Shifting rural municipality centre to one’s area
The comfortable majority given by people to a party for developing the village and serving the local residents is found to have been utterly misused. The Tilathi-Koiladi and Belhi-Chapena rural municipalities are the examples.
-Jitendra Kumar Jha: Centre for Investigative Journalism-Nepal
Tilathi was designated the centre of the Tilathi-Koiladi rural municipality in Saptari on March 11, 2014. Everyone agreed to have Tilathi, a place of historical importance and an accessible location for most people around, as the centre of the local federal unit.
After Satishkumar Singh of the Rastriya Janata Party, Nepal was elected the rural municipality chairman, he decided at the first meeting of the village council to change the centre. At the meeting held on February 4, 2018, he set Koiladi as the centre of the local unit. As a result, works at the local government have been affected. Peace is in peril due to sit-ins organized almost every day.
According to the agitated people, Singh’s decision to relocate the centre by brushing aside numerous urgent tasks was motivated by his personal and partisan interests. The personal reason is that Singh has more than 10 bigha land in Koiladi, which costs almost Rs 40 million. The party interest is that his party RJP-N has a grip on Koiladi.
Rural municipality Chief Administrative Officer Saroj Kumar Jha aided Singh in changing the centre as Jha also profits whne Koiladi is the local hub. Jha has home and land in Sakarpura, which is nearly half-a-kilometre from Koiladi.
Singh may have the motive of concentrating services and facilities provided by the local government around his village after it is made the centre. “This has been done to increase the price of his private land,” said Lalit Narayan Jha, a political leader in Tilathi.
The first village council had decided to name the local unit as “Khando Jita” and to shift the centre to Koiladi. Objecting to the decision, 14 people including Ward No 1 Chairman Dineshwor Mishra boycotted the meeting. But his party RJP-N’s majority made it possible for Singh to pass his proposal. Singh brushes off criticism saying that the decision was taken as wanted by a majority of members based on consensus. “Here is no infrastructure in Tilathi. For other villages/settlements in the rural municipality, Koiladi is more accessible than Tilathi,” said Singh.
Ward No 1 member Chandan Kumar Jha, however, says office facilities are better in Tilathi. “Here [in Tilathi] are office building and land. It’ll be easier if a storey is added to the building,” said Jha. “It’s harder to work in Koiladi due to the absence of infrastructure.”
Divided into eight wards, Tilathi-Koiladi has a 43-member village council. The 25-strong RJP-N team has a majority in it, giving Singh the mandate of decision-making.
Ward No 1 member Ram Lakhan Yadav said Singh relocated the headquarters due to partisan interest. Tilathi is an area heavily influenced by the Nepali Congress, he said, adding: “He decided to shift the centre as per his plan to move it away from an area influenced by a party.” In the local level elections held in September last year, the Congress won all the seats in Tilathi-Koiladi Ward No 1 while the RJP-N won the whole panel in Ward No 4, Koiladi.”
Vice-chairperson Suchita Kumari Yadav, who was elected on the RJP-N ticket, is opposed to this decision of Singh. “The chairman can’t do everything he wishes with the backing of the majority,” she said. “People have chosen us for development and prosperity. Not to engage in politics of majority and minority.”
Even if Singh completed the formality of majority while taking the decision, he did not discuss the centre and renaming of the federal unit at the rural executive council. According to the practice, the executive council meets to set the agenda for the village council. There was no agenda of the centre and the change in name at a meeting of the village executive council held on February 3.
The next day Singh convened an emergency meeting of the village council at a party palace in Rajbiraj to decide the change in centre. Executive council members themselves and local residents have been protesting the decision. They charge Chairman Singh and the chief administrative officer with going to the district headquarters for unethically changing the centre to the area where they have their own land and houses.
“It goes against the democratic practice to present a proposal directly to the village council without discussing it in the executive board meeting a day before,” said ward Chairman Dineshwor Mishra. “The dispute was created by Singh’s decision to approve the new centre and name immediately without presenting a proposal first at the executive meeting.”
Chief administration’s role
Rural municipality Chief Administrative Officer Saroj Kumar Jha had been making efforts against designating Tilathi as the centre of the local unit for a year. Evidently, he did not spend the funds received for infrastructure construction at the centre. “It’s ill intention of the chief administrator not to build infrastructure despite having a budget and to support the decision to shift the centre blaming the lack of office facilities,” said Saurav Kumar Jha, a local youth.
The government had sent Rs 4.8 million to the Tilathi-Koiladi rural municipality before the local level elections for infrastructure construction. The sum has yet to be spent. “I have no role in the shifting of the centre. This is a decision taken by the village council. But in my view, having the centre where there is necessary infrastructure is comfortable,” says Jha.
For setting up the office in Tilathi, it was decided a year ago to add a storey to the erstwhile VDC building. The latest meeting held in July-end last year had also agreed to that. CAO Jha had also given his consent to the decision. But Jha has changed his statement, says former deputy VDC chief Amir Jha, adding that the village council had asked the executive officer to add a storey for building facilities including the conference hall.
CAO Jha admits to his commitment to building additional infrastructure before the local level elections. “I failed to work due to continued floods and my engagements during the elections,” he said. “Since the funds meant for infrastructure had to be used to build not only the rural municipality building but also on other infrastructure, most of the budget has been used up,” said Jha.
From hunger strike to court
The dispute created over relocation of the centre by misusing the majority has reached the court. In the case filed by Tilathi-Koiladi ward Chairman Dineshwor Mishra, the Rajbiraj bench of the Janakpur High Court has issued an interim order not to implement the decisions to rename the rural municipality (RM) and to relocate its centre.
On February 20 the divisional Rajbiraj bench of judges Mohan Bahadur Karki and Rakesh Nidhi ruled that the Tilathi-Koiladi RM not allow for change of the name and centre in view of “facilities and balance”.
Local residents have been protesting the decisions on the name and the centre, padlocking the RM office. From February 5 to 24, a relay hunger strike was staged. “We were excited at the election of people’s representatives at the local level after nearly two decades,” said Devnarayan Yadav, a leader of the protest. “The people’s representatives killed our excitement and expectations from the first meeting.”
Case repeats in Belhi-Chapena
People of Belhi-Chapena Rural Municipality in Saptari have been agitated by the decision of Chairman Paramananda Yadav to relocate its centre. The dispute created over relocation of the centre based in Ward No 4 to Ward No 3 in Nargho and the renaming of the RM as ‘Rajgadh’ has yet to be settled. As a result, said Chief Administrative Officer Dhirendra Kumar Yadav, works at the local unit have been affected for three months.
Elected on the Nepali Congress ticket, RM Chairman Yadav got the representatives to decide changes in the name and centre of the local level. Pushpamala Kumari Mandal, the vice-chairperson also elected for the NC, said he had forced ward chairpersons to sign the decision as if it were taken by the village council. “All of a sudden, RM Chair Yadav asked us to sign the minutes he had written,” said Mandal. “Five representatives including four ward chairpersons signed the document under pressure.” According to the documents at the local government, 23 of the 34 village council members have endorsed the change in centre and name.
Chairman Yadav said he got a majority of representatives to take the decision. “I’ve not defied the rule of majority,” he said. Advocate Dev Narayan Yadav, a Saptari local, said the RM chair, a responsible authority, should take consciential decisions even as he can do that on majority basis. “Decisions can’t be taken rapidly showing the majority,” said the advocate. “Decisions must be guided by people’s will and need.”
The Rajbiraj bench of Janakpur High Court issued an interim order in the name of Belhi-Chepana RM on February 7 not to effect the changes in the name and the headquarters. A single bench of Judge Nasarullah Ansari ruled for retaining the old name and the centre until the court issues its final verdict on the case.
Chairman Yadav has forwarded the decision to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration arguing that he had followed the procedure outlined in the Local Government Operation Act. The decision of the ministry to endorse the proposal has been challenged in the Supreme Court. The case filed by Ramnarayan Sharma, a local resident, is being heard at the apex court.
According to the Local Government Operation Act-2074, a majority of municipality members can change the name and the headquarters of the local unit within six months of local level elections. Chapters 4 and 5 of the Act say it requires a two-thirds majority to change the name and the centre after six months. Two RM chairmen of Saptari have exploited this provision to serve their interests.