Friday, 3 December, 2021

Overcoming Deficits At Local Affairs


Mukti Rijal

My thoughts go back oftentimes to the childhood days when life was more difficult and excruciatingly hard at the local level. The state institutions that we see and find today at the local level like local bodies, public schools, health posts and varied service delivery outposts did not exist at all.
Neither had local people been connected to the state or the state entities nor the concept of state institutions, their rationale and identity was as clarified and developed as we see and experience today.
It was more or less a pre-state era in the Nepalese villages in the Lockean sense of the term. The villages were inhabited by self-contained communities living more or less in harmony and cooperation with each other. Those days were difficult for the people as they did, I remember, succumb to hunger especially during the food deficit months of the year.

Diarrheal epidemics took away the lives of the scores of people in a day especially during summer. Any way people did eke out their living, which was made largely possible due to mutual support and cooperation inherent in the rural communities of Nepal. Only after King Mahendra introduced non-party Panchayat polity in 1960, the state institutions started incrementally to reach out and percolate down to the local level.

Non-party Guided
Although it was an undemocratic regime criticised and largely shunned today for its authoritarian orientation, credit goes to then polity for having allowed and pushed the state down to the local level especially in the outlying and far-flung areas of the country. The non-party political system was more or less premised upon what is known as non-party guided or basic democracy.
It was also a popular political notion then especially followed and adopted in some Asian and African countries in contradistinction to multiparty democracy. Be that as it may, the local elections held for the Chief (Pradhan ), deputy chiefs ( Upa pradhan) and ward chairpersons(Wada adhyakshya ) every five year did educate the people about some basic notions of local governance, democracy, participation and development in the rural communities of Nepal.

I do vividly recall the days when the Gaun Sabha (popular village assembly) used to be convened and villagers used to gather to discuss and decide the local issues despite the fact that it was completely a non-party exercise led and guided by authoritarian monarchy.

The noteworthy part of that time was that these local panchayat bodies had been run and nourished by the spirit of community based voluntary service. No elected officials got any remuneration nor perks and amenities in return for the services they rendered at the local level. Some had been motivated by their willingness to serve their community, others had been especially urged by their interest and proclivity to earn social status and prestige through these popularly mandated positions. The semi-literate persons who were almost rare or one or two in numbers having a rudimentary knowledge and skills in writing used to contribute voluntarily as secretary (Sachib) in the local Panchayats.

Even the local teachers used to contribute their services voluntarily or on semi-salaried basis for the fact that serving the community was a matter of both obligation and pride. In fact, the local bodies incorporated in those days had laid the strong foundation that continue to succeed more or less to this day despite the fact that we have moved fast forward to the era of federal political system.
Today, situation at the local level has completely transformed and changed.Local governments are constitutionally recognized and do receive grants in aid and transfers from federal and state (Pradesh) governments, among others. The elected local officials have been financially compensated for as if they are recruited as the salaried regular civil servants of the government. This has given rise to several issues of contested anomalies.
It challenges the basic voluntaristic norm of the politics that distinguishes and dichotomizes it from the paid and remunerated civil bureaucracy. Moreover, it can damage the very moral fiber and destroy the political integrity expected of and demanded from democratic political actors and institutions.

One of the major concerns of the today's local governments in federal Nepal has been that they face acute shortage of human resources to carry out their minimum routine functions. As they suffer from the chronic scarcity of personnel and have to reconcile to the fact of being tagged as underperformer or poorly governed.
However, this issue of the shortage of human resources can be addressed taking cues from the previous practices guided by spirit of voluntarism embedded in the Nepalese social milieu. In today's Nepal there is no dearth of competent human capital at local level across the country except in some very remote mountain enclaves.

The human capital can be tapped at the local level at no or some minimum cost as technical and non-technical personnel are lying unutilized both in hills and plains (terai) of Nepal.Municipalities have the advantage to develop the roster of the retired professionals, technical and non-technical human resources residing within the vicinity of the municipalities and call upon them to use their knowledge, skills and render their services to different activities of municipalities as per requirement.

I believe retired civil servants and skilled graduates can render their services at no cost or modest honorariums. This is how local governments (communes) in Switzerland have done well to capitalize on the voluntary spirit of the local residents. The concept is called as the principle of self administration to imply that in a federal democratic system people not only govern themselves but also should have an opportunity to administer their local affairs themselves.

Some years ago, on a sojourn to Switzerland, I had an opportunity to visit some communes (municipalities) in the Graubünden canton where I was told that local human resource needs and requirements are fulfilled and met by local ordinary residents. Swiss political scientist Wolf Winder in his monumental work titled Swiss Democracy which is acclaimed as one of the authoritative accounts of the working of federalism describes in detail about the practices self –administration called (Milizverwaltung) in Switzerland.

According to Linder in many areas of Swiss administration, public tasks are not fulfilled by employed civil servants or administrators. Instead, ordinary people themselves manage these public affairs by part-time engagement of a few hours or several days per week. It is a form of self-administration by people who volunteer for the public good and services. This part-time work is sometimes remunerated, sometimes not, depending on the nature and volume of the work. In some cantons, the system dates back to the Middle Ages.

As explained by Linder, self-administration performs functions such as using the professional skills of ordinary citizens for public affairs, goods and services. This allows non-centralised self-administration and political autonomy even for small political units who lack the funds to hire professionals.
By relying on the part-time involvement of their citizens, they can deliver their own community services. It fulfills the purpose of self-administration, with a great number of persons involved in part-time tasks, posts and committees. It also allows more opportunities and spaces for enhancing democratic citizen participation.

In their voluntary role, citizens become part of and personify the political and administrative institutions. This also keeps community oriented traditions alive in Switzerland. There are many private organizations working for the poor, the handicapped, in cultural affairs, for the protection of the environment or the promotion of other public goods. These non-profit organizations and entities fulfil public tasks outside of public administration, even though many of them are subsidised by the federation, the canton or the communes. It is also interesting to note that the principle of self administration is found adopted at the cantonal and federal level, too, for instance in the form of expert committees, according to Wolf Linder.

Sense of Ownership
In the 1980s, a first systematic inquiry found almost 400 federal expert committees consisting of 4000 citizen involved without being paid or with nominal payment. This has given a space and an opportunity for the citizens to be associated and contribute to administer the affairs of the state. With this, citizens can be imbued with and inspired by a sense of ownership to the state. This helps to foster citizen's trust in the state.

In fact, the principle of self- governance that rests on political devolution becomes true and real only when it is combined with and backed by practices of self administration. This can make the notion of administrative devolution implemented and enforced in the true sense of the term. The Nepalese local governments should cultivate this practice and tradition to meet their human resources requirement for some tasks and affairs which existed in the past instead of clamoring for centrally recruited civil bureaucracy to govern and run almost all local functions and tasks.This can help to meet the much talked about democratic deficit at the local level.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.