LSGA) of 1999 and its earlier version, the Decentralisation Act of 1982—were vested with sufficient legislative sanctity with similarly extensive powers and functions. For instance, while the present constitution provides 22 different functions to the local bodies, many of them also included the concurrent list (Schedule 9), the two versions quoted above had brought almost all sectors of development within the ambit of the VDCs, DDCs, and municipalities too. To specify, under LSGA 1999, the VDCs’ “functions, duties and authorities” include planning, implementation, and monitoring of activities in the fields of agriculture, drinking water, infrastructure, transport, education, sports, irrigation, erosion and river control, health services, forest, environment, culture, language, and various other functions such as human resources development, cooperatives, disaster control etc.

Disconnect with the people

To wit, these extensive provisions come from the early 1960s, when the local bodies were introduced nationwide as part of the partyless Panchayat regime. But despite such a long history of local bodies, communities in this predominantly 

rural country have continued to suffer from massive poverty, un- and under-employment, food deficits, and very poor nutritional standards. These conditions have been working as push factors for the massive exodus of people for employment abroad, mainly in India. While Nepal’s poverty levels have considerably improved in recent years, we owe that mostly to employment opportunities abroad that brought home increasingly large sums of remittances. According to the latest National Living Standard Survey 2011, 56 percent of the country’s households receive remittances. 

The problem with the local bodies, then and now, is that their institutional arrangements chronically suffered from a continuing disconnect between the authority that is legally provided to them and their competencies to plan and implement activities in those areas on their own. While the government continued to open agency offices in the districts and in many cases also at sub-district levels, it was mainly ‘supply side’ tinkering and there were no provisions to render the agencies structurally accountable to the people, a ‘demand side’ issue in the equation. The result has been that while the government continued to allocate increasingly large sums of money for running the expanding bureaucracy at the local level, the local bodies themselves, in effect, remained reduced to managing money given annually by government grants. Due to continuing disconnect, these funds were spent on activities that had little meaningful impact on the lives of the local people.

However, by introducing the institution of user groups, the Decentralisation Act of 1982 tried to end this disconnect. Its success lay in the restoration of our once totally denuded forest through the nationwide network of forest user groups (FUGs) that, now numbering 18,000 in the country, enjoy exclusive authority to manage their own forests with government forest authorities required to respond to the demands of such locally empowered bodies. These local FUGs are among the richest of local organisations and they fund a range of local development activities on their own. 

Building on success

Similar is the success story of the nationwide network of 52,000 Mothers’ Groups (MGs) in the communities that catapulted Nepal as one of world’s top performers in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of child survival and maternal mortality reduction. In the latter case, the MGs, through their own Female Community Health Volunteers, have been authorised to access the services of the local sub-health posts and bring them to the doorstep of the women and children who need their services. Unfortunately, the multiparty system restored in 1990 failed to extend these innovations to other sectors, even as these two initiatives remain successes.

If the experience of these two success stories is any guide, Nepal needs to further deepen devolution, ie empowerment of the users themselves all across the development sectors, even as the development agencies are made structurally accountable to the people. Instead, what the LLRC has done is to tinker with the supply side of the issue by multiplying the 75 district bureaucracies severalfold and, in the process, make the local bodies even more distant from the people. It would leave the impoverished people in the communities high and dry. 

Finally, the ‘experts’ have also overlooked the prohibitive issue of financing such a massive expansion of bureaucracy. The former vice chair of the NPC, Shankar Sharma, had warned the commission through an article in Kantipur (October 25, 2016) that the recurrent cost may go up from 80 billion rupees at present to 200 billion, which could bring the nation’s development activities ‘to a standstill’. In short, the LLRC report is a massive disaster in the making. Given its past successes, Nepal’s priority should be in deepening devolution, not in 

distancing the government from the people. So the country would do better by sticking with the VDCs, DDCs and the municipalities that now have a long history.

 

- Shrestha is an anthropologist and former government official

Published: 17-02-2017 08:08

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