Dr. Som Lal Subedi, secretary at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, is well known for his expertise in the area of decentralization. Dr. Subedi, a Ph.D in decentralisation, also served for 14 years at the Ministry of Local Development. He spoke to New Spotlight on the issues related to federalism.
(The ideas and thoughts expressed below do not represent interviewer's position.)
Having had a long experience of working in the Ministry of Local Development, what do you see are the challenges of Nepal?
One of the major challenges of present Nepal is that it is too much centralized. All the political power lies in the capital of Nepal. Kathmandu-centric attitude prevails in all sectors. Whether it is in public administration or security or development or private sector, everything moves only after orders are issued from the capital.
At a time when Nepal’s major political parties have been harping on the slogan of federalism, don’t you think it will bring the change?
Harping on a slogan and realizing it are different things. I still remember what my grandmother used to say: if you want good crop, plant only good seed. If the seed is bad, how can you expect a good harvest. All the mentors of federalism belong to a centralistic mindset.
How do you see our state structure?
Our state structure is very much centralized. Despite the six decades long experiment of decentralization, less than 10 percent of total national budget is under the local bodies. Kathmandu still controls the resources and power. The evolution of state craft in Nepal was for control rather than to serve people. This legacy is knowingly and unknowingly prevailing as of now.
On what grounds are you saying that?
Everything is centralized and confined in Kathmandu. The service sector is centralized as well as education and health. Nepal’s only international airport lies here and one needs to come to Kathmandu just to make a passport. From employment opportunities to all kinds of service, they are within the periphery of Kathmandu. One has to come to Kathmandu for the transfer of VDC secretaries and primary teachers, and social mobilizers etc.
It is strange to say that even the primary level books are printed in Kathmandu and supplied from here. From registration of industry to business and others, Kathmandu has everything. All schools, colleges and hospitals are confined in the urban and semi-urban areas in Kathmandu. All political parties have central committees in Kathmandu. Overall, Nepal elected 240 representatives. However, Kathmandu nominated over 335 members of CA.
At a time when framers of constitution are drafting the constitution from Kathmandu, there is no good reason to believe that they will easily hand over power to the local level. For smooth handover of power to local government, election of local bodies is desperately needed.
As Nepal’s major political parties have agreed that federalism can solve all these problems, do you think federalism can change the present power structure?
Given the current mentality at all levels, even federalism cannot guarantee devolution of power to the grass roots level. People want federalism for the devolution of power to the grass root level. Just shifting political power from Kathmandu to other centers in the name of federalism cannot solve the problems. We have yet to see how the political leadership will adjust the local bodies in the federal structures. Federalism will be successful only in devolving the power to the local level. It is equally important for deepening local democracy.
How do you see the service?
As a civil servant, I spent most of my career under the Ministry of Local Development. My concern is always to improve the services at the grass root level and really make the people powerful. As long as political power is not fully devolved to the grass root level, nothing can work in Nepal properly. People want political power at the grass root level to decide their own fate and future. They want development as per their own needs. Devolving power demands accountability. Without accountability at the local level the Leviathan model for resource utilization will prevail.
How do you see the state of decentralization?
At present, there is centralization in all spheres of life. Whether one goes to administration, security or other sector, nothing has been done to make local bodies accountable to the local people. As our whole set up is centralized, accountability and responsibility are also centralized and weak. A teacher from Karnali zone needs to come to the center to seek his pension, spending a lot of money. This shows that our approach is too much centralized. Directly or indirectly, our public administration is centralized and upward accountability is much more effective rather than the clients.
How do you see our academic exercises then?
Our intellectual and academic exercises are dominated by alien ideas, rather than the reality of the country. During the last Constituent Assembly, our civil society leaders, politicians, administrators, members of CA and media persons chose to visit places with mature federal structures. Only a little effort was made to understand our own local structures and political contexts. Federal structure was taken as a political ideology rather than reality of the country. Political parties harped on the slogan of federalism for populist reasons. Actually, federalism is a political structure for unity in diversity. However, Nepal’s political leaders and civil society organizations have yet to take this aspect into full account in their discussions.
How do you see the philosophy?
In designing the federal system in Nepal, considering statements of Montesquieu and Kant will be helpful. According to Montesquieu, the nature of the government is that which makes it what it is or its particular structure. Kantian realism teaches that only a moral political will has the incentive and the political wisdom to use the force of nature or history to establish federalism. 'Human beings are animals who need masters but their masters are also animals who need master,'' says Kant.