Following the recommendations from the Local Body Restructuring Commission, the mainstream political parties have expressed differing views about local body restructuring, particularly on the numbers of local bodies. What they are not discussing is whether we are going to make local bodies as “local authorities” or “local government”. This is the crucial question in local body restructuring under federal structure that will ultimately determine the number of local body units.
Nepal has initiated different decentralization schemes under the unitary and centralized structure for the last 50 years. There has been an excessive concentration of decision-making and authority within the central government, thus facilitating extreme power abuse. Unfortunately, the Constituent Assemblies, first and second, did not discuss the issue of local governance although state restructuring was high on the agenda. Local level elections have not been held for the last 15 years is another example of concentration of power within central government.
The government formed a local body restructuring commission (LBRC) to determine the number and borders of Village and Municipal Councils within six months of the promulgation of the constitution. According to Article 56 of the new constitution, the state will be restructured into three levels - federal, provincial and local. At the local level, the constitution outlines Village Councils, Municipal Councils and District Assemblies, which will replace the existing Village Development Committees, municipalities and District Development Committees respectively. Currently, there are 217 municipalities and 3,157 village development committees, making the number of local units 3,374.
The LBRC has proposed 565 local units across the country largely based on the population criteria. Now there has been a heated discussion about the numbers of local body units. It has been observed that the current discourse on the restructuring of local bodies has been dominated by vested interests of political parties and leaders. They are focused on strengthening their position at the local level through local body restructuring. As a result, conflict of interest has surfaced in many districts resulting in tension among major political parties.
I am not worried that there is a lack of consensus among the mainstream political parties on the units of local bodies. Rather I am worried that the political parties will come into consensus on something that we must avoid. The real issue here is whether we are going to make local bodies as “local authorities” of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, or constitutionally empowered “local government” in the federal governance. Both the recommendations of the LBRC as well as of the mainstream political parties give a sense that they are more guided by the “status quo”.
This is not business as usual. We need to transform local bodies into local government to maximize democratic access to government and to provide public services as efficiently as possible. The local government should be constitutionally separate from central and provincial governments, and they have no role within the local government. The local government should have it’s own treasury, budget and accounts along with substantial authority to raise its own revenue. It should decide policy and determine internal procedures, and be responsible and accountable for a range of significant local services. It should have command over officials under various government units.
The central government should retain a core of functions over national matters, while provincial government should ensure locally made plans are consistent with resources and national policies.
If this is the case, the local government bodies should be small in numbers with full power and authority with required number of wards provisioned within Village and Municipal Councils. Demography, geography, socio-economic facilities and conditions etc are general criteria for better levels of service provision.
I strongly suggest that the current discourse on local body structuring within and among the political parties be approached from the perspective of empowered and responsive local government.
Author: Dr. Prabin Manandhar is an expert of international development. Currently, he is working as Country Director of The Lutheran World Federation. He is the Chair of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal (AIN). He is also a visiting faculty at the Kathmandu University. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org