Local governance What should the ‘troika’ do?

The need is to have every single paisa of the millions that local bodies handle spent for the

people alone.

The tug of war for the control of local bodies is once again in the news, with the Maoists and the CPN-UML making their own cases to get most slots in them. But one must not forget that the CPN-UML along with the Nepali Congress enjoys the sordid record of having dominated

the local bodies for over a decade since 1991 which spent billions of rupees but with little to show for it. The rural areas continue to remain the worst pockets of poverty and deprivation. Now that the Maoist Finance Minister, Baburam Bhattarai has almost doubled the amount of money to be given to the VDCs in particular, their mismanagement is destined to be even more costly for the country.

The renewed attempt at filling the local bodies comes at a time when the entire country is reeling under the unprecedented power cuts for which the troika of major parties, the Maoists, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, are responsible. The Nepali Congress and CPN-UML in particular presided over the money game during the decade of the 90s and held up any development in the power sector, knowing fully well that the country would be plunged in darkness pretty soon. The “people’s warrior” Maoists too, for their part, scared away potential

investors in the sector, delayed the completion of Upper Marsyangdi and doubled its cost in

the process. This, however, is not to absolve other politicians who, having participated in this sin too, have since recycled their parties and managed to stay in the country’s political skyline.

Since local bodies have a crucial role to play in the salvation of our suffering humanity, for once, the troika should opt for clean and people-centred politics. The one single need of the country today is to have every single paisa of the millions that local bodies handle, spent for the lasting good of the people alone.

As a new actor on the scene, this historic responsibility of correcting the chronic mismanagement in the local bodies falls on the Maoists. But, so far, after inflating resource allocation for the local bodies, they have done precious little to ensure that those scarce resources would not disappear into thin air all over again. The Maoists’ apparent indifference on this front has only given birth to the speculation that a large chunk of this money is to be appropriated by the Young Comunist League (YCL) ‘somehow’, which would mean that the

so-called Youth Force (and its possible Nepali Congress version) too would certainly not be lagging behind.

It is in a situation like this that the donor agencies, with their moral, professional and financial leverage on the government, at least theoretically, should be making catalytic interventions. But, unfortunately, they only seem to be keen on securing their own jobs which, under the present method of foreign aid, is possible only by keeping their political and bureaucratic counterparts happy and amused. One often wonders how these donor officials justify their luxurious living amidst the sea of poverty.

However, a small DFID-funded initiative, conceived and managed by a water and sanitation NGO, NEWAH, has shown that when users are empowered, only good can happen. Six communities in the Gajuri VDC of Dhading district including a large Kami and Sarki settlement and several Chepang hamlets recently achieved universal coverage in drinking water and sanitation, the latter with individual pucca water-seal latrines in all homes.

While all the users contributed in cash (no, inherently exploitative, free labour), the entire fund including the DFID, DDC and VDC money was managed by individual user groups themselves. While the DDC devolved authority to the user groups, the VDC secretary coordinated the VDC level activities such as hiring engineering consultant or buying supplies with the participation of the user groups. The eight political parties in the VDC including the Maoists backstopped the project villages by holding participatory community meetings.

The projects were accomphished in four months and were not too disrupted even by the intervening constituent assembly election. The method self-targeted the poor. They worked for wages in the project and made enough money to more than compensate for their cash contribution. The VDC and the user groups complemented each other even as the exercise remained transparent and misuse-free to the end. While the users now own and manage

the projects, other villages in the region want to emulate them.

Therefore, for building local governance, the troika’s priority concern must be to amend the relevant legislation to empower the user groups, and to ensure that those massive grants to the local bodies make it to the intended users. If Gajure is any guide, all-party meetings are good enough for running the VDCs for the time being.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist