Ever since Shobha Sapkota became the ward chair of Kathmandu metropolitan city’s ward 14, her phone did not stop ringing. There were times when her phone started to ring in the middle of the night. Not wanting to entertain them, she did not answer during odd hours.
But, one day, a few people gathered around her house at night demanding that the ward chair do something about a dog that barked all night. She addressed the complaint and asked the community police to talk to the dog owner.
Ward chairs around the country are busy doing everything. From solving issues like the one mentioned above to dealing with domestic disputes, they also need to do many things that are not mentioned in the law or the constitution. People come to them with complaints regarding water, roads, waste and money. They try and solve almost all of them, but due to a lack of resources and proper rights, they have not been able to work to their full potential. As the local election date is approaching closer, stakeholders demand the government review their rights and responsibilities.
Pillars of democracy
There are 6,743 ward chairs working in 753 local governments across the country. All of them have to maintain good relationships with the locals and work with them for the betterment of society. These people are the ones that connect the people to the upper level of the government too. But despite this, there is hardly any discourse taking place about what the roles and responsibilities of a ward chair actually are.
“A ward chair mostly works under a lot of uncertainty,” says Pavitra Subba, who worked as a member of the Local Level Restructuring Commission. “They act as a bridge between the people and the top level, but because their roles aren’t defined well, they can’t work as effectively as they can.”
Since ward chairs work at the lowermost level of the government, they are a major component of the democratic process. But, their roles are limited and that is quite pointless, argue experts.
“We should have decentralised the rights that the mayor has and given more rights to the ward chairs. That would have been more effective and helped in the development process,” says Shyam Kumar Bhurtel, a local governance expert.
He says that if a ward does well, that benefits the community in different ways. “This in turn strengthens the democratic process because they are the government of the people they need to be given more power,” he adds.
Former secretary Mukti Rijal says the work of wards is one of the reasons federalism has thrived in Nepal.
“A lack of people’s participation means the system lacks the rule of law,” says Rijal. “But, thanks to the work by ward chairs, people haven’t had to face issues.”
A former secretary at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, Reshmi Raj Pandey, calls the local government the ultimate formal institution of democracy.
“If this is strong, the country will become stronger because it will do its best to manage the neighbourhoods, which will help develop the country,” says Pandey.
Hence, a committee led by then secretary Tirtha Man Shakya in 2003 had suggested the government connect the local governments with the community. The committee, which Pandey was also a part of, had told the government that it needed to focus on the grassroots and had suggested that all wards had a neighbourhood committee. Leaders back then were not interested in his suggestion, but he believes the plan is still applicable now.
“We told them the governance would be easy if they followed this model where the local government would be the strongest government. It can still be followed,” he says.
The Local Government Operation Act, 2017, has followed what Shakya and Pandey suggested in 2003. But, it has not been followed to date. There are few places where a neighbourhood development committee has been formed, but as not all wards have pushed this, its effectiveness is still not as much as Pandey and Shakya had hoped for.
For the first decade since Nepal became a republic, the local government did not have much power. It was only after the country adopted federalism in 2017 that things started to change. A lot of village development committees were changed into wards and the responsibilities carried out by the VDC chairs were given to the ward chairs. Experts even argue their responsibilities have increased, but their power has not.
According to Bhurtel, ward chairs have three responsibilities. First, they act as a local executive and disseminate information to the government. Second, they also act as a member of the parliament and are active in the local assembly and draft laws and policies. Third, they do all the work a ward chair should do and provide services and conduct development works.
“The ward chairs have also been helping out to make community schools better. We’ve seen them help and change roofs of schools that would leak water during the monsoon. They play a major role in community development,” says Gopi Khanal, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration.
They also provide recommendation and verification services to citizens. This might not look like a tough task, but there are many government offices that do not work without the recommendation of the ward. For a person to make a citizenship certificate or build a house, they need documents from the ward office. They also have data on people who are born and who die in the ward. These are directly related to people’s fundamental rights.
“When streetlights of a neighbourhood in Kathmandu weren’t working, a ward member went to the poles and change the bulbs himself. He didn’t need to do it, but he still did because this type of effort is remembered by the people,” says Bhurtel.
“If you look at it, most ward chairs have done more than they get from the state. They are key in the development of the country,” says Pandey. “I personally feel the local governments are a success story. They do more than the central or the provincial government. They make the community more active and involve them in various activities which helps the country.”
Lack of resources
Mukti Rijal, who also works as a senior research fellow at the Policy Research Institute, says ward chairs are doing more than what is asked of them by the constitution.
“They have to do everything, yet they aren’t given the resources to do them better,” says Rijal.
The main issue they face is a financial crisis. For every development work they want to do, they have to go to their respective municipal offices. They have to do this even during emergencies.
Take what happened in the Thuladurlung village in Lalitpur for example. The village is 64 kilometres away from Satdobato. The village, till 2014, did not even have roads.
On July 21, 2017, a landslide in the village killed a six-year-old girl. Ward chair Ram Krishna Acharya immediately reached the incident site to take stock. Due to financial reasons, the parents could not even take the body for postmortem.
“I wanted to help. But, I don’t have the authority to spend a penny without permission,” says Acharya. “What’s the use when we can’t help people when they need immediate help? What’s the use of this power?”
He says he gave the father of the victim Rs 5,000 from his own pocket. While returning home, he asked himself if becoming a ward chair was a mistake.
Other ward chairs face a similar issue. They do not even have the rights secretaries at village development committees once had. Bhurtel says that decentralisation has not happened in the local governments.
“Ward chairs haven’t been able to develop their offices into budget units. Some ward chairs asked the centre to make things easier for them, but their efforts went in vain,” says Bhurtel.
Need for reforms
He says that they should be given the freedom to build teams and work toward making a change. But currently, almost everyone is dependent on the mayor.
“We need to decentralise the power if we want real change,” he adds.
Another official working at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration says ward chairs are busy with minor administrative work, due to which they have not been able to focus on other work.
“Many ward chairs now think they should limit themselves to the responsibilities of a ward chair. They don’t want to do more and just focus on getting budget for themselves,” says the official.
The Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration has conducted research and analysis on the working of local governments, but it has not done so at the ward level.
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.