Nepal’s newly instated federalism is strained by tense relations among federal, state, and local governments, and burdened by instability in its public administration, Thanesh Bhusal writes.
Nepal’s federalism is still very young, but politicians – particularly at state and federal government levels – are already locking horns, and the country’s cooperative federalism seems especially prone to intergovernmental conflicts.
Having been introduced in 2015, federalism aimed to address three key problems the country had been suffering for centuries: decentralising political and economic power, balancing development across regions, and increasing public participation opportunities at all levels of government.
In order to mitigate potential intergovernmental contention, a range of functions are specified in the constitution for all three levels of government – federal, state, and local – to be carried out either solely or jointly. Several political institutions such as the Inter-State Council have also been established to encourage intergovernmental harmony.
Despite the well-meaning plans, Nepal’s federalism is especially susceptible to internal conflict for at least three reasons.
To begin, the Federal Government seems to believe in a top-down process.
It acts as though it is the sole authority in determining public policies at all levels of the federation – despite state and local governments having clear autonomy outlined in the constitution. Many believe that this has created a chaotic relationship between state and federal ministries.
Secondly, both state and local governments are equipped with their own legislative, executive, and judicial powers.
This technically gives a state the capacity to act without first consulting its federal counterpart – an entitlement that state governments have already taken advantage of. So far, they’ve legislated state laws and have created public sector organisations without discussing these with federal parliament, ultimately intensifying strained relations.
The third trigger lies in politicians’ tendency to informally express personal views – whether it be in the form of speeches, interviews or microblogs – sometimes even against the will or at the detriment of the rest of their party. In the past, this has negatively impacted relations between the prime minister and state premiers, ultimately leading to unnecessary inefficiencies in government operations.
Nepal’s federalism faces another issue: the role of institutions and public administration still remain unclear to many, even to those institutions themselves.
In general, public administration should not have a great influence on intergovernmental relations.
As many politicians repeatedly claim, however, public administrators in Nepal have been outwardly challenging the regime – often with the hope that their comments lead to the replacement of current leaders for those more likely to meet whatever demands they make. Demonstrations are being increasingly used as a way to blackmail the country’s leaders.
There is no doubt that civil servants have historically demonstrated their expertise, dedication, and loyalty to manage intergovernmental relations throughout history. Nevertheless, there are varying views on whether public administration should be reformed or left as is under Nepal’s current political management.
Two things must be considered when discussing public administration reform in Nepal.
First is the hardware – infrastructure that may have once suited a traditional unitary structure must be upgraded to serve a purpose in the context of federal governance.
To do this, the government has taken actions to dissolve several ministries and departments at the federal level. States, in turn, have started establishing new organisations to carry out their responsibilities as envisioned in the constitution. Local governments have also followed suit.
Then there’s the software – the roles, responsibilities, and accountability of bureaucrats must be reformed.
Of the 110,000 permanent employees, about 80,000 personnel were recruited by the Public Service Commission based on merit. Because these officials were employed to work for the then-central government, technically they still fall under the responsibility of the current Federal Government.
There is, however, a more limited availability of federal government jobs under this new structure. Approximately 45,000 officials will remain at the federal level, while the rest must be redistributed across state and local governments.
Although the government has already announced plans to redistribute permanent employees amongst the various levels of government, there are mounting uncertainties regarding the actual effectiveness of these policies. Great problems also arise with the unwillingness of the majority of bureaucrats to shift to what some perceive as lower echelons in the administrative structure.
Though there is still a long way to go, ongoing employee reintegration efforts can be seen as a step forward in the right direction. At the end of the day, only a clear legislative framework can solve this problem.
While the intentions behind Nepal’s federalism may have been good, its institutionalisation has encountered a range of challenges. Creating a new administrative infrastructure while dismantling centralised apparatuses is no easy task, especially with how long many of the government organisations have been in operation for.
Clarification is needed around what is to be expected from the individual governments as to strengthen vertical and horizontal coordination amongst political units. Though the intergovernmental conflict is yet to be irreversibly detrimental to its federalism, for Nepal to reach its full potential, cooperation amongst all levels of government is needed now more than ever.