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The Constitution of Nepal mentions districts for two purposes. One, to outline the roles and responsibilities of the District Assembly and the District Coordination Committee—bodies that meant only to be coordinating mechanisms. Two, to outline the jurisdiction of District Courts, as the judiciary in Nepal still operates as a unitary system. As far as the constitution is concerned, the districts do not have any other jurisdictional authorities.

Consistent with the provisions outlined in the constitution, several functions of district level offices were dissolved with federal restructuring. Powers were transferred to local and provincial governments. Authorities of offices like the District Public Health Office (DPHO), District Education Office (DEO), and District Agriculture Development Office (DADO) were under the jurisdiction of local governments. Through an Organization and Management Survey conducted by the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Governmental Affairs, several new offices, which were not district centered, were established to be under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. These offices were meant to take over some of the responsibilities of the dissolved district offices. For example, after the DPHOs were dissolved, 35 province-level Health Offices were established with each Health Office being asked to coordinate with local governments in multiple districts. Similarly, 51 Agriculture Knowledge Centers were established which took on some of the responsibilities of the DADO. The reasons why these offices were established to look after multiple districts were unclear, and some legitimate questions regarding the effect of this transition in service delivery were raised by concerned citizens.

In essence, all the district level authorities that existed during the unitary structure – and were dissolved – look likely to be set up again, only under a different name.

Soon after devolution, the federal government started restricting the authority of local governments. Many dissolved district level offices are being re-established and placed under the jurisdiction of the federal and provincial governments. The local government has limited say in matters relating to education— the Education Development and Coordination Unit (EDCU), was arbitrarily kept under the District Administration Office (DAO). This Unit will eventually look very similar to how the DEO looked in the past.

Similarly, after the 35 Health Offices could not meet the demands of coordinating with local units in multiple districts, Health Offices, similar to the DPHOs, were established in all 77 districts. Soon the Agriculture Knowledge Center is also expected to be set-up in all districts. In essence, all the district level authorities that existed during the unitary structure – and were dissolved – look likely to be set up again, only under a different name.

Resistance to change

Districts are a very old administrative unit dating back to the time of Bhimsen Thapa. The closest form to the pre-federalism system was established in 1962, when the 75 districts were established. Historically,  political, economic and other forms of power were centralized in the district headquarters. This meant that elites lived in the headquarters. In addition to being important units for the centralization of power, districts gave many their sense of identity. So much so that there was significant resistance when local bodies were being restructured such that they were not perfectly aligned with existent district territories. Protests broke out in Baglung, Nawalparasi, Rukum, and Gulmi against the breaking-up of their districts. Eventually only two districts, Nawalparasi and Rukum were broken-up, but the conflict has not been resolved in Rukum to this day. Districts were strong political structures, and there was resistance to change.  

While the constitution did not explicitly give many authorities to districts, it latently pushed the federal and provincial governments to set-up their own form of district level authorities. This is an important reason why districts will continue to be relevant in the future. Since the local government is an independent entity, the federal and provincial governments cannot directly tell local government what to do. Given the fact that federal and provincial governments have limited capacity to implement their plans and programs at the grassroots level, district headquarters are convenient places for the federal and provincial governments to set-up their lower-level mechanisms. District headquarters already have the  informal institutional mechanisms necessary for governance because of their importance in the unitary structure.

The problem with this arrangement is that federal and provincial dictates might compete with local government agendas, causing friction, and ultimately centralizing power in district headquarters.

Frantic transitions and devolutions were an important reason why the federal and provincial governments fell back on district level authorities. The federal government devolved authorities without taking the necessary steps to ensure that service delivery continued to go smoothly. After devolution, when service delivery started getting affected, they had to re-establish the same offices. Lack of a clear and achievable time-bound plan led to ‘ad-hoc’ decision-making in the way the federalization process was conducted, ultimately resulting in the district level structures that were meant to be dissolved to be recreated.

The unitary system not only centralized power in the national capital, it also centralized significant power at the district headquarters. The federalization process thus, needs to ascertain that the powers centralized in district headquarters are devolved. However, a careful debate on the significance or the lack thereof of district level authorities seems to be amiss. Any devolution must ascertain that the existent public services delivered at the grassroots are not affected during the period of transition.