Reflections on the Effectiveness of Federalism from the Karnali Province

Author: Raunak Mainali
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Despite the obviously visible poverty that surrounds the capital’s residents, and the inescapable pollution of the valley, those of us privileged to afford an upper-middle class life are quite comfortable in Kathmandu. Areas such as Durbar Marg and Jhamsikhel occasionally even feel like a slice of the West transported to Nepal. Until recently, I had not ventured out of the valley barring a few assorted trips to tourist hotspots such as Chitwan or Pokhara. I imagine this is also the case with many other valley residents from my generation and background.

My perspective was challenged, however, in the past few months. I have now spent an extended amount of time outside of these hotspots. As I write this piece from Birendranagar, the acting capital of the Karnali Province and the district headquarters of Surkhet, I find it more difficult than I would have previously anticipated to reconcile the familiar lifestyle of Kathmandu valley to that of the people who I have gotten to know here. I have spent time in all the districts of Karnali thus far barring Dolpa and Humla. These areas include Western Rukum, Salyan, Jumla, Kalikot, Mugu, Surkhet, Dailekh, and Jajarkot. I am also lucky enough to have family and friends involved deeply in the bureaucracy and have thus had the opportunity to become exposed to the workings of the government at all levels. Throughout my stay in Karnali, not only have I experienced a version of Nepal that is new to me, but I have also been able to spot deficiencies within the systems of governance that operate public life in Nepal.

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Nagma, Jumla.

Nepal still has many formidable challenges left to overcome on its path to achieving efficient governance despite adopting a constitution that favoured a federal framework over 5 years ago. Disruptions and complications introduced by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to further slow, and in some cases even reverse, the progress made thus far.

One of the first things I noticed was the abundance of power residing in the hands of the Chief District Officers. These CDO’s, appointed directly by the federal government, have a range of powers at their disposal across the spectrum of legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government. They are mandated to deploy security forces within their respective districts and are positioned to hear several civil and criminal legal cases. Relevant to the current climate, CSOs can also unilaterally impose curfews or lockdowns within their respective jurisdictions. Different districts have thus locked down at different times throughout the past year. This ongoing culture of centrally controlled governance practice has clearly undermined provincial and local governments as the official contextual power centers within districts, at least on paper.

Yet another issue I noticed concerns the lack of government infrastructure and presence within districts in the province. For example, Dailekh does not have its own Internal Revenue Department. It thus implies that those residing within the district have to travel all the way to Birendranagar in the adjacent district for even the most basic administrative purposes. The same also applies for the residents of Kalikot, who must visit the Jumla office via a road that is not well maintained and presents several dangerous risks while traveling.

Many areas within these districts do not have an internet or mobile connection and in some cases, are not even connected to the electrical grid yet. Services such as online applications and telephone-friendly administrative work is thus completely unavailable to its residents. Not only does this stop citizens from acquiring government loans and grants, key instruments of achieving upward mobility, but it also hinders revenue collection activity for government agencies. Collective tax becomes difficult as it requires many days of travel, and thus has an adverse effect on other public sector works. In the long run, efforts outside of those aiming to strengthen the power positions of local governments can improve these conditions, as village and town municipalities are ubiquitous.

The serendipitous Rara Lake

Although my experience has admittedly been limited to the Karnali province, I feel that it would not be entirely unreasonable to expect that similar governance problems are replicated in other areas of Nepal as well. Adopting a federal framework was a determined first step in addressing grassroot problems within the country. However, there are still major obstacles that are impeding smooth federal operation that must be addressed. Unfortunately, the pandemic current has occupied almost all the governments attention, as it rightfully should. However, structural changes aiming to strengthen the federal system are essential in achieving the kind of government our constitution envisions for our country.

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.