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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

"Ownership" through Devolution & Local Empowerment

For Nepalis to become truly sovereign, local empowerment is necessary, argue SURENDRA R DEVKOTA, SANJAYA PARAJULI, and PRAMOD ARYAL. Devolution will develop a feeling of "ownership" in the democratic institutions, and the communities themselves will work to protect them, they write.

Historically, Nepalis have not been completely sovereign and empowered. It was thought that the 1990 Constitution had ensured devolution of power from the monarchy to the people, with parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy coexisting with each other. But the Royal actions in 2002 and 2005 violated the Constitution. Subsequent activities of the King did not enable any reconciliation. The People’s War raged by the Maoists also helped to destabilize the democratization process of Nepal. The sudden emergence of undemocratic forces posed a major challenge to the democratic system and socioeconomic development of the country.

Since decades, political parties are struggling for democracy and people’s sovereignty. In today’s changed political environment the parties should focus on full democracy to empower people and strengthen democratic institutions. In a country with diverse language, culture, ethnicity as well as geographical diversity, the focus should be on empowering different nationalities, minorities, and women, too. Political and economic devolution of power with full autonomy to nationalities could help achieve this.

Empowerment of people is the most prominent tenet of sustainable democracy. People should be the ultimate decision makers for the fate of their community, locality, region, and the nation as a whole. One of the strongest pillars of nation building is empowered people involved in decision-making. Sustained democracy and civil rights can only guarantee improved development indicators when the people are part of it. Democratization efforts without authority to local community are bound to be unsuccessful, and they can always precipitate wrong measures like the Oct 4, 2002 and Feb1, 2005 takeovers by the King.

Empowerment of people involves delegation of authority, accountability and responsibility to people and their representatives, at different levels, without imposition of any sorts from higher ranks, so that communities can function independently and develop a sense of “ownership” in their undertakings. Lack of empowerment has always impeded democratic evolution of Nepal and has made us unable to address the underlying causes of poverty. Nepalis should be empowered in the true sense of the word for comprehensive development of all communities who share different socio-linguistic culture and heritage.

Political Devolution
“Devolution” essentially means the flow of governmental control, financing services and programs to the local bodies for an autonomous functioning of local administration. Contrary to traditional approach of unification under one language, religion, and central governance, political devolution with autonomy would truly unite the country and move ahead towards comprehensive prosperity of people from all walks of life.

Furthermore, devolution will also increase innovation among local governments as they can develop as “laboratories of democracy.” Such innovations will find new solutions to problems, some of which the remote central government was unable to address since long. Local leadership would be more responsive, accountable and sincere towards its constituencies. The greater discretion among local leadership would result in variation across regions, which would demonstrate what programs work and what do not under specific internal political, administrative and socio-economic conditions. Unsuccessful programs can emulate successful programs whereas successful programs can be duplicated.

Devolution would increase confidence in governance, which would further enhance democracy. Disturbances at the Center would not jeopardize local governance, thereby preserving democratic ideals. Citizens’ direct participation in policy making increases awareness, reduces danger of tyranny and improves quality of government. With increasing participation of local leadership, they can transform their governing institutions, administrative and revenue systems as well as service delivery arrangements. Structural, functional and fiscal reforms can be accompanied by the replacement of sagging bureaucracy with executives, leaders and visionaries.

Feeling of alienation among the local population, minorities, women, Dalit and Janajatis in decision-making and implementation of programs has often led to lack of trust among them in the government. The political devolution with local autonomy will directly involve these groups and they will “vote with feet” for the programs that directly address their socio-economic prosperity. This increases entrepreneurship, builds sense of “ownership” and develops people’s faith in the governance.

For example, various ethnicities and under trodden communities that are destitute and are scattered throughout the country would be more efficient in addressing their issues and helping build the nation once local autonomy is ensured. Such communities are in abundance in the country: the Dhimal community in Jhapa; Chepang community in Chitwan; Tharus in parts of Chitwan and Dang, Deukhuri, Banke and Bardiya; Rai-Limbu community in Eastern Nepal hills; Sherpas around the Everest region; Maithili speaking Terai people between Bagmati and Koshi basin; people of Terai origin between Koshi and Mechi basin, or between Bagmati basin and Thori jungle or between Narayani and Rapti basin; Newar community in and around Kathmandu Valley; Gurung community around Annapurna Range; Magar community in the hills of Kaligandaki basin; Manang people in Manang valley; Muslim community of Rautahat, parts of Rupandehi/Kapilbastu, Banke and Bardiya; people of Terai origin of Nawalparasi, Rupandehi and Kapilbastu; and Humli of Karnali basin; Dotyal, Acchamis and Aitwal of Far-Western region; and the Dalits.

Why Empower People?
People empowerment is not only a means for broadening and expanding options and alternatives available. It also helps people to independently assess the course of their lives and to determine their destinies. Empowered and autonomous local communities can resolve the disparity among the population by addressing social issues with due priority. Delegation of authority, responsibility and accountability to local leadership institutionalizes democracy and development without the interference of the Center. This also inspires people to work together for guarding democratic system.

Participation of empowered local community in addressing their issues would prevent the central authority to assume that they have a "blank check" for spending national resources as per their own priorities and running around like "loose cannons" in trying to solve every problem. The different interpretation of Maoists insurgency by political parties, King, Army and the international communities in the recent past only prevented people from uniting to resolve the crisis amicably. They would have identified and interpreted the insurgency, its subsequent threat to democracy and would have devised mechanism of cohabitation at local level.

Democracy is prone to attacks from undemocratic forces in the absence of empowered community. If people have authoritative rights to identify problems and choose leaders to resolve them, then it will develop and consolidate local leadership with ability and vision to fulfill local aspirations. Consequently, it will prevent the local community from falling prey to remote central authority marred with the syndrome of "Paralysis by Analysis" that can hardly take any decision and substantial actions on local needs. To have successful democracy we need clear understanding of key elements and prerequisites for empowering people and the mechanism to sustain such empowerment. This can prevent the possible emergence of insurgencies or tyrannical governments in future.

Empowerment Sustains Democracy
Empowerment sustains democracy in at least four ways. First, it promotes participatory inclusiveness. Local community enjoying autonomy and authority can include minorities, different nationalities and passive individuals or communities for participatory decision making with respect to their languages, cultures, heritages, and respective needs. An empowering approach of participation will treat the members as authoritative “co- owners” having control over decisions and resources devolved to the lowest appropriate levels.

Second, it promotes a two-way flow of information needed to develop responsible citizenship and responsive and accountable governance. Information flow from local community to respective representative governments (regional and central) will address the core issue of community need. Information from central governments regarding limitations and priorities could help the community to understand and devise priority accordingly.

Third, it advances accountability. Access to information and autonomy with authority allows easy access to law, impartial justice and pressures for transparent and accountable governance. Service providers (governments and agencies) will be more accountable to the community exercising rights of information and control over the decision-making. People will protect these institutions and sustain democracy.

And finally, it enhances local organizational capacity. Different interest groups will form a system of cohabitation for their collective interests to protect the rights and autonomy. When groups connect with each other across communities they can influence the decision-making and gain collective bargaining power. This prevents “divide and rule” policy.

The empowerment process is to institutionalize the democratic values and institutions for the betterment of Nepal. Greater participation of people in governance helps in improving service delivery of public sector organization not only by better aligning scarce resources with citizens’ preferences but also increasing citizens’ vigilance against corruption and leakages, plus measures to strengthen democracy.

In a country like Nepal, with different communities, languages, cultures, and heritages in diverse geography, recognition of each citizen as an integral part of the community and nation would allow each citizen to enjoy equal rights. Citizens should also be given sufficient political space so that they could empower themselves. People should be allowed to exercise their rights to build up their own leadership. Effective leadership should be developed in all sectors of society.

Respective local leaderships should work on to make their members aware of the issues, rights and expected benefits in understanding their rights. There should be participatory approach so that each member’s view is integrated. Discussion should be encouraged, respecting and listening to each other without letting personal biases to prevail. This will develop a feeling of "ownership" in the democratic institutions and the communities themselves will work to protect them.

The local leadership promoting such patterns of social behavior would further lead to participatory institutionalization of rights and responsibilities. This will help tackle problems and shortcomings. Participatory approach would naturally prevent the emergence or growth of dictatorial tendencies.

Role for the Centre
Central level government will be involved in national policy making and the local governments would be involved in planning, execution and monitoring of programs in their region within the spirit of national policy. The Parliament, with exclusive rights, responsibility, and accountability, will be the ultimate source for governance and it will be accountable to the people of Nepal. The executive branch will be involved in national policy making which should be ratified by the parliament for implementation.

The parliament should be bicameral: Upper and Lower Houses. The Upper House will have representation from different socio-ethnic groups, minorities, women, and people of different walks of life. Bills concerning language, culture, heritage, education will originate in this parliament and should be passed with majority votes before they go to the Lower House.

The Lower House will have a representation system of directly elected people from respective constituencies (to be decided by constituent assembly about proportionate representation (Electoral College type). Each Member of Parliament shall be accountable to the people who also retain the right to recall their elected members should they so desire.

The parliamentary committees should have final authority in tabulation of bills. The committee members should have the rights to bring any bills to the respective committees. All the nominations of heads of constitutional bodies, ambassadors, regional directors, head of security apparatus (army, armed police force, intelligence agencies) should be approved first by respective parliamentary parties, and then by the lower house. The future system should include a national judiciary system, Election system, National Education and University system, National Public Service Commission, as well as a Criminal Investigation and Authority Abuse system, all of which should be independent but responsible to the people and the parliament. In the new system, all types of security machineries will be regulated by the parliamentary system, and be responsible and accountable to the people and parliament.

Role at the Local Level
The existing politico-administrative system exclusively depends on the centralized planning and decision-making system. Failure to involve locals with authority in identifying, planning and execution of programs in the past has only resulted in poor outcome.

An example of this is the population stabilization drives of the government since the 1970s. The average population growth rate decreased from 2.3 (1951/52) to 2.27 (2001) only during the past five decades. Areas where local community has been involved in planning and execution of the programs have developed more efficiently than any centrally planned project. Local irrigation managed by beneficiary farmers has been found to be more rewarding than government managed systems in spite of better technical expertise and financial resources. Another example is the success seen in the community forestry.

Despite spending five decades of development planning, basic socioeconomic development structures at the local level, such as schools, primary health care center, post office, telephone, technical advisers for agriculture, and proper infrastructure facilities, are still lacking. This indicates the central planning cannot strengthen local institutions but only tends to make people ‘passive recipients’.

Local authorities should therefore be empowered as the leading stakeholders in the process of devolution of rights, resources, responsibility, and accountability. There should be local governments (Local Authority) with its own bureaucracy, economy, taxation, law enforcement agencies, and judiciary. The empowered local authority would have sociopolitical and economic decision-making powers, control over local resources and authority of self determination for their socioeconomic development.

Defining New Boundaries
Nepal, as a country, has remained a sovereign nation, but her citizens have never been truly sovereign. Initially, they were treated as subjects, but they lacked self-determination. Their lack of empowerment did not only prevent development of functioning democratic institutions it also curtailed civil rights.

As people are the first tenet of sustained democracy, Nepalis should be empowered so that they become truly dignified citizens for sustaining democratic values, institution and civil rights. The sovereignty of the country should be vested in them and they should be the ultimate decision makers for the fate of their community, locality, region and country.

The rise of insurgencies or tyranny can be controlled only by properly addressing dissentions based on inequality and oppression. An inclusive approach can help empower people by addressing the interests, priorities and specific needs of diverging communities. People should be empowered in a true sense so that they can decide the fate of different political interests for overcoming from the present political standoff between diverging groups. This will lead to more harmonious society committed to safeguarding their rights of self-determination and democracy.

We must not further delay to reform the socioeconomic development strategy of the country. Decentralization should be carried out by empowered local governments in planning, execution and implementation of programs. Cosmetic changes in the 1991 constitution would not be enough to ensure substantial changes that guarantee people’s empowerment. Election of constituent assembly to write and promulgate a new, progressive constitution is therefore essential. The new statute must clearly address the question of power devolution. In a competitive political system, people are the only sources of the political capital of the parties. Their main mission should be to empower the people. Many countries advocate a democratic set up so that people could enjoy civil liberties and the nation may prosper. Nepal should study a wide variety of democracies in order to materialize her zeal for lokatantra.

In the end, the people’s representatives, elected member of the constituent assembly, should define the new boundaries of local and regional government and specific powers of these local entities. The local/regional government should be developed in such a way that it tries to build integrated society of different demography while protecting the rights of the minority demography for cohabitation. The development of local/regional government should look into providing greater space to the native inhabitants of that region which share common cultural and linguistic tradition. Only then the inherent groups, nationalities, religious minorities, women, Dalits, and Janajatis would have political space to evolve in a vibrant mainstream community.

This is an abridged and updated version of the paper presented at the Association of Nepalis in the Americas (ANA) convention 2005, Dallas, Texas, USA. Contact Surendra R Devkota, Ph.D., at

Posted by Editor on June 30, 2006 11:48 AM