Image: Massive Demonstration in 2019 of the Indigenous 'Guthi' people in Nepal against a Bill. Source: 'Setopati', Nepal's Digital Newspaper. - Photo: 2023

Traditional Institutions as Springboards for Forms of Co-Governance

By Saisha Shrestha and Simone Galimberti

KATHMANDU, 12 March 2023 (IDN) — Guthi, an ancient social institution of the Newari community in Nepal, if made more inclusive, could herald new ways of people-centred decision-making.

Can traditional forms of community decision-making herald a new way of decision-making and therefore pave the way for a different form of governance?

Considering the ongoing backsliding of democratic trends around the world, recently confirmed by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute’s 2023 Democracy Report, autocracies and totalitarian regimes are gaining more and more traction.

If one thing is now crystal clear is that democracy will always require a consistent effort and commitment to uphold its values and principles that are the pillars of the same democratic institutions that grant people the rights to freedoms of expression and assembly and the voice used to express their preference through the ballot box.

Equally important is the acknowledgement that no one could take for granted the dynamics underpinning such processes, including the cracks on a system, liberal democracy, that is now visible in many “free” societies.

In short, we know that democracies cannot go on an “auto pilot” but it is a consistent work in progress, an ongoing process of self-improvement.

But it has also become self-evident that casting a vote is no more a sufficient requisite to ensure that a democracy works and electoral representation, the cornerstone of liberal democracy, is in needs of an overhaul.

Can a more direct involvement and engagement of the people provide new breath and room to enhance the foundations of liberal democratic systems around the world?

Answering this question is the task of many practitioners and academicians engaged in promoting deliberative democracy that, essentially, gives the citizens opportunities to make decisions by listening each other and discuss, through deliberation.

It is an approach that while still being experimented, it is slowly being taken closer to the mainstream political system as it can complements and strengthens and perhaps even, one day, could replace the current model of elective representation, especially at local level.

Yet such pilots can risk to be considered as “artificially” create civic engagement from the top rather than being enablers of a more spontaneous, truly bottom up and grassroots level democratic process.

Traditional societies, especially in the South of the World, could provide instead a template from which genuine deliberative practices can harness true engagement and decision-making.

In Nepal, for example, there is a vast tradition of community-based decision-making among many local ethnic groups and some could offer interesting insights into the ancient traditions of local, community-level deliberations.

Among them there is a unique case that has been preserved and protected for generations by the Newar community, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley.

Guthis, in particular, are such an example of such tradition, a model that has high potential to bring members of the Newari communities closer to a type of decision-making process that could go well beyond the traditional purviews of these institutions, mostly cantered on the organization of religious festivals, ceremony

Guthi is a community-based mutual aid group predominantly found in the Newari society. There are various types of Guthi differentiated by their purpose (social, religious, economic), clan lineage and ownership (state/public, community/semi private or close kinship/private).

Traditionally, Guthi has been the means, or the carrier of traditional art and culture. It is, thanks to Guthi that the tangible and intangible heritages of Kathmandu have withstood the changing of times.

Guthi’s case is so unique that was even identified by the United Nations Volunteers, together with forms of civic engagement upheld by Tharu communities, as a best practice for the latest edition of the State of The World Volunteerism Report that was published in 2022.

Along with the continuation of culture, Guthi as an institution, interestingly, has also been concerned with areas such as resource management, environmental conservation, and empowered by mutual aid, a specific form of volunteerism expressed through reciprocity that is instrumental for revamping civic engagement on the ground.

Indeed, festivals and rituals of the Newari people are not solely based on traditional values that are so central in process of cultural preservation but have also very practical objectives for the common good of its members.

To illustrate this, Sithi Nakha would be a prime example. Marking the start of monsoon, during this festival, people assemble to clean water sources in addition to roads and pavements.

Simply put it, this tradition is a Newari version of the World Environment Day. It is quite fascinating to note that volunteerism and cooperation have been at the core Newari culture and ingrained in their daily lives, something that is changing due to different phenomena including urbanization, consumerism and self-centric use of social media.

So, through the ancestral practices embedded in Guthi not only cultural traditions are kept alive but also elements such as social cohesion, solidarity and community development are strengthened and expanded.

During funerals, for example, Guthi’s members financially support the family of the deceased member. The Guthi collects money annually and uses that fund for the cremation ritual and process. It is worthy observing that the functions of Guthi have expanded in response to the needs of the community.

Fortunately, the institution proved some resilience during the recent pandemic and some instances of action during COVID crisis are a testament to this. A Guthi located in Chysal, constructed a temporary isolation centre when the hospitals were overcrowded during the peak hours of COVID.

Furthermore, the local government had also worked closely and collaboratively with the Guthi in organizing festivals ascertaining precautionary and safety protocols set by WHO and the Health Ministry.

As such, in recent years, the Guthi system has been more and more informally recognized as partner by local governments. There have been examples of co-funding government-initiated projects where several Guthi have been contributing 10 to 20% of the expenses while the municipality in question bearing the remaining costs.

In such context it’s important to further explore the potential of Guthi as a key partner of elected governments to ensure effective service delivery and an indispensable stakeholder for good governance.

Yet any socio- anthropological investigation of Guthi’s as key stakeholder in the functioning of local administrations, could go even further and analyze the idea of this institution becoming itself a tool of co-governance based on deliberation, already an important trait of decision process internal to Guthi.

After all, these institutions have already proved that local people have the capacity to create and participate in deliberative governance mechanisms and the most promising thing is that some local governments have started recognizing this enhanced governance’s potential of Guthi.

For example, Lalitpur Metropolitan City has allocated a budget for the Guthi to preserve their temples and musical traditions. The Mayor there has also been pushing the idea to revive Guthis which have been inactive for the past years.

With what could truly turn into a new form of social contract at grassroots levels, this arrangement can lead to the emergence of innovative forms of partnership between local government and people to solve local problems.

However, the system of Guthi requires some radical reformations. As Guthi is rooted in patriarchy, the membership is inherited by the eldest son. The involvement of women in Guthi is very subdued.

Another major challenge is posed to be that Guthi membership is also clan specific and hierarchical. This lack of inclusion creates a very narrow spectrum of development, if continued.

If space is created for young members of families involved in Guthi emerge, such youths could start asserting their roles and assume leadership positions and consequentially these institutions could radically become more inclusive and open.

While it might take time to find ways to welcome also non Newari members of the communities, a diversity of thinking and perspective can enrich the institution itself.  Moreover, it is important to note that such opening would not dilute the traditional and cultural functions of Guthi.

They will always remain the anchors for promoting and defending an ancient civilization that played an extraordinary role not only in what became Nepal but also in forging relationships between peoples especially north of the border. In practical terms, the institution could assume a dual role.

On the one hand, it would be specifically focused on continuing strengthening Newari heritage and living culture where women and also members of Newari communities with less status and recognition can fully participate. 

On the other hand, Guthi can open up to other citizens from non-Newari backgrounds and become the foundation of deliberative forums that are fully recognized and acknowledge by the local governments not only for consultative purposes but, ideally, also for real decision-making powers.

Academicians from Kathmandu University that have been already involved in leading the research for the UNV report could continue and expand their work possibly by engaging interested youths from the Newari community and why not, also other youths of this country.

Elements for a unique form of co-governance and deliberation could emerge as a result of such investigation. In jargon development officers might call it localizing the SDGs but practitioners and academicians of deliberative democracy will see the other side of the coin.

Guthi could indeed offer a way of innovating democracy practices by expanding ancient traditions and proves that a real, problem solving new social compact is possibly from the bottom.

*Saisha Shrestha is an architecture student and the co-founder of Sahayatri; Simone Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE and of the Good Leadership, Good for You & Good for the Society.

The opinions expressed in this article are personal. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: Massive Demonstration in 2019 of the Indigenous ‘Guthi’ people in Nepal against a Bill. Source: ‘Setopati’, Nepal’s Digital Newspaper.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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