The center cannot hold

On July 15, the president gave assent to a bill entitled Amendment to Nepal Police and Province Police Act. The amendment gives a complete right to the federal government to oversee peace and security matters of three districts–Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, through the Nepal Police force. Earlier, the right fell under the jurisdiction of Bagmati province, where the three districts lie. The constitution of Nepal gives Provinces the exclusive rights to oversee the peace and security of their territories. The move to bring the three districts under the purview of the federal government as rightly pointed out by Bagmati Province’s Minister of Internal Affairs and Law is against the constitution. It is also against the spirit of federal practice.

Tendency of centralization

Lately, there has been a tendency to undermine the powers and jurisdiction of Provinces, in some instances even the local governments. Over the years since the country moved to a federal setup, the jurisdiction of the subnational governments has either been encroached upon or its exercise affected. On the former point, the decision to bring the three districts under the purview of the center stands as a relevant example. Even before the said encroachment, there have been numerous instances of shrinking of powers of the provinces through federal legislation. For instance, in the early years of Nepal’s federalism, a proposal to limit provinces from any law that creates criminal liability was made through the Bill on Interrelationship between Federation, Province and Local levels. During the first and the second wave of Covid-19 in Nepal, the relevant legislation chosen to deal with the epidemic was the Infectious Disease Act, which by and large, gave authority to the District Administration Office which falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

On the latter point, crucial things that should have been completed within the first years of the transition have not been completed yet. This includes the civil service employee adjustment, the adjustment of the Nepal Police force, and a failure to pass bills that would give Nepal’s federalism its complete shape.

Moreover, in recent years we have also witnessed a trend in the form of grant federalism or conditional federalism. Provinces and local governments have limited sources of their revenue. So they depend on revenue sharing from the federal government as well as grants. Over the years, the amount of grants with conditions attached to them has increased significantly. Attachment of conditions to grants questions the autonomy of the subnational government. But more importantly, it highlights the outlook that the center has toward subnational governments. Although Provinces have not been remarked as being the center’s administrative unit, like in the tenure of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, higher allocation of grants with conditions attached to them and the recent decision to bring the three districts under the purview of the center does make one wonder whether Singha Durbar sees subnational governments any differently.  

The apparent tendency of centralizing powers and resources is perhaps a sign of failure to internalize a federal set up both by the bureaucracy as well as the political parties themselves. The latter was no more evident than in the recently held local-level elections. Political parties were quick to flesh out coalition tactics from the center. There was some push back from local level leaders against central decision-making but it quickly waned out.

Nepal’s transition to federalism is unique, in the sense that its architecture was never completely fleshed out. The constitutional bargaining was limited to territorial demarcation. Functional assignments had never received the same level of attention. 

Federalism is a messy business, especially for countries like Nepal which operated under a unitary and centralized mindset for a long period of time. Centralizing tendencies were to be expected during the earlier year, but its continuation even after five years of completion of the federalisation process along with the growing tendency of centralizing powers is problematic and certainly deserves attention.

Provinces resist

On the brighter side, provincial governments have been more vocal about the center’s constant hold on power and its activities to amass power that does not belong to it. Whereas in the early years, Madhesh province was the only province that had remained vocal about the center’s attempt at encroachment on subnational jurisdiction, other provinces have now joined in. This was evident in the recently held meeting of the Minister of Internal Affairs and Law of all provinces in Janakpur. There was a unified voice present during the meeting which recognized that centralizing tendencies were growing. A unified approach to end such tendencies were highlighted. 

Bagmati province has also decided to seek legal remedy against the center’s decision to bring the three districts under its purview. The sub-national government’s pushing back against the center’s decision is surely a good sign, and also perhaps a signal of the fact that the center cannot be successful in its numerous attempts to hold and amass more power than is granted by the constitution.

This article was originally published in Nepal Live Today by Yatindra KC on July 25, 2022.