Dysfunctional system of governanceThe long snake-like traffic jam in Naubise-Nagdhunga aptly depicts the incompetence of the state authorities.
The 30-km long traffic jam in the Naubise-Nagdhunga section of the Tribhuvan Highway that persisted all of last week is the latest example of the systemic dysfunction of the state. It was, thus, a traffic jam in governance—in effect 'designed' by the government agencies themselves, mainly by the Department of Roads in the pretext of road maintenance.
It would be naïve to argue that the agencies involved in public works didn’t know this is the most used gateway to enter and exit the Kathmandu Valley. The traffic flow along that stretch of the road roughly quadruples when Dashain approaches. Therefore, it was their responsibility to complete the required repair and maintenance work before the festival-induced vehicular movement increased. And, even if it had to be carried out at this particular moment, the authorities concerned should have ensured an unhindered flow of traffic by choosing the right working hours. They should also have coordinated better on traffic management.
But this was not to be. Lately, agencies involved in public works have developed a deep-rooted cynicism that substantive obstruction to services must be created so that people would realise these agencies exist and, also, work. The politically connected contractors do not bother to comply with minimal public works norms and, more often than not, the regulatory tooth is blunted due to rampant rent-seeking. Usually, a sense of urgency is created to repair infrastructure during critical junctures, like the festival season. This is primarily to find an avenue to embezzle funds with low quality work, and to compromise the process of public procurement.
On top of everything, as a true testimony to its glaringly manifested apathy to public misery, the government's disregard was at its height. Paradoxical enough, the timing of the said traffic jam coincided with Prime Minister KP Oli's performance review of the federal ministries and his 'stern' instructions to the ministers and secretaries en masse to duly adhere to the performance contract they signed with their immediate higher authority. His instructions suggest that the prime minister himself seems frustrated regarding the dismal performance of his politically powerful government.
The government’s modus operandi, of relying on 'instructions' and 'contracts', has instead worsened overall governance and public service delivery, rather than improve them. The performance contract, for example, between the prime minister and his ministers, the ministers with their respective secretaries, and so on, theoretically, cascades to a lower level office clerk. The practice has effectively created a culture where authorities like to give instructions and shirk away from responsibilities. These so-called performance contracts not only lack legal accountability but in essence are an unconstitutional imposition on top of legally defined processes, duties and responsibilities of public officials.
The government’s actions have made the entire practice a big mockery in itself. The bureaucrats, including the secretaries and joint secretaries, who enter into a year-long performance contract are often indiscriminately transferred within months of signing. Moreover, the bureaucracy perceives the practice not as a binding obligation, but as an unnecessary and hollow ritual imposed by the political leadership which they cannot resist. The cumulative outcome of the entire practice has been worsened governance.
The fiasco of the performance contract and the government's inability to deliver are caused by more fundamental problems. Lack of vision, failure on task identification and the absence of set objectives are critical lacunae that span across all four significant spectrums of problems in government operation—the economy, service delivery, governance and the institutionalisation of the federal system.
The alarmingly negative trends in all three critical aspects of the economy—productivity, employment generation and macroeconomic stability—have already become irreversible in the absence of bold and dramatic interventions. Except for a few billion rupees worth handicrafts and cement, Nepal has ceased to produce anything that can either substitute import or promote export. Even in exports, like silver jewellery, value addition is minimal. The widening trade deficit has drained our entire foreign exchange earnings. Even as 600,000 working-age Nepalis enter the labour market every year, job creation has been negligible. Trade, the balance of payments and current account deficits, and the dwindling foreign exchange reserve, all threaten macroeconomic stability. Unfortunately, the government has failed to present any vision or plan to address these excruciating problems.
The reforms in Nepal's service delivery sector, mainly in education, health and transport facilities, are long overdue. A large mandate and the promulgation of the federal Constitution had provided a unique opportunity for the government to reorganise in a result-oriented way. But it has miserably bungled this, leaving academic governance in both schools and universities in complete chaos. The government's intention to make the entire educational sector hostage to political mercy is evident in the bills that are making the rounds in the federal Parliament. The government's recent failure to contain the dengue fever epidemic in the capital and other major cities is just one example pointing to the public health system being paralysed. The hardships faced by the public to get bus tickets to go to their hometowns for Dashain represent the real plight of Nepal's public transportation.
The cliché 'corruption is rampant' has become so trite that it now barely turns any heads; but it has taken a toll on the economy. It has repelled foreign investment and caused incessant and massive capital flight. The creation of a new entity in hydropower project licensing serves as the latest example of institutionalised corruption.
Coming to the practise of federalism, the chief ministers’ repeated venting of how the federal government has a 'centralist' mindset is enough to predict the polity's ultimate fate. The problem of public procurement continues to mar project implementation at all local levels. Interestingly, the prime minister’s instructions very cunningly leave the issues surrounding the implementation of federalism out of the conversation.
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