Five Years of Federalism

  14 min 24 sec to read
Five Years of Federalism


Even if there are some ups and downs in the implementation of federalism, there is no need to panic. The situation can change radically if political parties can be more explicit in their implementation of federalism.

Nepal has seen an exceptional ten-year period as a result of the armed struggle launched by the then CPN (Maoist). The army, police, and militants together killed at least 17,000 people, injured thousands, and displaced thousands of others since the conflict began in 1996. For years, Maoist militants have had strong authority over rural areas, while the urban masses have been living in fear. Following the Maoists' entry into the peace process in the hope of a negotiated settlement, a new movement arose in the country's southern Tarai Madhes area. Thousands of hill people have been relocated from Madhes. Nepal has seen significant political changes experienced by only a few countries in the globe since the country's political leadership established a political accord to address the people's displeasure and political ambitions. The country was changed into a democratic republic after 240 years of monarchy, and federalism was adopted, replacing the centuries-old unitary government.

The country's state structure has seen remarkable changes as a result of federalism. State power is split among three tiers of government. Seven provinces and 753 local governments have been established under the new arrangement. A segment of the population has expressed reservations about the federal government's new structure. Why do we need seven states in a country with such a little population and geography? Why are there so many members of parliament and ministers? These are the most common concerns expressed by the public. We haven't been able to provide them with adequate responses.  The first question is posed in the context of neighbouring India. India has 36 states and a population of around 1.5 billion people. Why are there seven provinces with populations under 30 million? Nepal is naturally linked to India because it is a neighbouring country. However, judging India solely on the basis of its example may not be fair. Let's take a look at a country a little further away, Switzerland. Switzerland is the first federal state, having gone from a unitary to a federal structure in 1848. It has a slightly wider geographical area than our Karnali region. It has an estimated population of 8.7 million people, or nearly a quarter of Nepal's total population. There are, however, 26 provinces/cantons. The point here is why is it necessary to have 26 cantons/provinces in such a small country? The canton has a population of 16,000 (Appenzelliner hoden) to 1.5 million people and occupies an area of 37 km to 7,105 km (Zurich). Switzerland's largest province has the same area as our smaller province. Their most populous province is like our least populous province. However, Swiss citizens do not complain that there are more provinces than necessary. These facts confirm that geography and population do not play a significant role in determining the number of provinces.

The issue of federalism in Switzerland, for example, is not the number of provinces, but the solution to political concerns. The number of states should be decided on the basis of justification and necessity of the country and political consensus. If there are any problems in the implementation of federalism and in the operation of the states, it is necessary to find a way to solve them by improving them. But this is definitely not the time to look for alternatives.

Significance of Federalism
Nepal's decision to join the federalism movement is based on a number of factors. Why did countries that adopted a unitary system of governance become federations? This topic is intertwined with the central issue of federalism. Many unitary governments shifted to federalism in the twentieth century to avoid internal turmoil and discontent. To empower autonomous areas, Spain, for example, has shifted to a federal state structure. Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, and Iraq have all adopted federalism as part of their efforts to end decades of violent war. The British largely unified India, and it created a federal administration based on social, cultural, linguistic, and geographic characteristics. There were just 14 states when India was founded, but there are today 28 states and eight union territories. With only 13 states at the time, the United States adopted federalism in 1776 with the purpose of allowing independent and sovereign states to conduct common-interest business through mutual consent and agreement. The United States of America now has 50 states. The United States has its own state system which is primarily used to promote trade and national security. Switzerland is in a similar boat. Swiss federalism was established in 1848 with the objective of preserving and increasing the autonomy and cultural variety of the country's cantons. Germany became a federal state in 1949 as a consequence of Landers' individual decision and mutual acceptance.

A major characteristic of federalism is the distribution of governmental power between the centre and numerous federal units. The political, administrative, economic, judicial, and other powers of the country are shared among the federal components in a federal form of government. Federalism was formed, according to the preamble of Nepal's constitution, to achieve economic equality and social justice, as well as to foster inclusive democracy by reducing geographic, cultural, regional, class, ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender, and other forms of ethnic untouchability using strategies that are proportional, inclusive, and participatory. Twenty-nine of the world's 200 countries, including Nepal, have accepted the federal system of government, regardless of population, geography, or economic size.

Dividends of Federalism:
Since the country adopted federalism, it has accomplished some astonishing things. Provinces and municipalities have been founded as sub-national governments. Despite setbacks, such as the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, sub-national governments have made great progress. State and local governments have come close to meeting the people's needs. Since the creation of the Federal Democratic Republic, elected representatives have been exercising the people's sovereignty. The federal constitution established a proportional representation electoral system, paving the path for more women to be represented in all levels of government. India, China, and the United States, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which represents parliaments all over the world, have 15%, 25%, and 28% women in their legislatures, respectively. In Nepal, the figure is 34%. Nepal's parliament has more than twice as many women as India. At the local level, women constitute 41% of the population. The institutional structure of the previous system of governance has changed. More than half of the civil servants at the local and state levels have been restructured. Most of the development offices in the district headquarters have reached the local level. There are several ministries, departments and institutions at the federal level. Institutional restructuring and staff adjustment have been done. High-ranking civil servants were seldom sent to work in remote areas of the country. But now they are forced to work at the local and provincial levels.

Going down the corporate ladder also entails delivering services to people's homes. It's important to remember that municipal elections, which had been impossible for the previous 20 years, were only made possible following the establishment of a federal framework. Nepal's entire domestic revenue was less than Rs 10 billion before the foundation of the federal system. Internal revenue can currently be raised at the local level for roughly Rs 40 billion. The local government, which used to be able to manage only Rs 3 million in annual budgets, can now manage over one billion. Expansion of internal resources and budgets also results in a qualitative improvement in development and service delivery.  

Due to federalism, the resources of the centralised state have become constitutionally decentralised. Federalism has also helped individuals to become self-reliant. Before federalism, citizens used to go to the district headquarters and the capital to get various state services. At present, about 70% of the work can be completed at the local level. Those looking for resources from the National Planning Commission (NPC) and the Ministry of Finance can now distribute them on their own.

The majority of rural residents abandoned their houses during the insurgency. In the Madhesh movement, tens of thousands of people were displaced. The adoption of the federal system of government brought peace to the country. Citizens' worries are gradually being handed over to the provincial government. Federalism should not be thought of as a one-size-fits-all answer. Prior to federalism, distinct castes and communities dominated the state structure. Since the implementation of federalism, improvements have been achieved. Furthermore, provincial governments are competing in the fields of development, construction, and service delivery. The federal government's authority extends to the provincial level. Public access to service centres has been expanded. How much did it cost to get from the village municipality to the district headquarters and capital, and how much does it cost now? Let's look at the cost of federalism and how services are delivered from top to bottom.  

Peace is federalism's greatest achievement. Throughout the country, there is a sense of calm. The current condition is easily comparable to the state of panic during the conflict. During the insurgency, even citizens of the capital were unable to sleep well. Let’s not confuse the need for peace with the importance of federalism. Progress, prosperity, and good governance are the core objectives of any policy system. Even more crucial is peace. It makes no sense if the country is not at peace.

Now is the time to focus on making the system less expensive and more adaptable. Federalism is a piece of cake for those who understand, but a burden for those who do not.

Room for Change
If all three levels of government operate within constitutional bounds, there is no need to be concerned about expense control. The federal government must break free from its centralised mindset. It is unnecessary to have a large institutional structure at the centre. The country's police organisation's federal structure has remained unchanged, and as a result, the provinces are falling behind. Provinces want to have the police in their own strength so that they can carry out their constitutional obligations. Half of the present workforce of the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force should be distributed to the states in order to manage the federal administration at a minimal cost. What is the point of keeping a huge group of civil and other officials at the centre if more than half of their work has already been devolved to provincial and local levels?   

The main focus is also on improving the federal form of government by lowering the number of ministers in the states. The number of ministers in the state legislature should be kept at a maximum of 10% of the total members. A constitutional amendment is required for this. Similarly, in the absence of the Civil Service Act, staff administration at the provincial level has become complicated. As a result, the service flow has been disrupted. Although the government has stated that it will introduce legislation in this regard, it has been stated that the ordinance should be introduced with the people's interests in mind rather than the civil servants. Despite the people's wishes for peace, good administration, progress, and prosperity under the new government, things have not gone according to plan. Legislation moves at the same rate as the rest of the world.

Federalism has the right to expect more from citizens. However, the House of Representatives had been disbanded twice in the last three and a half years of Oli-led government, posing some serious problems in the implementation of federalism. The parliament had been unable to function efficiently even after the reinstatement of the House of Representatives. The main opposition stalled the parliament for more than six months. The working style of federalism has been harmed as a result of changes in the provincial political climate. After the second local body elections, the parliament session has begun and a new budget has already been announced.  For federalism to be strengthened, parliament must play an active role.

Nepal's federalism is based on the concept of coordination and cooperation, the adoption of which will help strengthen the country. Empowerment can be achieved in various ways. Activation of inter-provincial councils such as the Provincial Coordinating Council, Regional Thematic Committee and others are the most suitable mechanisms. The constitution gives functional responsibilities to provincial governments, but they also have limited resources.

Let’s look at the experiences around the world. Despite the fact that the local level is under the province in Canada, the local level is responsible for all local service delivery and infrastructure development. Similarly, 92% of universities in operation Germany are managed by Province/Lander. The federal government, ironically, continues to open universities in Nepal, five years after the country adopted a federal set up. The provincial government does not currently have the authority to act in this manner.

The Swiss have a long history of including provinces and cantons in foreign policy discussions and decisions. When deciding on topics that have a substantial influence at the provincial level, we don’t tend to have a wide discussion. Before settling on the Kali Gandaki diversion canal, for example, the then Oli-led administration did not even consult Gandaki province through which the river flows. No provincial government has been informed about the decision to take stones, sand and ballast. The then Prime Minister Oli inaugurated 240 local roads under the provincial government. This has highlighted the issue of coordination in the implementation of federalism in Nepal. All this shows that the federal government is not committed to implementing federalism in a constructive and transparent manner.

The sub-national government's constitutional rights have not been faithfully applied. The National Assembly had proposed a resolution to introduce federalism in this context. However, due to the main opposition party's continued obstruction of parliamentary proceedings, the idea was unable to be discussed. The meeting is presently in full swing. This is something that needs to be discussed in the legislature. If passed and implemented, it will significantly alter the way federalism is carried out.

Of course, no system of government is perfect. When political leaders are unreliable and lack professional ethics, problems are inevitable. Unfortunately, the actions of the leaders of "bad" political parties have, in a short period of time, created a question mark over our federal system. There is still plenty of room for development. We have used various political systems, including the Rana regime, the autocratic monarchy, and the constitutional monarchy. Nepal is attempting to employ federalism after experiencing all these political systems. Without a doubt, the lack of good guardianship has prevented federalism from having the desired effect. Staff management, legal and institutional structure development, capacity development, and effective budget transfer are the areas where coordination is required. We no longer have a choice but to implement federalism by tackling a variety of challenges. There will be no major problems in implementing federalism if there are strong intergovernmental ties, effective financial federalism, successful administrative federalism, activism in lawmaking, and speed in service delivery. If state institutions are more attentive to these difficulties, commoners will notice the difference and will be able to contribute significantly to addressing or lowering the disparities in federalism.

The federal government should not put off performing the visible guardianship at the sub-national level in order to ensure the success of federalism. The implementation of federalism at the municipal level should also be handled seriously. Even if there are some ups and downs in the implementation of federalism, there is no need to panic or be dissatisfied. The situation could radically change if political parties can be more explicit in their implementation of federalism.

The recent local level elections, as well as the victories of independent candidates such as Balen, Harka, Gopi, and Manoj in various towns and villages around the country, have given the people a new impetus known as “Flatpack Democracy."

Rajeshman Singh's victory in Parsa and Balendra Shah's triumph in the capital have helped to reconcile a society that appeared to be fractured. The proclamation of the hill tribes' win in Tarai and the victory of people of Madhesi origin in Newars' capital are certain to create a significant beneficial change in the country's social structure in the coming days.  The crown jewel of democracy is electing one's preferred candidate and eliminating corruption and immorality through periodic elections.  

(The author is a PhD scholar. He can be reached at [email protected].)

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