It’s been a year since Nepal formally made a transition from unitary to federal system of governance. In this period, the federal government has tried to curtail the rights of provinces by introducing bills that could have far-reaching impact on development of provinces as autonomous governments. The Federal Civil Servants Bill, for example, proposes to give the authority of appointing provincial chief secretaries, secretaries of provincial ministries and chief administrative officers of local governments to the federal government. The Nepal Police and Provincial Police Bill also proposes to put provincial and district police officers under chief district officers appointed by the federal government, making CDOs more powerful than chief ministers. Provinces have protested the high-handedness of the federal government, which is widening the rift between the centre and provinces. Rewati Sapkota and Bharat Koirala of The Himalayan Times met Gandaki Province Chief Minister Prithivi Subba Gurung at his residence in Pokhara to discuss these issues. Excerpts:
How do you assess provincial governments’ first year in office?
Provincial governments faced severe challenges and obstacles in the beginning, as laws, human resources and infrastructure such as office buildings were lacking. We had demanded experts for civil servants adjustment, resource distribution and budget allocation. But bureaucrats and ministers were uncertain about the future course of action. So, we spent the first seven months of the fiscal making new laws and framing guidelines on budget execution. Finally, provincial governments succeeded in laying the foundations for delivering basic services. Today, most of the projects under Gandaki Province are in the phase of implementation and water supply projects in Gorkha and Syangja have also been completed. We hope development works will move ahead smoothly from the next fiscal.
Have provincial governments been able to deliver as per people’s expectations?
People pinned their hopes on provincial governments and chief ministers. However, we could not live up to their expectation because of lack of civil servants, infrastructure and related laws.
What were the biggest problems you faced?
The biggest problem was human resources. The federal government did not transfer adequate number of civil servants to the provinces and local levels on time. We also faced problems in setting up offices. Many district-level offices were scrapped by the government following the shift from unitary to federal system of government. But adequate number of new offices was not opened at the province and local levels. For example, there used to be one office in each district to provide drinking water. Now, one office has to cover three districts. This decision to reduce the number of offices has affected service delivery. The federal government should help us establish adequate number of offices. Also, the federal government did not share resources with provinces judiciously. For example, the federal government gave us old vehicles, which were not operating properly.
You had earlier said lack of umbrella laws also affected works of provincial governments. How did it affect your work?
The inability of the federal government to pass umbrella laws on time prevented us from drafting our own laws. This is because provincial laws have to be framed on the bases of umbrella laws endorsed by the federal Parliament. Province 2 tried to circumvent this provision by framing its own laws prior to the passage of the federal government’s umbrella laws. But the laws could not be implemented. That’s why we waited for the federal government to pass umbrella laws.
The federal government has hosted Inter-province Council meeting to enhance cooperation and coordination between federal and provincial governments. Was it successful in addressing provinces’ problems?
Most of the decisions taken by the inter-province council meetings are being implemented.
Does this mean problems faced by provinces are gradually being resolved?
Issues related to collection and sale of stones, sand and aggregates have not been sorted out till date. We had made standards and laws for collection and sale of stones, sand and aggregates as per the constitutional provisions. As per the law, the local government can impose tax on collection and sale of these natural resources. But the local government must share 40 per cent of that revenue with the provincial government. However, none of the local governments have given us our share. We will wait for a few months. If they do not oblige, we will seek police help. We will strictly monitor their work on this front. We have also come to know that mayors of municipalities and chairpersons of rural municipalities have bought heavy-duty equipment and colluded with contractors to bag local government contracts. We suspect the elected representatives are abusing their authority to promote corruption at the local level. We will take strict action against these representatives. But again, we need the provincial police administration to take action against those involved in corruption. That’s why we want the provincial police administration to be under our control.
But in a bill registered in the Parliament, the federal government has clearly said provincial police administration will be under chief district officers appointed by the centre, isn’t it?
We are against this provision because a CDO appointed by the federal government will not be loyal to us. We hope federal Parliament lawmakers will not agree to this provision and provinces will be given control of provincial police administration. If the bill is passed as it is, we will not accept it.
Have you raised this issue with the federal government?
Yes, this issue was raised during the Inter-province Council meeting. But the federal government did not seek our views at the time of drafting the bill. We propose that the federal government call the Inter-province Council meeting this month to clear this issue.
Do you think federalism is at stake?
Federalism is not in the danger zone. The prime minister told the Inter-provincial Council meeting that there were ambiguities in implementing the federal system because it was an uncharted territory. This is the reason why it is not operating as we expected. But we have to work together to ensure effective and efficient service delivery. The biggest problem is that the federal government’s ministers and bureaucrats are working with the mindset of a unitary government. This must change.
Who is responsible for this, political leadership or bureaucrats?
The prime minister and ministers run the state, not bureaucrats. So, the political leadership is responsible for problems faced in the implementation of federalism. As of now, federalism has not gone out of track and we have laid the foundations to sustain federalism. We have told the federal government that Inter-province Council meetings should be held on a regular basis to sort out differences between the federal and provincial governments.
Do you think the federal government is biased towards provinces?
The federal government was biased towards provinces when the chief ministers met in Pokhara in September to discuss ways to streamline the process of institutionalising federalism. (After that meeting, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had cancelled the first Inter-province Council meeting assuming that chief ministers had formed a group to exert undue pressure on the federal government.) Cancellation of the meeting was taken by many as a sign of growing rift between the federal and provincial governments.
Has the federal government established a secretariat at the centre to coordinate with provinces?
No. But inter-provincial council coordination division has been established at the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers. The division will work as a bridge between federal ministries and provinces to expedite work. It is working more enthusiastically now than before.
How is the relationship between provincial and local governments?
The provincial coordination council, which was formed to resolve issues related to provincial and local governments, has met twice. The third meeting will soon be held in Gandaki Province. As per the mandate given by the meetings, we have formed three coordination and facilitation committees to resolve political disputes and ensure that policies, laws and plans of provinces and local levels do not overlap. We have formed a law drafting facilitation committee under provincial chief justice which will oversee laws framed by provincial and local governments. The committee will teach local level officials to draft laws and conduct municipal meetings. We have also formed policy drafting facilitation committee under the provincial planning commission’s vice-chair. Local governments should refer to provincial and federal plans and policies to frame their plans and policies. Our province has also formed a political problem resolution coordination committee to resolve political issues.
Lastly, your party’s leader Madhav Kumar Nepal has said party members must not assume more than one post in the government and party. What is your take on this proposal? Which portfolio would you prefer – chief minister or Gandaki Province In-charge of Nepal Communist Party – if the party takes the decision to enforce one-person one-post policy?
It is a baseless argument. Some of the leaders are annoyed that I and Province 5 Chief Minister Shankar Pokharel are holding crucial positions in the government as well as the party. This proposal was first raised by PM KP Sharma Oli during the erstwhile CPN-UML’s 7th convention in 2003. We have recently reached understanding that a party member can play key roles in both the party and the government. In Germany, for example, the party’s state chief, which is equivalent to NCP’s provincial in-charge, assumes the post of the state president, which is equivalent to our chief minister. If the same person assumes the responsibility of provincial party chief and chief minister there won’t be two power centres.
A version of this article appears in print on February 25, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.