There are ups and downs in Nepal’s municipalities from the perspective of formal goals such as to strengthen “good governance”, “local democracy” or “local autonomy” – and the last 30 days are no exception! Here are some examples from the headlines on “local affairs” since September which will illustrate at the same time what’s going on at municipal level at present.
The “Cycle City” initiative
First is a headline that’s truly rare in a Nepalese context and clearly a positive story from any perspective: it’s an example of creative municipal initiative in response to a pertinent local issue. In October, Birendranagar in Kailali announced a plan to become the country’s first ever “Cycle City”! With a vision to drastically reduce noise and air pollution in the town and to help lowering carbon emissions, the municipality and the local Cyclist Association joined hands to build wider cycle friendly roads, plenty of cycle parking stands and even a local cycle park.
The idea is to encourage locals to pedal instead of burning fuel, and the project is already well underway! Says a representative of Karnali Riders’ Club, the local cyclist association, Kewal Prasad Bhandari: “Bicycles should become the primary mode of transportation [in this town] to curb air pollution.” With municipal allocations of several million Nrs. to back the project, this is a case of a local government and local interest group working together towards a common goal that even appears to serve nothing less than the common good in that community!
From artefacts to local tourism
Sainamaina Municipality in Rupandehi is another example of a local government with ideas and initiative. Together with other local organisations as well as the provincial and federal government, it preserves local historical artefacts, house ruins and ancient wells believed to date back to the time of Lord Buddha. Locals continue to unearth artefacts, some at archeological sites, others by coincidence while cultivating the land, and the municipality have the items examined and preserved. One major reason behind its efforts? Indeed, tourism!
The municipality is not alone in its efforts. The Ministry of Urban Planning has just set aside 380 million Nrs. to build a historical museum in Sainamaina, and last year the municipality was included on the “Buddha Circuit” advertised to visitors to the Lumbini area. Ministry of Culture and Tourism has allocated 5 million Nrs. to further help preserve the heritage in Sainamaina, and the municipality is not resting, either. It has built a road to Lumbini to ease access, and it’s working with neighboring municipalities and local businesses, all of it to develop local tourism.
Salaries and allowances on hold
Should elected representatives at municipal level receive allowances and perhaps salaries for performing their roles and duties as elected officials? Well, even the elected members of the earstwhile DDCs and VDCs were entitled by law to meeting allowances, at least. After the election in 2017, most municipalities made laws that entitled them to various allowances and to monthly salaries, in most cases. But then in October 2018, the Supreme Court passed a verdict that made all of these laws null and void! Now it’s up to the provincial bodies to decide.
The Supreme Court ruled that municipalities – according to the Constitution – cannot alone enact laws that entitle them to allowances let alone salaries. Until this verdict, mayors and vice-mayors of rural municipalities, for instance, were typically receiving 30-35,000 Nrs. a month. In addition, many had also granted themselves various allowances, not all of them equally popular in the eyes of the local public, to be sure. One example includes an allowance of up to 10,000 Nrs. a year to buy clothes in order to meet the municipal dress code!
It’s an issue of “local accountability”, on the one hand: municipal representatives might have gone too far in enacting laws that would grant them too high allowances or salaries. But at the same time, “local autonomy” could be at stake: if the authorities higher up can decide on their respective salaries, one local argument goes, why cannot the municipalities on their salaries?
The ink on the Supreme Court’s decision had barely dried out before the two main municipal associations – The National Association for Rural Municipalities in Nepal and the Association of Municipalities in Nepal – began to lobby with the provincial representatives to enact new laws. Chief Minister Shankar Pokharel of Province 5 has no doubt as to whose side he is on. He pledges to swiftly reintroduce salaries and allowances to the municipal representatives: “Since the constitution itself has endowed executive power to all three tiers of the government, it’s not right to tell local representatives to work without salaries.” It’s expected that the municipal members will again receive salaries – but they have lost the power to decide on their own.
Social reform for an orderly community
Two municipalities near Hetauda – Makwanpurgadhi and Manahari – passed and began to implement in October a local Social Reform Act. This act addresses a range of “social ills” that a majority of the politicians in the municipality apparently see as an impediment to local development and an orderly community. A complete ban on gambling, and on alcohol and tobacco sale outside business hours and near schools, prohibition of the dowry system, and removal of the pay-gap between men and women are only some of the paragraphs in the law!
The two municipalities have a population of 64,000 in total, chiefly comprised of Tamangs but also Khas, Chepang, Bankariya, Bote and Dalit communities. Faced with low income and lack of jobs, among other issues, social problems are not uncommon in Makwanpurgadhi and Manahari. But with the new law in hand, both municipalities will now attempt to limit these “social ills”. This is not new in a Nepalese context – similar programs were quite common in the erstwhile VDCs – yet it’s not every day that two municipalities, covering such a large population, launch such a comprehensive social reform to act jointly. Quite a local initiative!
Municipality versus wildlife: another effort
In municipalities regularly faced with wildlife attacks – a growing issue in various parts of the country – another municipal initiative month after month is to protect the affected villages. Bhanu Municipality in Tanahun is just one recent example. After a leopard killed a forth child in a ward in September, the Division Forest Office – under the provincial government – tried modern traps to catch the cat but without success. Then the local Ward Chairmen took action and set up traditional pit snares with funding from the municipality. Indeed, on the issue of wildlife attack the Ward Chairmen with their local knowledge are often the first line of defence!
But Bhanu Municipality went on to take one more step in October in wake of yet a leopard attack that brought the death toll up to five despite the pit snares. The loss of livestock had already passed thirty goats and cattle since the attacks began one-and-a-half year earlier. It announced an insurance scheme meant for villagers in those wards most exposed to attacks not only from leopards but also from bears and monkeys. This new insurance will cover loss of life and livestock as well as treatment in case of injury. It’s not fully clear how the scheme will work out – but it’s an example of another local initiative to deal with a pressing local issue!
Other municipalities have taken more drastic initiatives in response to local grievances. Says mayor of Triveni Municipality in Nawalparasi, Dambar GC: “My constituents come to me every day complaining that rhinos and other wildlife have destroyed their crops. We hand out some compensation, but it is never enough.” But what can a municipality do more other than to set up traps and compensate for some of the death, injury and destruction? Mayor Dambar GC and his municipality have put up a 700,000 Nrs. fence where jungle meets villagers, and Kawasoti Muncipality has built a 17 km. wall at a cost of 15 million Nrs., all in hope of keeping wildlife out in future. Federal bodies contribute too but the municipalities often act first!
Failed initiatives in face of local protests
Municipal projects may respond to local needs. But they can also fail as a result of local protests even when a project is perfectly justified and fully funded. This became painfully clear in Butwal Municipality in October as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) pulled out from a local waste management project. The project had been in the pipeline for almost a decade but due to constant local protests that caused multiple delays, the ADB ultimately lost its patience!
Waste management and treatment is an urgent issue in Butwal Municipality with over 53 tonnes of waste to dispose of every day. But unable to overcome resistance from the future neighbors of two planned waste treatment facilities under the cancelled ADB project, Butwal Municipality must now continue to rely on ad hoc dump sites on river banks and in remote woodlands. The losers are of course the environment and those who happen to live near to these dumps. Shakuntala Darji can smell the waste every day and calls on the municipality to solve the problem once and for all: “We cannot spend our days swatting flies that could be carrying infectious diseases. We have been living in harsh conditions here [for a long time].”
The municipality’s response after the ADB’s bail from the waste management project, however, has not been to try and convince the locals but instead to appeal to the federal government to take over! In the words of the municipality’s senior engineer, Shailendra Shrestha, the protests against the ADB project were impossible to overcome and so, “We are out of options,” he concludes. An editorial in the Kathmandu Post a few days later disagreed: “When projects stall due to local pressure, the onus is on the local body to find an alternative site, convince the residents of the need for such projects, or relocate settlements to make room. The local body, after all, is the closest to the issue…” It might also be true, though, that the closer the decision-makers are to those affected, the harder it is to ignore their protests.
Butwal Municipality is not the only local body struggling to solve a growing waste management problem. Urbanisation is adding to the volume of garbage, and it’s an issue that puts local representatives’ ability to find solutions in the face of protests from constituents to the test!
Internal disputes deprive local staff of salaries
Stories that put local government in a negative light are common in the national news, and a major example from October is about the failure of several rural municipalities to pay their staff on time! The rural municipalities are required to conduct a Village Council meeting by June 25 in order to have their annual budgets ready for when the fiscal year starts in July. But by late October, several rural municipalities had still not held this meeting, and so neither had they formally discussed, nor approved their budgets. Without a budget, in turn, a municipality cannot release funds, not even for staff salaries! In several municipalities, internal disputes between opposing parties or factions delayed the meetings for months on end, and as a result local staff, including office staff, teachers and health personnel, are still waiting to get paid!
Favouritism in the context of local government
“Party favoritism” was in the news as another and inded negative aspect of local government in Nepal. In a newly released report on a UNDP funded micro-enterprise programme – the Micro Enterprise Development for Poverty Alleviation (MEDPA) – it came out that around 70 percent of the trainings under this poverty alleviation initiative went to “party henchmen” of local politicians. Still in operation, the programme has reached over 140,000 locals across all 77 districts and has spent over 3 billion Nrs. during its fourth phase (2013-2018) alone. Favouritism has been rife not least after the local election in 2017 when mayors became chairmen of the beneficiary selection committees, and when they as well as ward chairmen could make recommendations to include supporters in the programme. Favouritism is an old practice at local level, and this headline in October underlines that it is still very much alive!
From a “local democracy” perspective, it may not inspire optimism to see that a municipality gives in to local pressure and leaves a serious waste management problem unsolved, as in Butwal, or that internal disputes can grow so severe that not even the municipal budget is approved, or that resources meant for the poor are distributed on the basis of favouritism.
This tour of the news on local government over the last month or so, though, can still end on a positive note!
It’s true that the municipalities often get “bad press” as their conduct can leave much to be desired. But in between these headlines are also positive stories that illustrate the strength of local government in a country like Nepal. When municipalities come up with new ideas and initiatives, such as the “cycle city” in Birendranagar or the conservation of artefacts in Sainamaina Municipality to develop local tourism, this shows an ability of local bodies to respond to particular circumstances and opportunities in their communities. The efforts to protect villages from wildlife attack, and the social reform act in Hetauda, are two additional examples. To be sure, there are many discouraging stories on local government in Nepal. Yet in the last months or so, the headlines were not all negative ones but rather, a mixed bag.
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