Sustainable Federalism in Nepal through Dialogue

Dialogue Facilitation Training conducted by CSC. Photo: Rahul Roy

Author: Prakash Bhattarai

Traveling is an integral part of my work and research. It allows me to directly interact with people across diverse segments of the society; in particular, with workers, peasants, youth, elected government officials, political leaders, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, and media persons. Through these rich interactions, I often end up gathering experiences from everyday life stories and self-analyzing how their lives are impacted by the changes observed in politics, economy, and overall governance of the country. Most of the conversations I encounter are often centered around politics, governance, economy, livelihood, ecology, and social change that is rapidly occurring within societies across Nepal and one of the most common issues that I hear from the people is about the fate of the newly adopted federal governance system of the country.

Reflecting upon those conversations, I am expressing here my observations and analysis.

Seven years have passed since Nepal adopted the federal governance system. In the years elapsed, this framework can be assessed, moreover criticized from multiple angles but in particular, its heavy and expensive structure compared to the country’s economic condition, inefficient service delivery provisions, growing corruption, poor intergovernmental coordination, and lack of social cohesion in the country comes to spotlight. Additionally, increasing trend of governance conflicts and lack of interventions to address these conflicts have further fostered negative public sentiments towards the subsistence of federalism in Nepal. Based on my observations, misinformation, lack of information, and disinformation are the three major factors that have contributed to increase such negative public sentiments towards practice of federalism in Nepal. Following are some examples of recurring statements gathered from the grounds that ascertain this impression:

  • Federalism, moreover, the federal administrative structures are seemingly costly for Nepal, especially when they are not performing up to the value, the cost for upkeeping these constitutes are unaffordable.
  • The three-tiered federal structure has birthed many ‘kings’ and power ambitious people who are gaining unauthorized benefits from public taxpayers and grants and loans obtained from international communities.
  • Federalism was introduced in Nepal due to foreign interests, rather than the need of Nepali people themselves.
  • Although federalism is majorly about existence of provincial structures, they have been the least effective when compared among the three tiers; thus, recognizing its’ futile presence, they need to be dissolved.
  • Most of the political leaders are against the federal structure, however, they want to continue with this system as it favors the management of their cadres.
  • Government bureaucracy is against the federal governance structure; thus, they are less cooperative during the staff integration processes. Most of the government officials are working at the local and provincial government structures due to obligation.
  • Federalism will increase conflict, as multiple layers of governments and multiple elected representatives are not required to manage a small country like Nepal.

Furthermore, a strong online and offline media advocacy against federalism was also observed that were initiated by groups who are ideologically as well as practically against the federal governance system and repeated flow of such information (whether true or false) through social media have been able to influence people against federalism. However, despite these commonly observed perceptions, there are no scientific studies conducted by independent policy or academic communities regarding the current state of federalism in Nepal. Growing sentiment against federalism are mostly based on the social media narrative created by anti-federalists but also by lack of political and bureaucratic attention towards making the federal governance structure fully functional with adequate policy, institutional, and resource arrangements. Inefficient and unregulated financial expenditure and lack of effective interventions for curbing corruption have further made federal governance unpopular in the country.

Dialogue as the first step for sustaining federalism

Despite heavy criticisms, federalism still has the potential to be a widely accepted governance system where different caste, ethnic, and geographical groups own and sustain the system. But the larger question is, what will it cost Nepal to stop changing its governance arrangements and when will the country start contributing to make it better and stronger with periodic reforms according to the country’s demands?

I recommend that these negative public perceptions towards federalism can only be removed when there are continuous dialogues between people regarding its pros and cons. When these dialogues are focused on how federalism is functioning as compared to previously practiced unitary forms of governance in Nepal, one should be able to draw the exiting gaps and also possible avenues to resolution. It is significant for these dialogues to be inclusive, open and critical on every aspect of federal governance practices where the voices of people should be carefully attended by everyone, even the ones against federalism. Such dialogues should take place from local to the central level where macro dynamics of federalism can be discussed at the central level and micro dynamics at the local and provincial levels. Dialogues should be evidence-based and free from ideological domination (either for or against of federalism) and should cover the everyday stories of people and discuss the loss and benefits they realized after introduction of federalism in the country. It is also imperative to make conversations free from prejudices and capture changes that people felt after federalism in Nepal.

Then, who should be initiating and convening these dialogues? Ideally, local, provincial, and federal governments should be organizing such dialogues, but to create a neutral space for all stakeholders, civil society organizations can also take up this role with active participation of elected representatives, government officials, political parties, civil society organizations, media, and general public.

Moreover, one pertinent question that each dialogue should address is, why is there a growing discontentment among public regarding the implementation of federalism? Whether this situation has arisen due to inefficient political and bureaucratic leaderships along with policy and institutional gaps or due to the lack of meaningful public participation in governance processes? The answers will unquestionably pave the way forward.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Prakash Bhattarai, PhD currently serves as the Executive Director of Centre for Social Change. He has almost 20 years of professional/ academic experience on issues surrounding governance, peace-building, development, migration, and more.

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