Nationalism has overshadowed governanceA clear disconnect between Nepal’s immediate priorities and the national budget has been exposed.
A form of pseudo-nationalism—not to be mistaken with patriotism—continues to be the central dogma that drives Prime Minister KP Oli and the Nepal Communist Party government led by him. With regard to containing the spread of novel coronavirus pandemic, the term 'failure' doesn't adequately capture the government's persistent inaction and indecision.
After an eighty day-long lockdown, one of the longest in the world, the government still lacks any convincing plan to ease restrictions. It miserably failed to make the best use of the lockdown period to consolidate health facilities and supplies to effectively combat the Covid-19. On the contrary, as the transmission rate has begun to rise exponentially, public health authorities, like in the worst hit Sudurpashchim, have officially announced a halt to testing measures, forget providing treatment to the infected. The contact tracing of proven infections has now been completely abandoned.
The frontline institutions and professionals working for Covid-19 containment are left guessing when the next tranche of testing kits and other related supplies will be available to them. The government's apathy to the plight of hundreds of thousands of inbound Nepali migrants forced to languish in poorly managed quarantine and isolation centres have only added to the consternation of the masses. Apart from the pandemic-induced mayhem, the government has failed to deliver even suboptimal outcomes in critical national spheres like the economy, governance and diplomacy.
Betrayed by the budget
The government presented the budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 in a joint session of federal parliament on May 28. But it appeared to be so unimaginative that it failed to even recognise the fact that the country is suffering greatly due to the effects of the pandemic. The budget was expected, at the least, to instantly address the financial resource gap constricting Covid-19 containment measures, provide living support to the most vulnerable sections (such as daily wage earners) and announce a stimulus package to enable closed businesses to restart their operations. But a clear disconnect between these immediate priorities and the national budget was exposed. An obvious oversight, for example, has been that government agencies at all three levels—federal, provincial and local—have run out of resources to procure the necessary testing kits and equipment.
Local governments in particular are unable to manage transportation facilities for people willing to come back home, construct adequate quarantine and isolation facilities and manage relief measures aimed at the helpless population. It seems that the intention here is to force the nation to wait until the new fiscal begins on July 16 before releasing substantial funds; the five interim weeks are poised to be the most precarious.
At the same time, in sharp contrast to the principles of an ethical economy, the new budget increased the customs tariffs on the import of electric vehicles but reduced the same on luxury items like, for instance, chocolates, in complete disregard to the suffering of people. This certainly has raised apprehensions about massive and high-level policy corruption.
The structural failure to deliver is evident in many aspects. But, from the immediacy point of view, such failure in two critical areas is far more pronounced than others. For one, the government has ignored the importance of keeping the domestic agricultural supply chain intact. The stories from Rupandehi to Rolpa and Jhapa to Jumla are similar. Local vegetables and dairy and poultry products are unable to get market access. The products worth millions of rupees that actually reached the market despite hurdles have been wasted in the presence of government agencies. This, even as the country is still heavily dependent on imports even during the lockdown.
The federal government is also taking decisions unilaterally, consulting neither the subnational governments nor other stakeholders, like the private sector and experts, who are instrumental in implementing many decisions on service provision. In addition to their capacity constraints, local governments are reluctant to execute the 'orders' handed down by the central government.
On the modality of ending the lockdown, the government seems lost. There is no alternative to opening up sooner rather than later. Yet, the government's preparation on ensuring health safety, security and support mechanisms do not seem to be in place. Instead of acting accountably, its intent to blame the ones advocating for an early ending of the lockdown for the potential wider spread of the virus is imminent. This indeed is not a desirable solution.
Unlike the incessant rants of the Indian media that accuse the Oli government of functioning hand in glove with China, Nepal's diplomatic relations with both India and China are perhaps at the lowest point they have been in decades. No doubt, India bullied Nepal by constructing and recently inaugurating a road in disputed territory in the western borders of Nepal. It has also ignored repeated requests since 2014 for a meeting at the foreign secretary-level to resolve the issue. Most adjoining countries have some outstanding border issues, but that does not completely hinder other diplomatic engagements. But the way Nepal and India are gradually diverging only signals ever-deteriorating relations, no party can escape from its share of the blame for this downward spiral.
On the China front, despite several announcements proclaiming Nepal's improved relations with China, the ground realities only point in the opposite direction. The Tatopani customs point has not been fully operational since it was closed after the 2015 earthquakes. About 200 truckloads of goods, including medical supplies, are stranded at Kerung, the other entry point from Tibet to Nepal. The port and transit facilities provided by China, for all practical purposes, exist only in paper. So much so, while China supported more than 150 countries with Covid-19 related emergency medical supplies, Nepal’s labs are still forced to close for lack of testing kits and medical professionals are infected for lack of adequate personal protection equipment (PPE). Nepal is at loggerheads with the US on the issue of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact. All these are proof of Nepal's failed diplomacy.
Ironically, Prime Minister Oli's double-edged sword of nationalism and demagogy has been so successful that he has not only dumbfounded detractors in his own ruling party but his charisma to enforce ‘tragic brilliance’ has forced all opposition parties, including the main opposition Nepali Congress, to surrender to his political machinations. This surrender, without bargaining even for a course correction, only gives Oli a much needed upper hand and, in due course, weakens the foundations of democracy.
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