Politics of Decentralized Local Governance in Bangladesh and Nepal


Mohammed Asaduzzaman*
Juha Vartola**
Ismo Lumijärvi***
Nasrin Jahan Jinia****

Abstract: The appeal of decentralisation exists at every stage of public administration reform debate. This paper analyse the concept of decentralisation from its theoretical perspectives and as implemented in two south Asian countries, Bangladesh and Nepal. Findings suggest that despite regular efforts, both countries have failed to implement and practice a decentralisation policy in their respective governance systems. The recent decentralisation policies of Bangladesh and Nepal are merely a modified form of the old policies. Findings also indicate that local governance of both countries consists of a mixture of centralization and decentralisation. Moreover, both countries firmly emphasised the structural and theoretical part of decentralisation, rather than implementation. Any decentralising policies in both countries have been jeopardised by a confrontational political culture, a winner-take-all attitude, patron-client relationship, and bureaucratic elitism.

Keywords: Politics, Decentralisation, Local Governance, Bangladesh, Nepal.


In the recent years, the demand of decentralisation has increased in order to improve the delivery of public services and local governance in a cost efficient manner, increase the administrative capacity and productivity of the public sector, and ensure people’s participation in local development etc. It has also been recognized as a means of implementing and promoting both democratic and developmental objectives across the aid recipient region. As a concept, decentralisation has two schools of understanding. The first is concentrated on territorial decentralisation which means devolution of power from the centre to local bodies. While other school highlights to the divisionalised decentralisation which means delegation of power from the centre to other units of the organization. Both Nepal and Bangladesh have moved towards the direction of first school.

However, it is not a universal or monolithic concept and not essentially positive or negative (Smoke 2003). Many claimed that decentralisation policy may worsen certain problems and some of its disadvantages can be summarized that have been associated with it include: the intensification of forces for succession and ethnic identities, political instability, the capture of power by local elites, interregional income disparities, and macro-economic instability, caused by budget deficits, local government fiscal irresponsibility, and local government indebtedness (Kulipossa 2004, 770). Therefore, there are many questions ahead the decentralisation debate i.e. whether decentralisation is an effective development policy and, if so, how and what functions should be decentralized and at what levels or what pre-conditions are essential to materialize decentralisation policy.

This paper discusses the theoretical aspects of decentralisation and how the decentralisation policy has been followed and what problems there are in practising a decentralisation policy in two culturally and geographically different South-Asian countries. The paper has been divided into three parts: the theoretical analysis of the concept of decentralisation is discussed in the first part. The decentralisation practices in Bangladesh and Nepal are presented in the second part and the general observations and conclusion are presented in the third and final part.

Theoretical Overview

Decentralisation has gained immense importance and occupied the role of a central policy agenda in a large number of post-colonial, developing and transition economies in Latin America, Africa and Asia during the last three decades and more. It has been argued that colonialism led strong state and centralised administration in most of the post-colonial countries. Therefore, the key policy issues in the contemporary development debates are how to eliminate a strong, centrally control administration, how to establish a strong and democratic local institution and how to transfer power to local institutions.

As a phenomenon of local governance,[1] decentralisation promotes to shift thinking away from state-cantered perspectives to include elements which are often considered to be outside the public policy process. It is thus helps reconsideration of local government as more than just a technical or administrative extension of the central government and/or bureaucratic structure with a new autonomous powers and functions (McCarney 1996).

According to Cheema and Rondinelli (1983) decentralisation is the transfer of power, authority or responsibility for decision making, planning, management or resource allocation from the central government to its field units, district administrative units, local governments, regional or functional authorities, semi-autonomous public authorities, parastatal organisations, private entities and non-governmental private or voluntary organisations. It could also be defined from a public choice perspective i.e. it is a   situation in which public goods and services are provided primarily through the revealed preferences of individuals by market mechanisms.

Thus, interpreting the literatures, two major schools of thought can be seen concerning the theoretical debate of the decentralisation: democratic decentralisation, and the liberal developmentalist approach. According to the democratic decentralisation approach, a decentralisation policy highlights the local government as the institutional vehicle for promoting local democracy through political education, training in leadership, political stability, local consultation and more effective public accountability (Smith 1985). The liberal developmentalist approach, on the other hand, highlights decentralisation for a better organisational performance in providing goods and services effectively and efficiently, and in fostering local development through people’s participation (Mawhood 1987, Cheema and Rondinelli 1983, Conyers 1985). For instance, Conyers states: ….decentralisation has been recommended inter alia as a cure for cumbersome decision-making at the centre; as a means of achieving greater popular participation and of empowering local communities; as an aid to planning, improved policy implementation and more effective delivery of services; as a way generating additional resources; and, at its widest, as a necessary pre-condition for small scale, ecologically sustainable development through transferring power from central to local institutions (Conyers 1990 in Scott 1996, 3).

The above analysis gives a picture that there are various interpretations of decentralisation which can be measured under the different types, such as administrative decentralisation, political decentralisation and fiscal decentralisation (Pollitt et al 2000). These three types of decentralisation could be more precisely discussed under the various forms of decentralisation. There are four different forms which are widely discussed such as deconcentration, devolution, delegation and privatisation (see for details Cheema and Rondinelli 1983).

Deconcentration refers to the handing over of administrative or managerial responsibility to the field level civil servants of sub-national units within the line ministries or other sector specific national agencies.

Devolution initiates the transfer of power to locally constituted political bodies with their own discretionary authority. It as an organizational form of local government, which should be given autonomy and independence and be clearly perceived from a separate level, over which central authorities exercise little or no direct control.

Delegation implies the transfer or creation of local authority to plan and implement decisions concerning specific activities or a variety of activities, within the special boundaries of an organisation that is technically and administratively capable of carrying them out without direct supervision by a higher administrative unit.

Privatization is the shift of certain responsibilities from the public sector to the profit and non-profit oriented private sectors, commonly known as NGOs, and the greater interaction between private and public sectors.

Among these four forms, devolution seems to be the most acceptable, as long as it is concerned with the notions of ‘democratisation’, ‘debureaucratisation’, ‘participation’ and ‘partnership’ in the development process. The good governance proponents state that devolution promises a more effective, efficient and accountable local government system, ensures people’s participation in local development, and improves the quality of services delivered (Sarker 2006).

Decentralisation is not a universal weapon

As a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon in one hand and diverse contextual realities of the developing countries on the other, we could assume that decentralisation might have negative effects. Benefits of decentralisation thus may enjoy few rather than many. As Smoke (2003) assumes that too much or unsuitable decentralisation policy could undermine macroeconomic control and worsen interregional income disparities. Opponents claimed that the decentralisation policy has primarily failed to grasp the realities of developing nations in terms of their socio-economic structures, the relationship between groups and classes, and the mechanisms through which power is exercised. The governance and administration of most developing nations in Africa and Asia is characterised by excessive centralisation and is, as a result, contextless in nature, because of the colonial history and traditional social structure of the nations (Haque 1996). The concept of class or elite still plays a dominant role and thus decentralisation might be an elusive phenomenon in these societies (Olowu 2003, Smoke 2003). Therefore, it can also be said that the policy of decentralisation may empower the hands of power holder rather than empowering and establishing decentralized local governance. As Fukuyama states, ‘the delegation of authority to state and local government in developing countries often means the empowerment of local elites or patronage networks that allows them to keep control over their own affairs, safe from external scrutiny’ (Fukuyama 2004, 97).

Moreover, the centralization proponents argue that centralization is crucial to the fulfilment of the state’s key political and economic functions. As a result they criticize decentralisation policy in the following manner: ..locally made plan may be inconsistent with resources and national policies, differences in local plans and provision will generate regional inequalities; a large number of local units means more resources must be devoted to administrative coordination and auditing; storage of trained manpower will lead to decentralized agencies being staffed by incompetents; poor areas and poor people may even get relatively poorer (Turner and Hulme 1997, 158)

Despite these criticisms and debates, decentralisation is still considered to be an important policy in empowering local institutions through greater participation of the people in local development. The common assumption is that if the situation permits, institutions are capable and properly designed, decentralisation can help improve the performance and execution of government policy (Hope 2000, 523). Hence, reviewing both positive and negative effects of decentralisation, we have considered it as a continuous social process of transferring power from central to local institutions, following the devolutionary form that will finally lead to the process of democratisation, empowerment and sustainable development in developing nations.

Decentralisation Practices: Case Studies from Bangladesh and Nepal


Bangladesh inherited weak political institutions, weak local governance and elitist type of bureaucracy from its colonial rulers. In order to overcome the poor governance features and strengthen local institutions, each successive regime has increasingly emphasised the decentralisation policy since the country’s independence.

The first regime (1971-1975) raised the question of decentralisation and introduced a three-tier local governance system with the Union Council at the village level, the Thana (sub-district) Development Committee (TDC) at the sub-district level, and the District Council at the district level. The main objective was to transfer the centralised power to local authorities, and to ensure the people’s participation in the local development programme. Moreover, the government formed an administrative reform commission, entitled the ‘Administrative Reform and Services Reorganization Committee’ (ASRC), in 1972 and its purpose was to create a competent, people-oriented civil service in the country. Unfortunately, the final report of the commission was never published formally (Khan 2000). Huque (1988:49) writes: “Over four years following independence, then, virtually no attempt was made to reconstruct the local government in Bangladesh. The Awami League was, prior to independence, the party of the deprived East Pakistani bourgeoisie demanding an equal share of the capitalist pie, and could hardly meet the political expectations of a nation comprised mostly of landless labourers and small farmers living in the rural areas. Political activities were concentrated in the capital, and participation was monopolised by urban residents who had easy access to the centre of power”.

During 1975-1991, two military and semi-military regimes governed the State. The first military government (1975-1981) introduced a grassroots local institution called the ‘Gram Sarker[2]’ (Village Government) in 1980, with the motive of transferring power to the villagers and ensuring local development by local participation. Even though it was an admirable attempt, it is claimed that the military regime was more ambitious to capitalise and mobilise the local power in favour of the new political party, rather than to establish a capable local institution. The Gram Sarker policy was eventually dissolved by the following regime without measuring its performance.

The second military regime (1981-1990) addressed the question of decentralisation at the top and appointed a high-level Committee for Administrative Reform and Reorganization (CARR). Based on its recommendations, the government introduced the ‘Upazila Parishad’, (Sub-district Council), in 1982 at the intermediate level between the Union Council and the District Administration. The major landmark of the Upazila decentralisation policy was the provision of an elected chairman, and this was the first time that an elected office had replaced the field-level bureaucracy in the history of Bangladesh. However, contemporary studies claimed that despite its democratic nature, the Upazila decentralisation programme failed to fulfil the criteria of the devolutionary form of decentralisation. The programme was, in fact, dependent on the central government for three major matters: policy making, financial concerns and personnel matters. Such dependence led to massive corruption and mismanagement in the local institutions.

During 1991-1996, the government dissolved the Upazila decentralisation policy and appointed a reform commission. However, the recommendations of the commission were never implemented. Contemporary evidence has confirmed that the government had failed to introduce the decentralisation policy at local level, and rather reinstated bureaucracy in the local governance institutions in the name of decentralisation.

During 1996-2001, the government reinstated the Upazila Parishad system and appointed a high-level local governance reform commission in 1997. The commission recommended that local government systems be four-tiered: at the bottom level, the Village Council; at the lower middle-level, the Union Council; at the upper middle-level, the Upazila Parishad; and at the top, the District Council. Ironically, the recommendations by this commission were not implemented during its five years of rule. During 2001-2006, the government only slightly modified the decentralisation policy that had been recommended by the earlier government. In 2003, the Gram Sarker policy had been reintroduced in place of the Village Council. However, the interim government abolished the Gram Sarker policy in 2007. Although both governments from 1997-2006 have come to an agreement and admitted that the Upazila decentralisation policy is the most useful gateway to transferring power from the centre to the local, they failed to hold an Upazila election in their ten years’ tenure. In the political history of Bangladesh, this is in fact one of the most grave, unexpected and indefensible failures of the democratic regimes since 1991.

However, the third Upazila Parishad election was held under the present regime in February, 2009, and most of the elected Upazila Chairpersons are members of the ruling party. Ironically enough, soon after the Upazila election, the parliament of the present government changed the Upazila law, which reduces the vested power of the Upazila Chairpersons and granted the lawmakers sweeping authority over the Upazila Parishad in their constituencies. This, again, is a clear violation of democratic values, and it is very inconsistent with the spirit of the Bangladeshi constitution which clearly states that the State should ensure effective participation by the people through their representatives in administration at all administrative levels (Article 59/2). As a consequence, the new law drastically restricts the legal functions of the local government bodies and impinges upon their autonomy as prescribed in the constitution. The result of the new law has already led to a situation in which lawmakers cannot but be in a potentially confrontational course with the elected Upazila Chairmen and Members, which will eventually lead to conflicts and squabbles over dominance within the local branches of political parties, to the detriment of the people inhabiting the particular local regions (Editorial, The Daily Star 17.4.2009)[3].

These events seem to suggest that decentralisation has always been considered to be a central policy to strengthen local institutions and to ensure people’s participation in the local development. It has been found that since 1982 in particular, decentralised local governance (through introducing the Upazila Parishad system), became the policy agenda in Bangladesh. However, despite several attempts, the package of decentralising and reforming the local administration remains to be implemented, due to factors such as bureaucratic bungling, a conflicting political culture, patronage distribution, partisan interest, and massive corruption. It has also been found that each regime unhesitatingly discarded the policy of its predecessor without reviewing its rationale, the extraneous and endogenous factors relating to its success and failure, or its immediate or long-term potential impact on the target population.


Nepal has recently moved to a federal democracy after a long history of monarchy, and in 2008, it became the world’s youngest republic. To facilitate development efforts at the grassroots level, an important phrase in the discourse of development in Nepal since the 1970s has become the decentralisation local governance policy. The history of the decentralised local governance in Nepal is deeply rooted in the Kirata period, and since then, its local governance system has been run by the various rulers during the different phases of its history[4]. However, for the first time in the Nepalese history, the decentralisation of local governance took on a new form in 1951, although, a village level institution, the Village Panchayet, was introduced during the Lichhavi and Malla periods (Khan 1991). In 1952, the government established the Village Development Board at the centre and the Village Development and Cooperatives, District Development Boards and Block Advisory Councils in order to provide state services for the local inhabitants and to ensure their participation in the local development and decision making process.

During the Panchayet System[5] (1960-1990), several attempts were made to practice the decentralisation policy such as: the Decentralisation Plan of 1965, the District Administration Plan of 1975, the Integrated Panchayet Development Plan of 1978, the Decentralisation Act of 1982, and the Decentralisation Working Procedure Rules of 1984. The Panchayet system has been considered as a landmark in the history of Nepal. Among the Panchayets, the Village Panchayet[6] (VP) is considered to be an important point in empowering local institutions and local people through exercising the values of democracy. However, despite a legal framework, many argue that the VP has failed to reach its destination due to the strong intervention by the District and Central Panchayet.

The new Decentralisation Act was introduced in 1982, with the objective of further decentralising people’s participation in the local decision-making process, and demarcating more the authority between the bureaucrats and the elected functionaries of the Panchayets, etc. In 1990, soon after returning to the multi-party democratic system, the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal[7] made powerful provisions for decentralisation and was committed to establishing a participatory governance system by involving local people in the development process. Thus, the main concern of the government shifted from the traditional public administration to the participatory oriented administration, that is, development through people’s participation and decentralisation accompanied by reduced state intervention in producing and delivering goods and services (Dhungel 1996, Gautam 2008). Keeping these in mind, the Local Self-Governance Act (LSGA[8]) was enacted in 1999. The most important recommendations of this committee were to create a wider scope of participation by the people in the local development programmes through the proper decentralisation, mobilisation and distribution of local resources to the geographically disadvantaged areas and groups; through encouragement and involvement of the other state actors; and finally, through privatisation, and the effective delivery of public services. In addition, the government introduced another programme called ‘Build Your Village Yourself’ in 1995, using slogans such as ‘Power to the Village and Development Programme through People’s Participation’ (Dahal et al 2001).

After the major changes in the political history of Nepal in 2008, there are two-tier local government units, such as the District Development Committee (DDC) and the Village Development Committee (VDC). The VDC is the lowest local government units and the officials of the VDC are directly elected by the people. The DDC is the upper unit of local government, which comprises both the elected officials and the government-appointed officials.

In light of the above analysis, it seems that since the 1990s, the Nepalese government has introduced some decentralisation policies with the goal of making local government more effective, participatory and result-oriented. However, for several reasons, despite many attempts, the decentralisation practice has not been successful in strengthening and establishing capable and powerful local governance in Nepal. The reasons for this seem to be: (1) a lack of political willingness and bureaucratic intervention which has resulted in a resistance to the devolution of power of the local Panchayets; (2) a malfunctioning in implementing the programme itself impeded the scheme; (3) a lack of coordination at both the central and local levels remained an impediment to the scheme; (4) and most importantly, an unequal relationship between the castes and ethnic groups in the pluralistic Nepalese society. As a result, the decentralisation policies in Nepal have found it difficult to take root.


The above analysis seems to imply that the experiences of the decentralisation policies in Bangladesh and Nepal have not been satisfactory. Both countries have recurrently emphasized and recognised the decentralisation policy as a means of overcoming features of poor governance. Evidence suggests that the successive regimes of Bangladesh and Nepal have failed to practice a decentralisation policy in their governance systems.

This paper intended to analyze the problems of decentralisation policies in these two South-Asian countries. The evidence indicates that the ruling parties in power are not willing to lose their influence over local institutions on the one hand, whereas the civil servants are also reluctant to lose their control over local institutions on the other hand. Many have claimed that democracy in some South Asian countries is not about people, it is about access to state power. In fact, state resources are the most valued prizes for both politicians and their constituencies. A client-patron relationship has evolved out of this impulse, between the holders of state power and those seeking public services. The ultimate authority over resources lies in the hands of individuals, not in the formal institutions bound to following set procedures.

Although there has been a lot of political changes in Nepal since 1990, the problems of the Nepalese governance has not been considered as the paucity of the financial resources, but the absence  of effective governance and well-functioning institutions’ (Atreya and Armstrong 2002: 4). Similarly, the recent past Anti-Corruption Chairman of Bangladesh categorically stressed that the main problem in Bangladesh is abusing power, rather than bribery[9]. As a result, both countries have not been able to practice a decentralisation policy over the years. Instead, the foundation and behaviour of the local governance institutions and reform benefits have been determined by factual cliques and parochial group interests. The most interesting feature of these two countries can be summarized as ‘laws are changed, structure reorganized, people moved around, manual altered, and institutions revised, but the same behavior patterns are continued. The administrative culture, it beliefs, values, priorities, norms are hardly touched’ (Caiden 1991, 152). As a consequence, evidences indicate that the problems that usually occur in the implementation of decentralisation policy in both countries are a result of poor design of decentralisation policies, technical weaknesses, absence of innovative implementation strategies and unwillingness and conflicting culture of power holders.

Avoiding the practice of putting ‘old wine in a new bottle’ and of the sandwiching types of policy, the main concern of the policy makers should be the question of how to ensure the practice of decentralisation in order to strengthen local governance in Bangladesh and Nepal. The major challenges and obstacles that are identified have been developed in these two countries over many decades and cannot be removed in the blink of an eye. Under these circumstances, a decentralisation policy should be seen as a continuous process. Both countries need a short term (pilot project) and a long-term integrated reform policy by giving up the traditional laissez-faire approach.

Concluding remarks

With administrative change or innovation of governance, the question of the immediate political power interest becomes even more important.  At the same time, reform would be forced by the general economic problems and especially by the problems of the economic maintenance of the bureaucracy. Our understanding is that the problem of the success of decentralisation efforts should be analysed in terms of the tension between the conflicting development tendencies. In addition, contextual realities and institutional capacity are also important factors need to take into account to success decentralisation policy. This means that the rationality problems of society force the state interventions to be increased to the relatively autonomous social relations. So preserving the existing system of domination presupposes an effective bureaucracy. However economic problems make it difficult to maintain a large bureaucracy.  Bureaucratisation also means risking a decrease in the legitimacy of the system, because the material maintenance of the bureaucracy and the belief in its legitimacy becomes continuously more difficult. Some of the central factors through which we can understand a failure to decentralise are the nature of political domination, the development of capitalism and globalization, the need to preserve the fundamentals of legitimacy and the self-interest of bureaucracy (Vartola 1979, 199)

It has not been our task in this article to analyse and evaluate the present situation of the local self-government in either Bangladesh or in Nepal. Both countries have elected local government institutions. However, on the basis of the ever-continuing process to start new decentralisation movements and programmes, we have good reason to believe that the level of self-government is not yet satisfactory. Finally, we could summarize the conclusion in the following manner:

1. It is difficult to introduce or implement decentralisation policy in a society which has a long colonial tradition with highly centralized administrative system. Therefore, we should also consider that decentralization is not a universal weapon for promoting democratic and developmental objectives of developing nations.

2. Any reform or change either administrative or political, central government or local government depends on many factors for example social, political, cultural, situational and economic. Hence, the change needs massive political and contextual support and legitimation. It is believed that decentralisation policy would not work without political support.


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*       Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public administration, Islamic University, Kushtia, Bangladesh.

**     Professor, Department of Management Studies, School of Management, University of Tampere, FIN-33014. Finland

*** Professor, Department of Management Studies, School of Management, University of Tampere, FIN-33014, Finland.

**** PhD Research Fellow, School of Managemnt, University of Tampere, Finland.

[1]The concept of local governance can, accordingly, be regarded as an attempt to come to grips with the limitations of state-centred local management, and leads to a move away from statist perspectives which tend to concentrate on such factors as administration, management, and even local government in its bureaucratic form (McCarney 1996). Thus it encompasses other sectors of the state for example the private sector, NGOs, and civil society.

[2]    The Gram Sarker was a body consisting of a gram pradhan (village executive) and eleven elected members who represent the different sectors of the village (Haque 1988).

[3]  Editorial, The Daily Star,  http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=84301, accessed on 17-04-2009

[4]    The Kirata period about 700 B.C-225 A.D., The Lichhavi Period 225-899 A.D, The Dark Period 899-1200 A.D., The Malla Period 1201-1769 A.D., The Shah Period 1769-1846 A.D., The Rana Period 1846-1950 A.D., The Interim Period 1951-1959, The Party System Period 1959-1960, The Panchayet System Period 1960-1990 ( Siddiqui 1992:229)

[5]    Four tiers of Panchayets were introduced by King Mahendra;they are: the National Panchayet, the Zonal Panchayet, the District Panchayet and the Village Panchayet (Siddiqui 1995).

[6]    The Village Panchayet was responsible for collecting taxes for local development activities.  Many functions, such as education, health, roads, sanitation, etc., were also given to the VP.

[7]    According to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1990 has recognised decentralisation as a means to ensure the optimum involvement of the people in governance and to provide them with the opportunities to enjoy the benefits of democracy (NDF 2002).

[8]    The LSGA has been introduced to create a conducive environment to spread the fruits of democracy, the institutionalisation of participatory development, the involvement of the socioeconomically marginalised groups through responsible and accountable local governing bodies. The LSGA therefore offers the opportunity to develop the local leadership and capacities to make the local bodies a vehicle for the local self-governance (NDF 2002).

[9] www.bdnews24.com/details.php?cid=2&id=27110, accessed on 1.11.2007

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