Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University’s Said School of Business contends, “Democracy is not something a society gets. Democracy must be fought for each and every day in concrete instances, even long after democracy is first constituted in a society. If citizens do not engage in this fight, there will be no democracy.” This means that organized groups of people from different walks of life have to struggle constantly to decide their social fate.
With respect to democracy at the local level, the Village Development Committee (VDC) is considered to be a legitimate body for local self-governance in Nepal. The ministry of federal affairs and local development provides grants ranging from Rs 1.5 million to Rs 3 million to each of the 3,915 VDCs.
According to the Local Self-Governance Act (1999), VDCs are entitled to raise house and land taxes and impose service charges for using public properties such as wells, water taps and public telephones. They are also authorized to impose entertainment, vehicle and advertisement taxes; to charge registration and renewal fees on radio, bicycle, televisions and weekly markets as well as levy service charges for sanitation, drainage, picnic places and parks. VDCs can also charge for registering births, deaths, and issuing citizenships and can impose duties on the sale or use of natural resources. The VDCs, however, have to mobilize local resources by forging collaboration with other stakeholders in development, while acting as the key facilitators.
Local resources help satisfy community needs and aspirations. Hence, the question of equitable access and control of these resources by diverse caste and ethnic groups is crucial to foster social justice. Under the LSGA, 1999, local level planning involves 14 steps, from identifying needs and priorities to decision-making. The Act also seeks to target 35 percent of the total budget for women, children and Dalits, Indigenous nationalities; people with disability are allocated 15 percent of the budget; 15 percent of resources are set aside for agricultural expansion and development; and 4 percent for capacity building of development expenditures.
Theoretically, community discussions are held and people are called to participate and discuss their ideas and concerns about development. Ward assemblies collect a list of demands and submit it to the unified plan formulation committee at the VDC level to prioritize policy alternatives through the VDC council. The council is sovereign and decides all issues affecting local development. However, in actual practice, the social status and personal links of an individual determine the political behavior and the extent of influence he/she has in the decision-making process. Power resides with high ranking officials and not with institutions. Personal and hierarchical cliques act as intermediaries in determining strategies and tactics. Institutions are only used to formalize decisions made by a coterie of local elites.
I have explored the extent of the impact of unchanged power relations on local budgeting in a field study of 150 respondents in Maintada, Satakhani and Uttarganga VDCs of Surkhet district. In the last fiscal year (2011-12), the respective VDC councils had allocated Rs 900,000 each for targeted programs. Later, however, the budget was diverted for infrastructure development work like expansion of power line, renovation of school buildings and upgrading of rural roads, though it was initially meant for community empowerment and transient livelihood recuperation.
Local resources help satisfy community needs and aspirations. Hence, equitable access and control of these resources by diverse caste and ethnic groups is crucial for social justice.
When asked about funds being diverted from one head to another, 53.4 percent of the respondents said that marginalized groups were subject to the hegemony of political elites and cadres in the name of development; 29.5 percents of respondents opined that marginalized groups are less organized and hence, unable to influence institutions and hold them accountable; and 17.1 percent respondents argued that the exclusion of Dalits and other marginalized groups in the decision-making spaces of local formal and informal institutions has ceded the ground to the elite and affluent.
Elite capture is a huge challenge as their influence is not mediated by social accountability and considerations of maintaining social cohesion. For instance, 42 demands, made by the people during ward level gatherings, for campaigns against caste discrimination and domestic violence, skill development training, income generation and local budget analysis were sidelined citing resource constraints. While making decisions on construction of irrigation channels and drinking water taps, Dalits are ignored.
Where there is no emphasis on open-mindedness, respect, dignity for all, tolerance and appreciating and embracing people’s differences, there are bound to be significant inequalities in resource distribution and other opportunities. Tracing exclusion in Nepal, spatial exclusion is reflected in disparities in development levels owing to remoteness and location-specific characteristics. Gender-based exclusion has manifested itself in poor development indicators for women, and caste/ethnicity-based exclusion of specific castes, communities, indigenous people and nationalities is evident in low development achievements. Political elites remain powerful in society. Despite this, active citizens willing for some degree of participation in the political process can check the power of the elites, making them more accountable.
Unequal distribution of powers in a society is a reliable indicator of marginalization, triggering poverty and injustice. The ‘one person, one vote’ principle recognizes the equality of citizens irrespective of their caste, ethnicity, sex, race or religion. This principle, however, overlooks the social reality of the domination of the political sphere in Nepal by the so-called high-caste men. Leakages of funds at the local level are channeled back for party cadre development and towards the political-bureaucratic nexus. Local units of political parties must be more responsive to community needs than to those of their high commands.
The author is pursuing his Ph.D. from Tribhuvan University and is currently a researcher at the Nepal Center for Contemporary Studies (NCCS)