Debates On Federalism


Some CPN-UML functionaries, about two weeks ago, appealed to the party's senior brass that the UML work towards abolishing federalism since it has proven to be too cumbersome to manage. They also demanded the party bosses disband district coordination committees (DCCs) during the party's central committee meeting. Instead of sticking to federalism, they contended, the party should help consolidate municipalities, which they see as the true form of local government, to deal with all of the people's concerns at the grassroots level. The demand from UML members represents a rising feeling among a sizable number of Nepalis who believe that federalism is not serving the people's interests. 

Experts see the power imbalance between the federal, provincial, and municipal administrations as a feature of our country's federalism. The central government has retained enormous influence, restricting the decision-making capacity of the provinces and municipal governments. One of the primary objections levelled against federalism in Nepal is that it has failed to fulfil the people's needs and aspirations. Critics contend that rather than focusing on the welfare of individuals, federalism has become a vehicle for politicians to consolidate power and control resources for the advantage of themselves, their parties, and their followers.

Financial obligations

Many Nepalis are disillusioned with the federal setup due to its failure to bring actual advantages to the people. In the context of resource-strapped Nepal, a country with a relatively small geographic and population size, federalism has proven to be a burden on the nation's economy, as is now clear. The government is having difficulty managing recurrent costs because it must provide a large chunk of its budget to provincial governments. Dealing with the administrative complexities and financial obligations connected with federalism is a difficult undertaking for a country that has experienced economic stress as a result of its ever-swelling administrative responsibilities under the new system of governance.

Because of economic costs and other obstacles, the chairperson of the Rastriya Jana Morcha, Chitra Bahadur KC, frequently makes scathing remarks against federalism. He believes that federalism would lead the nation into bankruptcy. KC is the only political leader who has been speaking out against federalism since the country was carved into seven provinces under its federal setup. Pro-royalists and people disliking the democratic changes in the country leave no stone unturned to berate the current political setup.

Naturally, fiscal decentralisation is an important part of federalism. However, Nepal has had difficulties with fiscal transfers, income generation, and resource allocation across the various levels of government. Many provincial and municipal governments suffer from low financial resources, limiting their capacity to provide basic services and carry out development initiatives.

Meanwhile, a significant portion of the annual budget is allocated to provincial governments, but much of the budget is spent on salaries, facilities, and perks for bureaucrats and employees, as well as chiefs of provinces, chief ministers, ministers, aides, and advisors, political appointees, and heads of various provincial-level constitutional bodies. Revenues collected at the provincial level are insufficient to fund development initiatives. Corruption and incompetence abound at the provincial and municipal levels, and there is still no clear delineation between provincial and local government control of local resources, exacerbating the issue. The overlapping duties of the federal and provincial governments, along with the presence of DCCs, have frequently resulted in inefficiencies and delays in the implementation of significant and other development projects. This has hampered the accomplishment of critical development programmes, increasing public unhappiness.

When it comes to federalism in our country, the notion of power devolution and development has yet to fully take shape. Those who have looked askance at federalism in Nepal argue that federalism, whose basic idea is to devolve power from the Centre (Singha Durbar) to provincial and local level governments to address the concerns of people at the grassroots, has yet to become effective even after eight years of adoption with the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015.

Provinces' administrations frequently claim that they are not permitted to keep police and security forces or to undertake larger economic projects. They claim that central leaders are unwilling to cede rights to sub-national governments in dealing with the aforementioned challenges. This has hampered provinces from working for the development of their people through their processes. 

However, there have been worries about a lack of competence and knowledge among elected representatives and employees to successfully administer the obligations and tasks of federalism. Similarly, Nepal's federalism is founded on the notion of identity-based federalism, to address historical injustices and grievances. This method has also resulted in obstacles, such as inter-ethnic and inter-regional disputes. There have been discussions and disagreements about the definition of federal boundaries and the representation of various ethnic and underprivileged communities.

Policy reforms

Effective coordination and collaboration among federal, provincial, and municipal administrations is essential for the successful operation of federalism. The current difficulties in decision-making, policy implementation, and service delivery are an indication that there needs to be more attention paid to developing better relationships between all levels of government. This would involve discussions about policy reforms, capacity-building activities, efficient coordination structures, and increased financial allocation to empower provinces and local governments. Thus, it is hugely important to ensure harmonious participation by all entities in our federal framework. Following the success of the people's uprising in 2006, our main political parties—the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, and the Maoist Centre—along with other fringe parties agreed to establish a federal republican structure of administration in the country.

To enjoy the success of the country's federal republic system, our political parties must take lessons from the current degree of dissatisfaction among the people and work proactively to fix the issue. All of the benefits gained through people's uprisings, including the implementation of federalism, cannot be institutionalised if parties and leaders continue to ignore the degree of frustration in the masses regarding parties and leaders’ pathetic attitude towards federalism. It is up to our political parties to combat this growing sentiment and help restore people’s faith in federalism.

(The author is a former Managing Editor of this daily.)

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