Comment & analysis

Nepal’s governance in the time of crisis

1 June 2020 Anurag Acharya Nepal’s governance in the time of crisis

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has exposed serious challenges to Nepal’s federal system. An effective response calls for greater devolution and more collaboration among the three tiers of government, writes Anurag Acharya.

Nepal has been gradually moving towards stability since its federal, provincial and municipal governments were elected in 2017. There were high expectations that this new system would be more efficient in responding to people’s needs and concerns, but the response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the weaknesses and challenges in governance that were already visible. 

The drafting of a new constitution in 2015 formed the basis for the devolution of resources and power under the three-tiered federal system, aiming to resolve widespread discontent with Nepal’s governance which was at the heart of its decade-long conflict that ended in 2006. A lack of access to inclusive and quality public services including health, education, water and sanitation, as well as poverty and inequality contributed to this disillusionment.

Nepal has been in lockdown since 24 March, with mandatory quarantine for those coming in from other countries, public movement and businesses suspended across the country, except for essential services like banking, health and food supplies. Over the last two months, this has created an economic crisis, leading to unemployment and threatening livelihoods, especially for low-income and daily-wage earning families.

Provincial and municipal governments have been providing food and relief supplies, but widespread allegations of corruption and mismanagement in their distribution have drawn national and international criticism. People across the country have staged protests against the government, while elected representatives have been arrested for distributing poor quality food.

The healthcare system is balking. There are insufficient hospitals and doctors, especially at the provincial and municipal levels, and quarantine facilities are poorly managed, making it difficult to control infections. The chaos is glaring at Narainapur Rural Municipality in Banke district in Province 5, where 59 COVID-19 patients in need of medical care had to be housed in a quarantine facility due to a lack of isolation wards at the local hospital.

Talking to Nepali media, the Chairperson of the Municipality, Itsiyak Ahmed Shah, expressed his frustration with a lack of resources and technical support. “Due to lack of space and resources, a school was converted into a makeshift facility. But those who are staying there in quarantine are more scared, after a 25-year old man died due to COVID-19 inside the facility. We don’t have sufficient resources or capacity to handle this situation on our own, and have not received any support from federal or provincial governments.” Incidents like this are unfolding across many municipalities in different provinces, and could fuel widespread discontent and anger among citizens, potentially leading to a gradual breakdown in law and order.

As well as the immediate economic and health impact of COVID-19 large numbers of people across Nepal are returning back to their villages and towns from urban areas due to a loss of jobs and livelihoods in the cities. Many migrant workers are also stranded in countries overseas, anxiously waiting for their government to bring them home.

Of immediate concern are the thousands of Nepalis who are now crossing into Nepal every day, as Prakash Upadhyay, a leading civil society activist from the city of Nepalgunj in Province 5, told me: “Each day there are an estimated ten thousand people crossing-over from various border points across Province 5. At this rate, it is difficult to ensure mandatory quarantine for all, as quarantine centres in many municipalities are already over-crowded. Provincial and local governments must rethink their strategy now.”

With insufficient space, poor food and hygiene management, the returning workers are already refusing to stay in the government managed quarantine facilities and suggesting that they be allowed to self-quarantine in their own homes. This may not be a bad idea, and the policy is already being considered in some countries with a large number of returning migrant workers.

Nepal will continue to see the repatriation of large numbers of citizens over the next few months. Finding efficient ways of managing the process will require genuine collaboration among the three tiers of government and a swift mobilisation of resources.

In its recent unveiling of annual policies and programmes, the federal government pledged to increase the budget for improving infrastructure at the local level, including health and education. Following through on this pledge will be crucial for an effective COVID-19 response. But the federal government can ensure more efficiency and buy-in by allowing provincial and municipal governments to take a lead in this process, helping to improve service delivery at the local level. This could also be true for humanitarian assistance, as well as future development aid mobilisation by international organisations.

Similarly, provincial governments can encourage municipal governments to make the distribution of relief supplies more transparent and inclusive, by working with community-based organisations and leaders. Timely engagement with civil society organisations and community leaders can also improve communication between the government and communities, reducing the panic and misinformation. This can help to restore public trust in all three tiers of government and reduce discontent.

For their part, provincial and municipal governments can instil greater public support and trust by being more transparent in planning and mobilising resources. COVID-19 is testing governments across the world, but in Nepal, it will also test the resilience of the new federal system and could exacerbate tensions between people and authorities. By bringing decision-making closer to communities, the system will emerge stronger and could defy a looming crisis in governance.


Photo: Life in Chhapkaiya settlement, Birgunj. (Credit: GMB Akash/Panos/Saferworld).

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