‘Controversies and ambiguities in the constitution have baffled those implementing it’

Chief Minister of Province 2 Lalbabu Raut has complained time and again that the central government is not doing its part to create conducive environment for provincial governments to work in an autonomous manner as provisioned in the constitution. He said his stance was vindicated when the recently concluded Pokhara Summit of the CMs also echoed his sentiment. Ram Kumar Kamat of THT caught up with him to know how he was delivering services in his province and what challenges he had faced so far. Excerpts:

Interview with Chief Minister of Province 2 Lalbabu Raut, in Kathmandu, on Monday, September 10, 2018. Photo: Balkrishna Thapa Chhetri/THT

What were you told when the chief ministers’ crucial meeting with the PM was cancelled in the last hour?

I was told over phone that the meeting had been cancelled. I do not know much about it. All the CMs face similar problems that range from staff crunch to lack of power. In the absence of power, CMs cannot run their administrations effectively. Advocate generals of the provinces do not have power to prosecute. This is against the spirit of federalism. We want to tell the prime minister that the mission of both provincial and central government is the same and the central government must cooperate with provincial governments.

We often hear the coalition between Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal and Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal in Province 2 can break anytime due to differences on political issues. Is this true?

We are running the government in Province 2 as per the norms of a coalition government and I do not think we have any differences that could lead to a break. If any individual leader of these parties has made any statement against the coalition government, then that is just his/her personal views.

Do you think that your party, as a coalition partner at the centre, can persuade the largest party to amend the constitution to meet Madhesis’ demands?

We want to amend the constitution to address Madhesi and Janajatis’ concerns. We have been saying that there are many shortcomings in the constitution which can be rectified only through amendment. What we are saying is right because there are so many controversies and ambiguities in the constitution that have baffled those implementing it. Therefore, the constitution should be amended to put the country on the right track.

What issues should be urgently addressed to meet Madhesis’ demands?

Proportional representation of all communities is a major issue. There are many issues that should have been under the jurisdiction of provincial government that are under the jurisdiction of local governments. Similarly, there are many issues over which the central, provincial and local governments share concurrent powers, but on those issues, the central government should not have any role. The constitution should be amended to remove ambiguities so as to give more powers to the provinces.

What about the revision of provincial boundaries?

We have been demanding revision in provincial boundaries from day one. We want Tarai Madhes areas in Madhes province(s) which is not a reality, now. This is a very rigid constitution. We want a committee to work on amendment issues, particularly to incorporate a provision in the constitution whereby revision of boundary will be possible if certain area of a province want to mix with or break from other adjoining provinces. Revision of boundaries might not happen now, but such a provision is necessary to give an outlet to the problems. Suppose the stakeholders agree that the country needs fewer than seven provinces or more than that or suppose they decide to go for  10 or 11 provinces as debated in the  first CA, then the constitution must allow such change to happen. The constitution is a dynamic document.

Its amendment is necessary also to recognise various identities and achieve the goals of prosperity. If we have to make the constitution a common document of all Nepalis, including the people of Tarai-Madhes and the hills, there should be flexible provisions to revise provincial boundaries. The constitution has adopted very rigid clauses as far as revision issues are concerned.

People have begun to criticise your party for keeping mum on political issues after joining the government at the centre. What do you say?

There are people who want to discredit our party, Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal Chairman Upendra Yadav has always fought honestly for the cause he believes is right and I sincerely believe that he will continue doing so in the future.

If I have expressed commitment to our agenda, I am also a responsible member of the party. How can somebody say that we are keeping mum on our issues?

Sometimes we hear that you have differences with your party Chair Yadav. Is that true?

No, it is not true. Honestly speaking, whatever opportunity I have got till now in the field of politics is because of Yadav and I am grateful to him.  There is no misunderstanding between us.

Why did your law minister have to stage sit-in demanding enforcement of provincial public holiday?

As per the Civil Code, the provinces can announce their public holiday, which government offices and courts are bound to follow. Courts have followed, but the chief district officers, who do not have jurisdiction over matters other than citizenship, passport and the border, do not follow the provincial government’s order. They are egoistic. The centre and provinces should complement each other.

The rule of law is the most important thing and that was the reason our law minister staged a sit-in.

What has your government done thus far in the province?

When I formed the provincial government, the province did not have its own laws and since it was very urgent for the province to have its own laws, I focused on drafting provincial laws. We have passed more than one-and-a-half dozen laws and have prepared the drafts of almost three dozen bills. This is one of the most challenging tasks because the provincial government needs to meet 22 processes to enact laws. We are not behind any province on this front.

We hear reports of provincial governments facing a variety of problems, including staff crunch and lack power to run their administration effectively. What’s your experience so far?

What you have read in the news reports is true. First, we did not get the required number of employees from the centre. We got less than half of the employees and among them very few had adequate experience to do their assigned jobs. Most of them lacked expertise. The worst thing is that nobody — neither the concerned secretaries nor the line ministry, nor the provincial government — knows when an employee is on leave.

This shows the federal bureaucrats do not work with the federal mindset. They think if the provinces improve governance and achieve health, education and development goals, then that could expose the federal bureaucrats’ inability. That’s why they are trying to make the federal government’s role ineffective. They want to give the message to the public that federalism is not useful. An employee learns the skills of his job after three or four months and then s/he is suddenly transferred. Since the employee’s transfer and posting is controlled by the central government, the provincial government is always in the dark about their transfers and postings.

As the country enters a new phase, we have a lot of things to do. Some of the offices that were supposed to be under the jurisdiction of provincial governments have been put under the local and central governments, creating problems for the provincial government. There is no fixed mechanism for carrying out financial transactions related to development projects. Some district mechanisms should be there if we have to carry out development projects in the field of agriculture, education, tourism, forest and health. Fisheries Centre of Janakpur has been put under the central government’s jurisdiction. Some other offices have been brought under rural municipalities, municipalities and the metropolis. The federal government has not asked employees who were transferred to provincial offices but have not joined their offices yet, why they did not report to their assigned duties. I do not know what actions were taken against these erring officers. It is the federal government’s duty to adjust employees in all the three tiers of government.

How does your government plan to move ahead in the days ahead?

We have given the slogan ‘educate your child and save your child’. We have also launched cleanliness and hygiene programme. We have readied the draft of a governance bill which will be enacted soon. We are also preparing some key directives and procedures. We brought 100 days programmes, government’s policy and programmes and budget besides carrying out small development projects. We are enacting necessary laws to implement the policy and programmes. I am in favour of not carrying out any development project after mid-June to end the bureaucrats’ tendency of carrying out development projects after mid-June so as to finish the fiscal budget.

What are the taxation issues that you want resolved?

Provinces have powers to collect vehicle tax, but the transport office that collects this tax is still not under our jurisdiction. This shows that we are not getting the kind of cooperation that we had expected from the centre. This is why we have not been able to deliver services that people expect from us.

Out of the revenues collected by transport offices, 60 per cent goes to the provincial government’s coffers and 40 per cent to the local levels. Then there are taxes that can be levied on land registration, sale of river materials, including sand and clinker. The local levels collect taxes on those materials from which they keep 60 per cent for themselves and give us 40 per cent.

We have deficit budget which we prepared keeping in mind the revenue that we may get from different sectors. We have not expected any foreign assistance.

As per the statute, provinces can receive foreign loan and aid only with the consent from the centre. How  helpful is that provision for the provinces?

The posts of National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission that are lying vacant should have been filled. An act has been brought which says that provincial and local levels will get 15/15 per cent VAT and domestic excise revenues. How much revenue should go to provinces and local levels should have been debated and decided by the NNRFC.

The constitution says the provinces can accept foreign assistance with the consent of the central government but the relevant Act says that the provinces should take prior consent for receiving foreign aid and loans. This goes against the constitutional provisions and can easily be challenged in the Supreme Court. Not only this, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote a letter to us saying we need to take permission from the central government even to meet foreign representatives. Thus, an unnecessary restriction has been placed on us. Why should we take the central government’s permission even to meet foreign representatives? This is against the spirit of federalism.

You keep saying that Province 2 is a sensitive province that needs sensitive handling. Have you talked about this with the PM?

Yes. I have told the PM that if province-2 marches on the path of prosperity and development it will be good for the province and the country as well. Delay in achieving these goals could only increase desperation among youths. Suppose if we fail to address the problems of employment, then I will have to go to the media and tell the public who obstructed the execution of federalism. If I cannot deliver services to the public, then what will be the raison d’être of my government? We need a development package. This province ranks second among provinces with low HDI. We need more help and assistance from the centre at this stage and the PM has assured me assistance.

A version of this article appears in print on September 17, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.

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