Centre Cannot Hold

-By Ms. Arpita Nepal, Director of Research at Samriddhi

This article was originally published in The Kathmandu Post on 16 June 2015.

Nepal has had center-led planned development for over 60 years through innumerous ‘master plans’ and ‘development strategies’. Following the April 25 earthquake, I believe, it is time to revisit our social construct and aspirations around planning and democracy. On the one hand, we believe that if only ‘experts’ were rightly placed, they would be able to develop beautiful plans which would solve all our problems. On the other hand, we aspire towards a federal democracy and protection of minority voices.

Two types of discourse in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake particularly warrant our attention. First, the recent proposal put forward by the National Planning Commission (NPC) to form a centralised body to coordinate and oversee the overall reconstruction process. Second, at the political level, the four major parties’ agreement on transforming the country into a truly federal republic. This points to a duality in our speech and action.

Still top-down

The Planning Commission’s proposal puts forward the argument that the current bureaucratic structure is ineffective in dealing with reconstruction. The solution that they have come up with is yet another bureaucratic body. The new authority will employ ‘experts’ who will direct the overall reconstruction process. While the NPC recognises that local bodies are an important part of implementation, the body per se makes no provision for engaging the affected community.

Let us take a deeper look at this proposal and our unbelievable faith in ‘experts’. How can someone far removed from the grassroots by layers and layers of bureaucracy know what is needed and what works for Sindhupalchok better than the person who is from the district and toils the lands in Sindhupalchowk for a living? The intention here is not to discredit the process of gaining knowledge through intensive study and using technical ‘expertise’. I am sure that such knowledge can be helpful in providing advice on how to better an area. However, the ‘expert’ from the reconstruction body does not have to live with the consequences of her decisions. Therefore, a major problem arises when we provide the decision-making capacity to that ‘expert body’ and completely discard the person living in Sindhupalchowk with years of accumulated knowledge based on the experience of living in the area as a part of a community with its own value systems and culture.

The current proposal of reconstruction is headed pretty much the same way. The discourse that is taking place at the centre (with NPC) has no room for local communities and their aspirations. How then, will this plan of reconstruction managed by the centre produce results that are any different from the other ‘development plans’ in the past? Will this be yet another ‘plan’ that looks good on paper and cannot be implemented?

Centre seeks power

The political class is implicitly backing such centralisation while demanding for federalism at the same time. There are three major concerns here. Firstly, if the bureaucracy and politicians, with all their coordination failures of the past, could not perform during normal times, what kind of ‘superpowers’ did the earthquake grant these same politicians and bureaucrats that they will suddenly be able to perform ‘very effectively’ through a separate reconstruction authority (formed similar to existing government bodies)? The prime minister already heads about a dozen different ‘high-level committees’. While the vice-chairperson of the Planning Commission has repeteadly said that these are ‘extraordinary times’ that require ‘extraordinary measures’, where is this reflected in the proposed body? How will this body address local concerns?

Secondly, in the absence of local elections, the all-party mechanism was revived at the local level in the affected districts. The chaos that ensued after ‘relief capture’ by these groups was widely reported by various media. A recent news item citing the figures given by the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies says that Kathmandu received about 10 percent more tarpaulins (tripal) than Sindhupalchowk while the number of houses destroyed by the quake is much higher in Sindhupalchowk. This implies that the politicians are now able to gain access and control over the resources that have come for reconstruction. Therefore, wouldn’t a centralised control mechanism exacerbate corruption even further? What will make this all-party mechanism accountable towards the locally affected population?

And finally, the same political parties lay big claims on federalism. They talk about the need for ‘federalism’ to defend the voiceless and minorities, to ensure the identities of those systematically discriminated by the state mechanism in the past. The same political party leaders then talk about centralising reconstruction (with no local level representation—except their own party cadres). How does this centralisation actually address the minority voices then? How does it deliver the promise of devolution of power?

Power to people

A decentralised federal democracy is a messy business. It does not consist of beautifully-planned structures with a few experts at the centre. It involves letting people at the grassroots decide for themselves, on how they would like to rebuild. It represents negotiations between different regions. It will entail several civil society organisations offering their own kind of support to the people of Sindhupalchowk, Dolakha and other affected areas and the local communities deciding on what they want. This might not fit the center’s idea of what is good for them.

If our elected representatives truly represent our aspirations for democracy, then now is the time to start a debate on what that democracy should look like. The beauty of a true federal democracy comes from multiple voices and multiple choices and not a one-size-fits-all policy or a body directed from by the centre. If we want our aspirations of a federal democratic structure to materialise, then isn’t it time to question our actions that are leading us towards more centralisation?

 Arpita Nepal is an economist working as the Director of Research and Development at Samriddhi Foundation, a policy think tank