Reflections from Sunsari II: On Federalism and Youth Engagement

Author: Shuvam Rizal

Members from the GMC Nepal team visited Sunsari district between the 2nd and 6th of August 2021. Across the three municipal jurisdictions visited — namely Ramdhuni, Koshi, and Bhokaraha-Narsing municipalities, the team hosted a number of different exploratory open-ended discussion events to gauge the state of local attitudes and experiences towards federalism six years after the promulgation of the 2015 Constitution.

The ‘Reflections from Sunsari’ series chronicles assortments of experiences, observations, conversations, and thoughts from this field visit.

When I first began preparing to set off east with the GMC Nepal team, I started by carefully curating an exhaustive list questions, discussion prompts, local language synonyms, and metaphors for certain political concepts and ideas I presumed could perhaps be alien to members of the communities we would be interacting with. Only minutes into the first session we conducted in the Ramdhuni municipality, I quickly realized I had over-prepared. To my most pleasant surprise, every focus group discussion session we facilitated needed very little prompting. And the loudest voices in the room were generally also the youngest.

Politics as a social activity, it appeared, has become both increasingly frustrating as well as increasingly popular among young people in Eastern Nepal. Of course, by its very design, there is no escape from political participation in a democratic society, but anecdotal evidence suggested that the introduction of the federal framework had significantly boosted this metric.

“When the local government offices were set up, they came with a promise. Federalism was supposed to bring our concerns to the attention of people who can help. But then and now, nobody wants to hear from the youth!” said Keshav P, a student and young community leader of Koshi municipality in an impassionate moment of frustration.

“I had even suggested several young people to try to join the government offices so they can address the concerns of the youth from within, but they are never taken seriously” shared Prashant R, a journalist and teacher at the Bhokaraha-Narsing municipality. “They do not even let us in the door,” added Keshav P, a lifelong political aspirant. “Every time I have tried to seek some work in the government office, they tell me I am not educated enough despite the ward chief being a dropout himself.”

Youth leaders from Koshi municipality involved in pandemic relief cite the extreme politicization of the Covid-19 vaccinations as the most pressing current problem at the local level. “Only people who have voted for key leaders or have a history of showing public support are prioritized for vaccinations,” shared 19-year old student Sunita R. “We rallied together to raise funds for a zebra crossing in a busy intersection. It was supported by the previous government. Now, because there has been a change of power, new government leaders are resentful and are making it difficult for us to get the vaccines.”

“Public forums should be decidedly public,” added Sunita. “Leadership at the top of local governments are called a ‘joint family.’ Everyone knows everyone and appointments are made without even advertising open positions to keep people on the outside away from positions of influence.”

“Federalism certainly helped the community’s confidence when it was first established” shared Iqbal B, a member of the Bhokaraha-Narsing chapter of the human rights commission. “There was a palpable energy and excitement in the air for the days to come, but the political scene has really not improved much. The power brokers have changed but attitudes and habits are hard to shake off.” Iqbal’s words were met with thunderous applause in the room.

It was clear across the board that the introduction of the federal structure has indeed encouraged the youth to engage more in political matters. However, this increase in engagement has also exposed many of the inefficiencies, malpractices, and longtime persistent problems in the Nepali political culture. Periods of crises, both local and national, have similarly triggered such conversations.

The 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 Governance Monitoring Centre Nepal and/or Centre for Social Change.