Welcome to the frontline of our new federal state – the ward office.
Granted, it isn’t the most enticing invitation: the image of a space soaked in institutional drudgery comes to mind. But from the point of view of our Constitution, this is where all the action happens.
During the Local Elections of 2017, we were told that development would now be at our doorstep. The ward offices were graduating from simply maintaining records, issuing recommendation letters, collecting revenues and initiating small-scale community activities to wielding actual legislative and executive power.
Now, we too can turn to Schedule 8 of the new Constitution and assess each ward’s official twenty-two power upgrades. A lot of speculation has already taken place in the past two years about the potential of this endowment.
And yet, here we are.
On the first day of my ward visit, I happened to be behind two grumbling men. They were quietly giving each other a pep talk about how they had the right to walk on decent roads. They were preparing themselves to confront the Ward Chair.
‘We need him to take actions to fix all of this today,’ said one. ‘It’s a basic necessity and the Ward can’t excuse itself time and again.’
Their criticism continued as they climbed the two short flights of stairs to the entrance of the Ward Office. We entered to a long queue of people, official documents in hand, waiting at the two counters.
The men didn’t linger. Instead, they made their way through the crowd to another room that was also full of people and chatter. I followed, assuming it had to be the Ward Chair’s office. They were eager to meet him so they could complain. I was eager to introduce myself and explain the objective of what would end up being two months’ worth of field visits to this Ward Office.
The climate of reform under the transition had presented itself as an interesting period to observe local-level leaders. Nepal has a slew of newly elected officials, just like the Ward Chair we were sitting in line to meet, and the expectations this time around are unusually high – the ward offices are meant to spearhead new levels of development within their communities, providing better infrastructure, education, business support, and even security.
The low murmur of conversation subsided the moment Akash Adhikari’s tall frame appeared at the door. He walked in wearing dark blue jeans, a gray button-up shirt and white sneakers. Two pens, one red and one black, poked out of his chest pocket and a belt stretched over his slight belly. He allowed his motorcycle helmet to slide towards his elbow and bought his hands together in a Namaste, but his face was impassive. In his early thirties, he was younger than most of the men in the room.
Many, the two men included, stood up and greeted him with a handshake. The minute he sat behind his desk, the details of their grievances were laid bare. The complaints didn’t end with road issues. Water supply, mismanagement of electricity poles, on it went for quite a while. This room, right here, was the perfect vantage point to witness the Ward’s new attitude towards handling the glitches in its community.
Adhikari took the interactions with his constituents in his stride. He listened, nodding, responding promptly in a calm baritone. He swiftly made phone calls and referred issues to other Ward Office staff. He kept the interactions brisk because people kept coming in with documents for him to sign. His deep-set eyes moved rapidly between the people and the paperwork.
He was doing what was expected of him every day. He held significant responsibility, and was following the protocols of his duties. But seeing him in action only increased my curiosity.
What is it like to be a local leader in Nepal today? I wanted to gain an understanding of how a young ward chairperson’s aspirations and ambitions are realized in such a post.
It takes two microbus rides from the centre of Kathmandu to reach Adhikari’s office. His ward is situated in the northern foothills of the Kathmandu Valley. As the Ward Chair, he presides over a rapidly growing neighbourhood.
The area was known previously for its sprawling rice fields but today it is one of the more populated wards in the municipality. Even though records show around 3,000 registered voters in the Ward, the actual number of residents is believed to be double that number. The main factor behind this growth is internal migration. What were irrigation fields back in the day now host a plethora of three-storied buildings that stand a few metres apart, most of them rented out. More construction continues at every other corner.
However, it is easy to spot the Ward Office. It’s the three-storied building with a big national flag fluttering from its window, down a long lane of miscellaneous stores from the main junction. The Ward Office was relocated to this new building after the earthquakes of 2015. If you ask Adhikari, he will let you know that the single floor of office space they have isn’t adequate. The front of the building’s ground floor is occupied by the ward’s women’s committee, which runs tailoring classes there. The top floor is used as a community meeting hall.
A typical day for Adhikari is limited to the second floor. Aluminum frames and doors separate cubicles for his four staff. A long table has been placed at the far end to hold meetings as well as eat lunch at. The Ward Chair sits in the only proper room on the entire floor. Huge stacks of files, some even tucked away inside sacks, have been banished to various corners around the office. As the day begins and locals start trickling in from 10 am, the compact space appears even smaller.
The first stop for visitors to the Ward Office is a tiny cubicle right next to the entrance. It can barely fit two people. People place their queries here and collect the necessary forms. When the staff member stationed there isn’t helping locals with their paperwork, she is making tea in the equally tiny kitchen opposite her cubicle.
Once the paperwork is filled in, it’s five steps from the entrance to another cubicle designed as a counter. There, the two counter ladies carry out further procedures.
There is a flurry of stamps and staplers approving land papers and official letters. The staff tap away on their keyboards, making records of migration papers, tax payments, identifications and certificates, giving directions and asking questions.
They have to work fast because there is almost always a queue of restless people, eager to finalize documents and walk the next five steps to the Ward Secretary’s office on the right. The Secretary reviews the paperwork for the last time before forwarding it to Adhikari for his signature.
All the waiting brought about the occasional eruption of indignation. But the staff here had their own way of quelling these standard complaints.
‘I know! I forgot to pack my extra set of hands today. I am terribly sorry,’ the counter lady said whenever somebody complained about the queue moving slowly. She then turned to her colleague and added in that same loud voice, ‘How could you too forget to bring your set of hands?’
When somebody grumbled about the complicated, long process, another remark followed – ‘I agree. We should all go down to the streets and protest. My life is being wasted stapling all your files together.’
Many times, these exchanges got chuckles from the waiting queue. But Adhikari, who sat in his room at the far end, wasn’t privy to this banter. He had to tend to a crowd of his own, and as I witnessed on the first day, their business was different.
Every day, the minute he sat behind his desk, the scenes from my first visit replayed themselves. In between tackling complaints, making phone calls and writing referrals, not to mention dealing with the stack of paperwork, Adhikari barely had to time to talk to me in the first half of the day.
I sat adjacent to his desk, by the wall, taking notes. Building rapport with him took a while. The first handful of our interactions, where I managed to squeeze in a few casual questions, only yielded platitudes.
What are you hoping to get out of your appointment?
‘To provide service, help the community.’
How is that going so far?
‘We are doing our best.’ (Scrolling through his phone.)
As per the regulations, Adhikari did have the assistance of four elected ward members. However, I only met three over the course of my visits. I was told the missing representative was in the UK, visiting his children.
What’s more, in this particular Ward, the other two elected female ward members were also not as regular. They showed up infrequently, talked to a few constituents here and there, stayed for about half the day, then left. The only constant fixture alongside Adhikari and his front office staff was the fourth ward member.
In fact, whenever the Ward Chair was out and there was a need for authority, I heard people inquiring, ‘Where is Pramod?’, or, ‘Has Pramod come in?’
On my first day at the Ward Office, Pramod Pradhan had blended in with the horde in Adhikari’s room. Adhikari had quickly introduced him, but Pradhan hadn’t shown much interest in me and I had gone back to focusing on Adhikari.
But soon enough, Pradhan became the second focus of my quest to understand the personalities at the helm of our new local leadership. And the contrasting approaches of this elected ward member and Adhikari presented quite an interesting dynamic.
At first glance, despite his short stature, Pradhan appeared a bit intimidating. Even during our first proper interaction, where I reintroduced myself and tried to explain the purpose behind my presence in his office with the same official letter I had given Adhikari, Pradhan refused to read the letter. ‘I don’t understand all this English,’ he declared, and asked me to explain it in Nepali.
Every morning, he scuttled past the people around the cubicles in his khaki pants, with his helmet in hand, silently nodding at the greetings coming his way, and headed straight to the crowd inside Adhikari’s room. Unlike Adhikari, he was in his late 40s, and was a native of the area. He would sit on the couch, with his head slightly tilted downwards, looking up and around, listening, frowning. In fact, that frown rarely left his face.
Even after I explained my project, and after he inquired about my background, from my education to my ancestral home, he continued to frown. But he had warmed up. Over the following weeks, he became downright affable. While Adhikari seemed more concerned with presenting himself in a dignified manner, only giving the most precise replies to my questions, Pradhan was candid.
Every now and then, he would pause and say, ‘How are you going to publish this again?’ But once he started talking, his inhibitions were quickly brushed away by his habit of going off on a tangent.
For instance, his reply about his start in politics began with how he had always been involved in his community. (‘Before being elected, I helped build a bridge on the other side of the Ward’). But while detailing the negotiations he had to initiate between ministries, he got lost reminiscing about his childhood in the locality. He went into an enthusiastic rendition of how there would be daily sightings of jackals and how his school was so far away across a river that has now dried up that there was no point going if he spotted grey clouds.
When I asked about the day’s lunch orders and mentioned how nice it was that all the staff ate together, he started off stating how this habit helped build team spirit. But before I knew it, in true Pradhan fashion, he had also volunteered information that at the start of their term, he had sat all the staff down during a tea break and warned them about possible corruption.
‘I made it clear to them that if I got a whiff of such practices in my Ward, they’d face serious consequences.’ His rant, about corrupt, ‘useless’ civil servants being the main reason behind our country’s ruin, lasted till somebody else asked about lunch.
Similarly, conversations about the roads and their development once led to a detailed account of how he had ended up threatening a contractor with physical abuse just the week before. ‘He told me he could pave five kilometres of that troublesome area with asphalt in a day,’ Pradhan fumed. ‘That was impossible. I told him to stop spewing rubbish and immediately get to work or I would bury him in some pothole on the same road.’
It was also during our first proper meeting that Pradhan expanded on Adhikari’s appointment as the area’s Ward Chair.
Both Adhikari and Pradhan are members of the Nepal Communist Party. Neither was up for discussing their party in relation to their work at the Ward Office. They were adamant that the Ward Office wasn’t ‘a space for politics’. They didn’t even entertain my hypothetical questions. ‘I don’t know what you have heard about other offices, but our Ward Office is only about serving the community,’ they would insist. The only time they discussed the party and their respective positions regarding it was while sharing information about their appointments to their current posts.
Adhikari had walked me through his days in the youth wing of the party. He had joined the party after migrating to Kathmandu from his hometown in Morang and he had managed to develop a good reputation for himself by being active in programmes and vocal whenever they got a chance to give speeches about their stance on politics and development.
His interpretation regarding his win was simple: political party members as mere individuals can’t amount to much on their own. The backing of the party is of utmost importance. His party happened to be looking for young people to lead during the elections and he had stood out. ‘I have always wanted to gain recognition for my work in the community. So when they asked, I was for putting up my name for nomination,’ Adhikari explained.
Pradhan’s version of Adhikari’s appointment centred on himself.
‘Many in the locality actually wanted me to run for the post,’ he said, boasting that he was more popular. ‘But I have never been up for all the headache that comes with the post.’
He didn’t stop there. According to Pradhan, Adhikari would have withdrawn his name if Pradhan had planned to run for the position of Ward Chair. ‘He came to my house. I told him to relax, rejoice – I wasn’t interested.’
Apparently, it was also then that Adhikari insisted that he run for the position of ward member alongside him. ‘It’s easier for him because I am here,’ Pradhan explained, referring to his experience in socializing and working with party members and community members.
He concluded with a line which I would hear him repeat many times over the next few weeks. ‘Education alone isn’t enough to work in a place like the Ward Office. One needs to be well versed in the art of dealing with people.’
The annual Nagar Sabha, which I attended early on, is a formal gathering of all the wards in the municipality. Each municipality in the country hosts its Sabha. The goal is to share official plans and visions for the upcoming fiscal year.
As Adhikari and Pradhan got off their bikes in the parking lot and prepared to enter the venue in their attire, I heard many people laud the Ward Chair.
‘Our Unified Communist Party’s blazing young gun,’ one said, clapping him on his shoulder while introducing him. ‘Our community’s new hope,’ another was heard saying, greeting him with a handshake.
This was the first time I had seen them at a public event. Though Pradhan would privately highlight his supposed generosity in letting Adhikari win, out here Adhikari was the Ward Chair and the esteem his post was held in was clear to see.
Pradhan didn’t seem to have any reaction to the accolades being garnered by his chief. He too was busy socializing and exchanging greetings. This was also my first time witnessing their commitment to upholding their team dynamic.
Neither of them was giving speeches that day. But they proved to be model representatives for their ward. When people broke off into groups and began their own discussions, the two spoke about their ward’s problems and needs with much conviction. They stuck together throughout the event and patiently watched as ongoing speakers mostly talked of their dreams of turning their municipalities into developed havens that could compete with counties in Japan and Switzerland.
The next day, when I pointed out the public’s increasing disillusionment and frustration with such sweeping pronouncements, Pradhan merely shrugged. He agreed with my sentiments but stated that this was how things had always been.
‘Speakers feel the best way to go about these events is to present big dreams. It’s what I have been hearing for the last two decades, too.’
Adhikari had a stronger view of this culture of rhetoric. ‘The negligence with which some statements were made yesterday, I might as well be back at the early days of my youth party meetings.’
He added that this year, for example, he would’ve preferred to hear more about the current problems with coordination and initiation on behalf of the five important committees – the Infrastructure Committee, Education Committee, Health Committee, Social Committee and Environment Committee – that are meant to collaborate with local bodies like his office on projects.
‘But it is what it is,’ said Pradhan from a corner of the room, flipping through his newspaper. I saw Adhikari frown, but he didn’t press the matter further. This put an abrupt end to the discussion.
This also happened to be the day when one of the counter ladies learned that I would be writing about the Ward. She wondered aloud about how I would portray them. She turned to me and said, ‘You must think we are very harsh people.’
Before I could think of a reply, her partner interjected. ‘Two weeks with us in the office and you too will become like us. After hearing so many complaints, your personality is bound to change.’
They let me know that in their experience most of the visitors the Ward Office got were either brimming with complaints or already filled with the dread of dealing with government officials.
Pradhan laughed at her views on their image problem. ‘It is what it is,’ he said, yet again. Adhikari seemed determined not to join in the conversation. He went back to fiddling with his phone.
My visits taught me as much about the day-to-day activities of the Ward Office as about the people at work there. Every morning, when the staff arrived at the Ward Office, they brought their personalities with them. Slowly, I began to see how this influenced their approach to their job, Adhikari’s and Pradhan’s in particular.
When asked about his motive for seeking a post in local governance, Pradhan reasoned that it was all about social service. He explained that he could sustain his family with all the land that he owned in the area and it wasn’t necessary for him to work at all. But serving the community had become an ‘addiction’.
It appeared that he got a kick out of it, too. Every now and then, someone would say things like, ‘It’s because of you that we believe in the Ward now,’ and his face would light up. Pradhan was always involved in community issues – be it a dispute, negotiation or any of the area’s committee matters, he’d jump right in as the representative of the Ward.
In contrast, I thought, Adhikari was notably unenthusiastic about such matters. He appeared happy to take a back seat to Pradhan whenever family or neighbourhood disputes, or committee quarrels, arose. Even though the drama unfolded before him in his office, I often noticed him absentmindedly turning to his computer. Pradhan, on the other hand, would have his signature frown on, intently following everything.
It was already over a month into my visits when I had the opportunity to address this. Pradhan was out on location where the Ward was to mediate a dispute between a landlord and his tenants. But Adhikari had stayed behind.
During the tea break, I found him bent over some maps in his office, alone. It was one of those rare moments when his office wasn’t filled with a crowd. So I tried to make most of the moment and asked Adhikari if he too shouldn’t be out there in the field with Pradhan.
‘He knows those people better and they are familiar with him too. He can handle it,’ he replied. I took it as a cue to press on with my questions. Adhikari simply smiled.
‘I don’t think I should be here in the office, having to sign off on all these land papers either,’ he said, shuffling the maps he was looking through. ‘The Ward Secretary used to take care of these matters back in the day and he still can. As an elected representative of the public I should be doing more.’
There was a pause. He finished marking the maps and continued, explaining he would much rather be out visiting the different ministries, informing them of his area’s issues and trying to initiate development activities. If not that, he added, he could be out in the field sussing out problems and looking into issues personally. He declared that he felt more productive when working out of the office.
‘But if I am not here, signing off on papers, people think I am not working,’ he concluded, turning to another file on his desk.
The current system held him responsible for all the paperwork. The Ward Secretary’s signature wasn’t enough anymore. Had he expressed his opinions to his superiors at the Municipality, or to Pradhan and the rest of his team? Adhikari nodded. ‘Yes, many times. But the system we have to work in doesn’t allow for that. Signing and personally approving paperwork is a big part of my job.’
I gathered this was not his only ‘out-of-the-box’ position at the office. I caught his staff complaining during a tea break about his idea of opening the office on Saturday mornings. They were decrying the suggestion as ridiculous and useless.
‘Like we don’t work enough six days of the week,’ one said. ‘Who would even come?’ another added. ‘Apart from Pramod dai, the other ward members don’t even show up so much.’
In this transitional period, recently endowed offices like Adhikari’s haven’t been given road maps on leading and directing internal activities. As the first batch of newly elected ward chairs, it’s Adhikari’s responsibility to set a precedent.
Clearly, office management was proving to be a challenge. Adhikari’s complaint about the difficulty in juggling day-to-day paperwork and lobbying was justified. The concept of extra voluntary work hours to showcase the Ward Office’s renewed dedication to the community was admirable. However, his attempts to navigate the labyrinthine orthodoxy of the local governance system had proved dismal.
His right-hand man wasn’t much help in this matter either.
When quizzed about the extra work days, Pradhan just shook his head, ‘Do you know ward members like me only get a monthly wage of 5,000 to 6,000 rupees? Adhikari has yet to learn the ways of dealing with people.’ He left it at that. What about the time-consuming paperwork? Pradhan cited this as necessary. ‘We are dealing with it just fine.’
Was it merely a generational gap that had brought about this divergence in their expectations?
I kept bringing up their aspirations regarding their appointments whenever it appeared they could steal more than ten minutes away from work. I wanted both Adhikari and Pradhan to elaborate on their prompt reply of ‘service’ and ‘community work’. There had to be more to it than just that.
But Pradhan countered, not understanding my insistence, ‘Isn’t that the whole point of appointing us as public representatives, and having us run the ward rather than by civil servants, as in the past?’
We had touched on this topic a couple of times by then and he assured me that the reasons weren’t as complex as I was making them out to be. During his tenure, his goal was simply to bring the Ward Office more in tune with the locals’ day-to-day problems and push the institution to be more efficient at handling them.
Similar attempts with Adhikari brought to light a few more details. During one of their 2 pm breaks, I found him sipping tea alone at his desk rather than in the makeshift lunch room with the others.
‘I want to do work we are proud of,’ he said slowly. ‘You must have heard, the Ward Office has been planning and lobbying to construct a public park. We are sorting out the paperwork necessary to acquire the land right now. The Municipality has also agreed to help with the budget. We should also start on acquiring more investors now.’
Another long pause; we sat there sipping our tea for a while. When he saw me still waiting, looking at him, he seemed to relent.
‘Some days I feel like the Ward can achieve more by focusing on infrastructural development.’
He then picked up his pen and started listing his goals on a stray piece of paper. As he spoke, he also wrote:
- A new park.
- Further development of the current sports ground.
- A public multi-purpose complex for local businesses, training programmes and a health post.
- Expansion of the community college and a health office.
- A Kriyaputri Bhawan (a house for those carrying out funerary rites).
Adhikari revealed that he wanted to focus on these for the next three years of his tenure. He added that he would be satisfied if just two of the five things on the list were accomplished. Then, for some reason, he promptly proceeded to tear up the paper.
While doing so, he explained. ‘My Ward has limited sources but unlimited problems. We got a budget of twenty million rupees this year and we divided it into small chunks to sponsor small-scale solutions – things like a 30-metre road in an area, water supply for 20 houses in another area, training programmes for various committees, and so on. At most, these will probably help 300 people at a time but those voices are drowned out by the 2,700 people who still have complaints.’
His point was that the Ward should prioritize bigger plans like infrastructure development that helped more people. There was a hint of frustration in his voice when he repeated, ‘I want to do work that I am proud of.’
Unfortunately, I couldn’t see that there was much follow up on these goals. During my time at the Ward Office, the park project was the only one from the Ward Chair’s list that had been initiated, but it was moving at a glacial pace. Ironically, the entire Ward Office was soon sucked back into stamping out the little fires in the community – the infinite problems that Adhikari was referring to.
My visits to the Ward Office had coincided with the monsoon. But even before it had begun raining, Pradhan could be spotted anxiously peeking through the office windows whenever the day threatened to become a little cloudy.
‘The moment it starts raining, we are going to be flooded with phone calls,’ he predicted. The area had always been prone to waterlogging. Delays on a number of haphazard road construction initiatives around the ward had compounded the risk.
Two weeks into the monsoon season and Pradhan announced that he was ‘done with wearing shoes’. He had gone and bought sandals because the perpetually wet and muddy road in front of his own house was starting to ruin his day-to-day pair. Everybody in the area was suffering as a consequence of delayed road construction.
As significant as the area’s road problem was, road construction isn’t even in the Ward Office’s jurisdiction. They were known to pitch in only during emergencies. Even the Municipality only had a budget of 1 to 2 million rupees for roads, and this was reserved for neighbourhood lanes, not main roads. The Department of Roads bears the sole responsibility for upkeep. So hearing out locals and coordinating with responsible institutions was the most the Ward Office could do.
‘How many times do we have to tell you about the trouble these roads are creating?’ Both Adhikari and Pradhan could be seen making calls to concerned engineers and contractors every other day. The two also shared the fact that they had been firing up their phones months prior to the expected monsoon calamity.
Despite the difference in their personal perspectives about work in the Ward Office, Adhikari and Pradhan worked as tag team partners. One always made it to the office and catered to the agitated people there if the other had field work, meetings or visits elsewhere. If both had to leave, the instruction was simply to wait, because one would return to the office eventually.
One morning though, Adhikari found himself surrounded by a group of five men ready to ‘bash in heads’ and ‘torch concerned authorities offices’ if required. Adhikari immediately got on his phone.
It was steadily turning into a shout fest. ‘Even an ambulance can’t pass through at the moment. We don’t even need tarred roads. Just make sure the roads are walkable.’
Adhikari’s expression was impassive yet again. In between calls, he shared the engineer’s reply with the group: shortage of gravel during the monsoon season.
‘We are not pointing fingers at you, Akash,’ reasoned a local. ‘But you are the representative of the citizens of this ward. We voted for you because we trusted you. You need to lead us. Whose office doors do we have to break down? We can gather all the people.’
Adhikari didn’t reply. The group continued discussing among themselves issues like ‘the public’s power’ and the corrupt ways of Road Department officials. Even once he was done with his calls, Adhikari merely listened. At one point, he had a hand on his chin and appeared to be a little dazed.
I wondered if the thought of his park project had flashed through his mind. He had been planning on leaving the office early that day to attend a few meetings for it.
Even when one of the men suddenly remarked, ‘This is the weakness of the Communist Party,’ Adhikari made no comment. But another stood up for the Ward Chair’s party. ‘Now, don’t go scolding the party,’ he said, while the others chuckled. ‘Our K.P. has been noting the many things that he plans to do. A couple of months ago, he even accepted one crore rupees from Ani Choying Dolma, for the Tuin Replacement Fund. Don’t blame the party.’ He was referring to the twine bridges across remote Nepal that Prime Minister K. P. Oli had vowed to replace with more secure bridges.
Adhikari had no input. He let the men sit in his office and debate among themselves for a long while. Later, there was talk of writing a few more letters, and the group started to disperse, but not before repeating, ‘You have to lead us.’
A couple of weeks later, Adhikari too was left stranded, unable to reach his house because of waterlogging in the area. He had to wait more than half an hour to allow the water to subside before he could ride his bike on the road again. When asked if he called any engineers or contractors at the time, he simply shook his head.
He knew better.
To add to the monsoon chaos, another major problem for the ward – water supply – surfaced in the form of a nasty rumour. One day a regular ward visitor, also a friend of Pradhan’s, asked in a quiet, solemn voice, ‘Did you hear it too?’
The word was that somebody was threatening to ‘cut Adhikari’s arms off if he gave the green light to lay water pipe lines’ in a specific locality, as planned.
One of the responsibilities of the Ward Office is to act as a bridge between the Nepal Water Supply Corporation and the public. Each locality within the Ward has its own specific Water Committee, which takes care of the logistics for water supply. When the committee can’t reach a resolution, people tend to contact the Ward Office.
While most households in Adhikari’s ward relied on Mahankal Khane Pani for their water supply, this didn’t meet demand. The Ward Office didn’t have an up-to-date blueprint of existing water pipes and the households they catered to but it was estimated that only half the population got their water from Mahankal pipes. The rest were either using pumps to draw underground water or buying their water on a weekly basis.
So the situation was dire. Pradhan explained that the Ward Office had managed to secure 1.5 million rupees from the Municipality this year. Directed by the locals’ complaints and the Ward Office’s own inspection, they were using the budget to help localities that were hit the hardest by water shortages. Their idea was to draw underground water as well as lay extra pipes in the hope of sourcing water from nearby areas that had sufficient supply.
Pradhan was satisfied with the progress they were making so far. But managing water supply was still one of the Ward Office’s trickier tasks and the source of major local disputes.
‘It’s hard to believe how uncooperative people can be,’ Adhikari said, reacting to the swirling rumours. ‘There are a couple of people who insist that the water from their area or through their pipes shouldn’t go anywhere else. They worry that distributing it will hinder their own supply.’
As it happened, that very week, the Ward Office had to step in when two women almost got into a physical confrontation over this very issue. Adhikari and Pradhan were in the field, looking into potential areas where they could disburse the budget. But their plan for extra pipelines quickly faced resistance.
Pradhan recalled the shouting match between locals from two localities – one seeking to using the other’s pipelines to draw water. They decided to put the plan on hold. They were still talking it out amongst concerned groups, trying to make them see reason.
Ever the one to disclose a little more, Pradhan also let on that there was always a whiff of politics where water supply is concerned.
‘What’s an easy way to win supporters?’ he asked. ‘Just tell them certain connections from a certain party helped get water to your taps.’
According to him, you could always expect a few people to raise objections and try to disrupt the Ward Office’s plans to improve water supply. ‘They then simply arrange underground water to be drawn some five metres away from where we had planned to supply water, and spread word about who made it possible.’
It didn’t help that the local water committees in the area didn’t have the best reputation. A middle-aged woman had stormed into Adhikari’s office because of this.
‘I am here on behalf of my locality,’ she announced not only to the Ward Chair but the room as a whole. ‘We are around 60 households and we refuse to contribute to the funds the Ward Office has been asking for the water pipes.’
The Ward Office had been putting out feelers about possibly getting the locals themselves to contribute to the laying of pipes while they waited for more budget to come in. But this woman and her neighbours were at odds with their area’s water committee over an alleged misuse of funds. Consequently, she was against the Ward Office’s idea, even though adding pipelines as planned would be to her area’s benefit.
It is not a stretch to state that every Nepali, at some point, has exasperatedly wondered about the inefficiency of their ward representatives.
Yet Adhikari and Pradhan were busy, working every day. They gave their constituents full access to the office and engaged actively whenever they were informed of problems or suggestions; they had the initial steps down pat. Out on the ground, however, the Ward Office came up against its limitations.
Whether it was higher level ministries or other branch offices halting development works in their area and rendering them helpless, as witnessed in the case of the roads, or their struggling to convince members of the public to pay their share for even small-scale community-related construction, for instance for the water pipes, it was common for orders from the office to be abandoned halfway to the field.
The Ward Office didn’t have the human resources, either, to find alternate solutions. They didn’t have the financial resources to add to their staff. I had the feeling that Adhikari and Pradhan would grumble at impressive length about any of these predicaments if given the chance.
But while elaborating about the system they had to work in, there was one issue in particular that they were really keen for me to understand, right from the beginning.
Pradhan even called me to the counter cubicle once and explained what was happening. Staff members stationed there were struggling with the pre-monsoon heat. They had requested the office to buy two compact desk fans. He waved the Ward Office’s letter pad at me and said, ‘I am about to write a letter to the Municipality now. This is because we, the Ward Office, need them to approve the budget required to purchase these two fans.’
It sounded like a joke and Pradhan too was half laughing. This purchase would’ve cost the office 2,000 rupees at the most. But this was their reality. Whenever Adhikari came across instances where people or committees were urging the Ward Office to take the initiative, he would pointedly clarify to me that he couldn’t make those decisions.
‘In most cases, regardless of how sound or simple the ideas seem, I have to consult with the Municipality first.’
So, for example, when a retired agricultural expert came to the office to meet Adhikari and volunteered his services to help initiate a terrace gardening project in his locality, the Ward Chair approved of the idea. Efficient waste management was an issue and this would help reduce household garbage.
But then the Ward Office was requested to support the project by supplying two dozen bins and pots. All the Ward Chair could do for the moment was note the agricultural expert’s name and contact number with a promise to consider the idea. No definite date was set for another meeting.
Adhikari’s way of summarizing the situation was, ‘We have been made less capable than the Village Development Committees (VDCs) of the past.’ Back in the day, VDCs had authority over a limited budget that could be deployed autonomously in the community . Today, Adhikari sits in his Ward Office envious of that fact.
The current rules require ward offices to appeal to the federal government, through their respective municipality, for many of their expenses. This, despite public offices like his being described as indispensable following the transition to federalism.
I was told then that the hope was for the government to reassess this ‘big error’ in the transitional plan once the provincial offices were on a better footing. But that is taking much longer than expected.
In the meantime, Adhikari and Pradhan were genuinely busy at work. They just didn’t have the results to show for it.
‘Some mornings, I do wonder what I am doing here.’
This conversation with Adhikari came about towards the end of my visits. I had extended my project. But even nearly three months in, the roads were still a mess. Managing water supply was still a mammoth challenge. The office’s tussle with the system continued to limit the power the Ward Office could wield out in the field. Adhikari’s days continued to be consumed by paperwork in the office. His list of goals was still on the back-burner.
I suggested scheduling a follow up after a few weeks. But Adhikari spread his arms wide, gestured around the room and declared, ‘But you have already got your answer. This is more or less what it is like to lead our local government right now.’
He appeared aware that ultimately the two of them were doomed to the fate of their predecessors. Like most local leaders of the past, they were on their way to underachievement.
‘Sometimes your morale drops when your plans aren’t panning out,’ he agreed. ‘My biggest fear right now is that I won’t be able to change or achieve anything in the community and these five years will feel like a waste.’
All this was being said as Pradhan, at the front of the office, was trying to tactfully deal with an elderly man who was trying to flex his reach.
‘The next time party representatives come around asking for votes, this shall be mentioned,’ I heard the man say.
The staff at the front had asked this man to fetch more identification so his paperwork could be completed. But he had dismissed it as a hassle and repeatedly insisted that Pradhan make his staff expedite his case. Even when Pradhan tried to explain that his paperwork was indeed incomplete, he refused to budge: ‘You know me! I have lived here for decades.’
Inside, Adhikari wasn’t particularly bothered. He called it the norm; it was simply one more challenge they faced. Because they were the public’s representatives, many members of the public expected favours to be done for them, in the form of expediting or bypassing process, even for the simplest tasks. The office was keen on upholding the rules, but these situations also had to be handled with tact. Adhikari believed Pradhan to be more than capable of sorting it out.
Indeed, Pradhan soon offered a resolution. ‘Just call somebody at your house,’ he told the elderly man. ‘I will ride down on my bike and fetch the documents myself.’ The matter was dismissed.
The man muttered, ‘I have worked in government institutions as well. Your job is to make our – the public’s – work easier.’ But with Pradhan standing there with his bike keys in hand, there wasn’t much else he could do.
Not that requests for a private word and a favour stopped coming in. Sometimes Pradhan and Adhikari also seemed to oblige. My access to such matters was restricted. They always casually waved it off – just a matter of mediating a dispute, just a matter of writing a recommendation letter, they would say.
But at least on this one instance they didn’t have to trouble themselves. Pradhan walked into the room, pocketing his bike keys, looking rather pleased with himself.
If one wants to look through the kaleidoscope of our state’s issues, a stop by a ward office is necessary. The two men I had observed may be on the lower rungs of our governance hierarchy, but the work they do has the most immediate impact in their communities. Regardless of one’s stance on Adhikari’s and Pradhan’s competence or points of view, they are two of the many political characters shaping the current narrative of our systemic makeover.
It turned out they had plans to continue being part of the storyline.
When asked about their end-of-term plans, both confessed that they were eyeing promotions.
I reminded Pradhan that this wasn’t what he had told me in the beginning. But he brushed aside my remark. ‘My work will be more or less the same, just with a different title. I have decided. Now, I want to be the Ward Chair. It’s all still about providing service to the people. My work will more or less be the same, just with a different title.’ He felt it would be his right to vie for the post after five years at the ward. The Party was unlikely to oppose him either. He was confident he wouldn’t lose the election. ‘I barely had to ask for votes the last time. I am the people’s representative through and through.’
Adhikari, on the other hand, liked the sound of a possible mayoral appointment. He never mentioned the people’s vote while talking about his plans. He did, however, stress the importance of the Ward Office’s performance in the community under his tenure in securing a mayoral nomination. Now it seemed clear that the infrastructure projects he was so keen on were a part of this plan. ‘It’s not the only reason but yes, it does add to the bigger picture,’ he conceded, adding dryly, ‘I am in it now. I have to continue moving forward. I just have to.’
Amid the Transitional Tussle, by Priyanka Gurung, was written as part of the 2018 La.Lit Writer’s Fellowships in Nonfiction: New Ethnographic Writing, which was organized by La.Lit in partnership with the Open Institute. Each year, the fellowship supports aspiring writers to immerse themselves in a field context to capture facets of the societies, cultures, religions and environments we live in.