Lengthy constitution-drafting process, growing political instability and uncertain state restructuring modalities have put the local bodies in a mess. Continued absence of an elected leadership in the local bodies since 2002 has jeopardised the democratic functions at the grassroots and also increased the public fundsí vulnerability to misuse and corruption. Can we afford to prolong the democratic deficit at the local level in the name of political transition for any more years?
When there is a relatively more peaceful situation than in 2002 when the local bodies were disbanded, why canít we conduct elections to the local bodies or put in place an effective and accountable mechanism for handling these local institutions?
The prevailing challenges and anomalies in service delivery by the local bodies now at least need some proper address and tackling at the political level to restore the peopleís dwindling trust. As building local governance structures must warrant the highest attention in any post-conflict situation, the political parties will have to decide whether they go for fresh elections anytime soon or reinstate the dissolved local bodies.
It is indeed good news that the Ministry of Local Development is taking up a proposal to run the local bodies on the basis of the political partiesí number of votes/seats garnered in the Constituent Assembly. If this idea materialises, it will ease the problems to some extent but cannot be a panacea.
The local bodies are being run by civil servants. These are just makeshift provisions to fill in the vacuum. These temporary arrangements are neither accountable nor transparent in their use of the development funds. One of the major problems now faced by the local bodies is consensual corruption. Political influence and manipulation are seen to have an upper hand in the disbursement of grants and funds through political consensus. Such an unelected mechanism cannot ensure transparency and social accountability, which is the crux of a functioning democratic system. Corrupt mentality in the local political mechanism has spoiled the enabling environment for effective use of development grants at the hands of an unelected mechanism.
In the absence of accountability, the VDC/DDC Grants Operation Guidelines-2010 are not strictly complied with by the local bodies. The guidelines have a strict provision for at least 35 per cent VDC allocation to the target groups such as women, Dalit, Janajatis, children, youths and the disabled. The target groupsí budget is, however, being used for construction of schools, roads and other development structures.
Another anomaly among the VDCs is that their compliance with the guidelines is more limited to the papers and minutes only. Many VDCs were found to have disbursed budgets meant for the target groups only on paper. Monitoring is totally deficient, which has encouraged such practices among the VDCs.
Another form of corruption can be observed in the formation of the Userís Committees (UCs) as well. Development projects up to Rs 6 million must be implemented by the UCs whereas projects above the threshold need to be contracted out through competitive bidding. This mandatory provision is a good concept as it encourages the local community and beneficiaries to own, monitor and participate in the execution of development works.
But this noble UC concept has ended up as a tool for the local politicians to misuse the public funds. There is no transparency in the formation of the UCs, and the political parties enlist their men as members to these committees. The target beneficiaries and local people are often kept at bay during the UCsí formation process. Thus, the real challenge ahead is to reduce the "politicisation" and limit political dominance in these most vulnerable and lucrative committees. Also the UCs are sub-contracting development works, which is against the law.
Maximisation of development grants is also being marred by the delay and hastily-called council meetings. The Local Self Governance Act provisions mid-February for the VDC and mid-March for the DDC council meetings as the deadline. However, the councils are rarely convened on time because of the political discords. This is a recurrent trend among the local bodies. The mentality to finish the grants at any cost, fearing a freeze, reigns supreme among the local bodies.
Our development intervention at the grassroots has focussed more on expenditure rather than outcomes. The local bodiesí capacity to spend more is being linked to their efficiency, which is a wrong development approach. Unless our development efforts shift from sheer budget absorption tendency to concrete outcomes, billions of rupees in grants will just keep disappearing in the name of local development every year. Around Rs. 48 billion was disbursed to the local bodies during this fiscal year. Out of this, Rs. 14 billion went to the VDCs, Rs. 6 billion to the municipalities and the rest was allocated to the DDCs. But just inflating the grantsí volume will not take our development anywhere if we fail to streamline the development process and monitor the use of these expenses every year.
Yet 1,186 VDCs donít have their office buildings. The data shows that not even half of them have been rebuilt. The unavailability of VDC offices is a good excuse for many VDC secretaries to confine themselves to the district headquarters. Even those having VDC offices are holding up in the headquarters. And the DDCs cannot send them back as they are affiliated to the different political party unions. At the receiving end, the people must walk for hours to reach the district headquarters to meet the secretaries for their works.
The government has been increasing the volume of grants to the VDCs every year. A single VDC receives around Rs. 3 million in block grants. But they lack the institutional capacity and manpower to properly implement and monitor the use of development funds. Another pressing challenge is that many VDCs are understaffed, and a secretary has to look after at least 2 to 5 adjoining VDCs.
This overburdened situation has landed them in difficulties while distributing social security allowances, convening the village councils, disbursing the development budget and monitoring the use of grants. A secretary has to coordinate and implement all the development programs, keep accounts and perform the administrative tasks as well.
There are more than 600 VDCs without secretaries. This has made local service delivery more cumbersome. The political parties will have to find a quick fix for the local malaise being faced by the local bodies for nearly a decade.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)