Nepal’s uncertain transition to federalism
Federalism was never an agenda of most national-level political parties. It came about as a political compromise among parties
Nepal has experimented with different governance systems over 250 years of its existence. The country has witnessed executive monarchy, hereditary prime ministership, constitutional monarchy and Westminster system of state governance. All of these systems have shared a common characteristic—all of them were centralized and unitary. However, following the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, the country is making a monumental departure from history. The constitution mandates massive restructuring of the state governance system. Instead of one government at the centre ruling all over, the country would now be governed by three levels of government—federal government at the national level, and provincial and local governments at sub-national levels.
Implementation of federalism is, therefore, at the centre of the country’s agenda. As a stepping stone towards that transition, the country held a marathon of elections in 2017. Three nationwide elections spanning nine months from May to November saw more than 20,000 representatives taking offices of 753 local, seven provincial and one federal government. However, one year on, the transition towards federalism is mired in profound uncertainty—political, legal and administrative—risking the implementation of the constitution.
First, there exists a debate on defining power relationships among three levels of governments. Are different levels of government autonomous or does the federal government sit at the top of the hierarchy, wielding political and legal supremacy over sub-national governments? Nepal’s constitution states that “the state power...shall be used in accordance with (this) constitution” based on “the principles of cooperation, coexistence and coordination”. This suggests that national and sub-national governments draw their respective sovereign powers from the constitution and, therefore, are politically independent of one another within their jurisdictions.
Unfortunately, the constitution is not very clear in delineating the state powers among the three tiers of governments. The power is distributed through lists of absolute and concurrent functions of these governments. But functions are so vaguely defined that it is not clear who can exercise power and to what extent. Several of these functions overlap among jurisdictions of federal, provincial and local-level governments. Matters related to the health sector, for example, fall under the jurisdiction of all levels of government.
Various laws and regulations are needed for proper separation of functional responsibilities and accountability. In fact, nearly 110 new laws and regulations have to be brought into effect and many more amendments are needed. A third of them need to be enacted in the next nine months to avoid a constitutional vacuum. Yet, no meaningful action has been taken towards completing the mammoth task on time. The transition process is supposed to redefine state-citizen relationship. But representatives at sub-national levels seem to have no idea of their powers and their limitations. People, on their part, are clueless as to which government is responsible for what, and therefore, how they can be held accountable. The overlapping roles are likely to allow elected representatives to pass the buck to other governmental bodies for failure to deliver public goods and services to citizens.
The second important factor in the successful implementation of federalism is fiscal devolution. Previously, the central government had the sole authority on income and expenditure of state. In the changed context, resources should be shared and transferred down to sub-national governments too. The constitution has envisioned establishment of the Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission ‘‘to determine detailed basis and modality for the distribution of revenues between the federal, state and local governments”. But the commission has not been instituted even after two budget sessions. Intergovernmental transfer is being done on an ad-hoc basis. Consequently, sub-national governments are unsure about the availability of resources and are not able to prepare for basic “plans and programmes”. So much so, the salaries of many officials like chief ministers, provincial ministers and mayors of municipalities are yet to be determined.
Third, timely administrative devolution is necessary for the effective functioning of sub-national governments. The government has enacted the Employee Adjustment Act, 2017, that allows existing public service employees of the central government to be assigned to local and provincial governments. Yet, there is a lot of resistance from employees to work locally or at the provincial level. This has resulted in serious shortage of manpower at sub-national levels. More than half of ward offices of local governments are operating without secretaries a year after local elected officials took office. The situation at the provincial level is worse.
The roots of political chaos in Nepal, both in design and on implementation, run deep. To start with, federalism was never an agenda of most national-level political parties. It came about as a political compromise among parties. As a result, breadth and depth was missing in the discourse of federalism. During the course of drafting the constitution, the debate over federalism primarily centred around the number of provinces and their names. No substantive discussion was held over issues like economic viability of provinces and local governments, accountability framework and intergovernmental relationships.
The political establishment at the centre seems to have disowned federalism in spirit, if not in law. Advent of federalism in Nepal is meant to address the perceived disparities among different sections of society. However, the political attention has now shifted to “prosperity and development” and there is a palpable disconnect between the two. This is also evident from the lack of planning to guide the transition process from political leaders. Of course, uncertainty in the process is integral to federalism transition. Yet, this can be minimized if proper homework had been done in a timely manner.
Bishal Chalise is a researcher based in Kathmandu.
This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.
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