Saturday, 15 June, 2024

Centralised Bureaucracy In Nepal

 Mukti Rijal


Federal Parliament is embroiled in the controversy to thrash out issues and   arrive at consensus on the provisions to be enshrined in the bill governing federal civil service in the country. Some issues like the role of civil servants' unions and associations, age bar for retirement from civil service, recruitment, relationship with  and accountability of the civil servants to  three-tier governments – federal,  State  and local - have been disputed in the Parliament. 
The problematic issue that has delayed the process of parliamentary ratification is what is generally known as politics-administration dichotomy in the language used by scholars of public administration. The relationship between politics and administration has been a tricky one. It is more so in the context of Nepal where administrative redefinition of state is yet to be carried through in line with federal constitutional principles. Nepal has yet far followed the unified system of bureaucratic organisation and accountability relationship even though the country has transited into federal political system.
The national government recruits civil servants for all tiers of the government contrary to principles of federalism. The central government   wields   the stick to discipline and rein in on the bureaucracy across all levels.  Though centralised bureaucracy was accepted and practiced at the time when the country was run according to the unitary state system, this cannot be accepted and also be practicable as the state has already embraced devolved federal polity. The debate in the parliament revolves around this issue.
Some parliamentarians are in favour of keeping central control over sub-national bureaucracy while other lawmakers are opposed to it due to the fact that this tends to repeat and recommit the unitary practice.  Needless to say, today State and local’s key bureaucrats are recruited and administered from the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration without any consultation with and concurrence of the State and local governments. This has infringed upon the self-rule principle of federalism. In fact, both State and local government should have an unfettered authority and autonomous space to set terms to hire and retrench the civil servants to work under their respective purview.
The civil servants are seemingly in favour of continuing their administrative control and answerability to the central agencies which they perceive will safeguard their interests.  However, if overall dominance of civil servants is allowed to be retained at the expense of the authority of the elected representatives, it will transgress the spirit of federalism and the administrative reorganisation of the state. Ultimately, accountability and answerability of bureaucracy will finally rest with the central government.
The civil servants may be transferred and adjusted in local and State governments but they make every attempt to bounce back to the federal capital through use of their connections and loyalty to ruling political parties. Nepal's federalisation process has in fact hit a snag especially due to the issues related with the administrative devolution and personnel management. This has strained relations between State and federal government.
As the several functions that used to be planned and implemented at the central level have been constitutionally assigned to the State and local governments, sub national capacity to implement newly devolved functions needs to be enhanced. This capacity can be bolstered only if the adequacy of trained and competent personnel, among others, is provided under the purview of the sub national government.  However, contrary to the spirit of the federalism, the sizeable, if not bloated volume of the civil bureaucracy to the tune of forty five thousand is being retained with the federal government at the centre.  Since the constitution limits the number of ministries and departments at the federal level, the size of bureaucracy will have to be   thoroughly downsized through organisation and management survey but it appears that it is not going to take place.
The top heavy bureaucratic structure is being kept without being restructured.  The elite personnel embedded and basking in the lucre of the central bureaucracy have resisted in joining in to work under the purview of sub-national government. The deliberation in the parliament indicates that bureaucracy is seemingly lobbying in keeping the provision in the proposed civil service act to ensure that the central bureaucracy has control over the sub-national government. 
 In fact, Nepal’s bureaucracy is yet to adapt itself to the Max Weberian parameters characterised by legal-rational authority system. The legal- rational authority system encompasses the fundamentals such as defined competence, selection by merit and achievement, impersonal operations, separation of public funds from private use and so on.
Conversely, Nepalese bureaucracy is more or less based on nepotism and favouritism, official corruption and so on. The bureaucracy is beholden to party politics and fragmented along the partisan lines. The civil bureaucracy is swallowing a bigger chunk of the national revenue as indicated by ever growing size of the recurrent budget. Even then it has failed miserably to perform minimally according to expectations. It is often seen that the bureaucrats follow signals of partisan politics in contravention of the norms of neutrality and nonpartisanship. Unless bureaucracy is made result-oriented, the devolved structural and functional arrangements at State and local level will make no sense for the common people. The big challenge lies in instilling new culture and motivation in civil bureaucracy to work with spirit of service and dedication for the benefit of ordinary citizens suited to the federal context of the country.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues. He can be reached at