Shyam Shrestha: The government has acted at the behest of the private sectorThe left-leaning thinker on how new education policy is failing the constitution’s commitment to socialism.
Government-backed healthcare and education system forms the basis of any socialist society. The aim is to help provide basic needs and help all citizens have an equal chance at succeeding. Nepal’s constitution was promulgated four years ago, and it expresses commitment to creating bases of socialism. However, the recently endorsed education policy doesn’t talk about broadening the state's responsibility in the education sector. The Post’s Binod Ghimire spoke to Shyam Shrestha, a member of High-Level National Education Commission who also follows left politics closely, about the new education policy, the state of constitution implementation and the course the incumbent government is taking
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
The government introduced education policy last week. What are your thoughts on this as a member of the commission?
The high-level panel was formed to recommend the government on the steps it needs to take in terms of reforming Nepal’s education sector. The education policy and the upcoming education laws are supposed to be an extension of those suggestions. But the endorsed plan largely ignored our recommendations. We had suggested increasing the spending on education to over 25 percent of the national budget, or six percent of GDP. Similarly, the suggestion also included a provision that makes it mandatory for people drawing benefits from the state to enrol their children in public schools, transforming the profit-making private schools into service-oriented ones, and converting them into trusts within a decade.
Making entire school education free and compulsory by 2030 and ending the practice of prime minister being the chancellor of universities, too, were our recommendations. However, except for our proposal to promote technical education, ensuring subject teachers and school infrastructure development, nothing has been incorporated in the education policy. The statute clearly says the country will take the course of socialism, but doing so won’t be possible unless the state takes the responsibility of education and health. Regrettably, the incumbent Communist government is not interested in taking that course.
So then why didn’t the government abide by the commission’s suggestion?
The government has acted at the behest of the private sector. Our suggestions were targeted at improving public education and control commercialisation in the education sector, which was against the interest of private educators. They didn’t want our recommendations to be implemented, and they have succeeded in doing so. This policy is nothing but an outcome of a mindset that ceases to challenge the status quo mindset and is clearly aimed at serving the interest of private school owners.
The share of private schools in the western capitalist countries is less than 10 percent. We call ourselves a socialism-oriented country, but here private schools already make up for over 20 percent of all schools. Isn't that ironic?
It is. Let me tell you, even the private schools in those countries aren’t profit-oriented. The ruling party committed a majority of our recommendations through its election manifesto. We recommended the government to at least come to be level of capitalist countries, if not be more progressive than them when it comes to providing education. No country has ever progressed without prioritising education. It does not matter whether the country is capitalist or socialist; it has been established that education and healthcare come under the state’s responsibility. Finland, Norway, South Korea, Japan or Singapore, for instance, are not socialist countries, but education is their priority. Rwanda, which was devastated by the civil war, is witnessing an unparalleled development because it spends over 17 percent of its national budget in the education sector. I am saddened to see the education sector get a paltry 10.68 percent of budget share in the current fiscal year, especially at a time when a communist government is ruling the country.
Leaving education aside, how do you assess the status of constitution implementation?
It is pessimistic. The Acts on fundamental rights are in place because it was a constitutional obligation, but there are no regulations. The rights ensured by the constitution has been curbed while drafting the Acts, and they might be further stifled when regulations are enforced. The federal government doesn’t seem to be interested in empowering the local and provincial governments. The constitution bestows the local government with every autonomy when it comes to regulating school education. Still, the centre, often owing to its reluctance to devolve power, creates hurdles in teachers' appointments and directs education-related laws not to be formulated.
The budget allocation is unjustifiable. The local and provincial governments hardly get 30 percent of the total national budget while the centre has kept 70 percent with it. How can the federal government that only has three authorities—diplomacy, defence, and monetary policy—justify its action to keep a large chunk of the national budget with it? The allocation should have, in fact, been the other way round.
Parties touted taking Singha Durbar to people's doorsteps during the election. Still, once they assumed power, their way of action is no different than the way a government would have acted in a centralised system of governance.
The scenario of resource distribution is no different. There is an acute shortage of human resources at the local and provincial level despite the authorities being halfway through their tenure. The inclusive commissions are considered as progressive measures adopted by the constitution, but they lack the needed staff. The main achievement of constitution implementation is holding the election of the three tiers of government successfully. The government's actions reflect its unwillingness to abide by the spirit of the constitution.
People had high expectations from the incumbent government, but they are increasingly falling short of it. What are your thoughts on the current government and its actions?
I won't say it hasn’t done anything. I see some satisfactory performance in diplomacy. The relation with our friendly nations, including the two neighbours, has bettered. The Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Labour are doing some commendable work. Yet, there is much to be desired. The government had announced grand plans of progressive land reforms and of making Nepal self-dependent on agricultural products within two years. But it has failed miserably in this respect. Its announcement to increase irrigation facilities hasn’t materialised, either.
The dominance of the middleman is growing while farmers and consumers continue to be cheated. The government’s announcement to end the syndicate remains unfulfilled. There aren't any visible results in increasing industries and employment generation. Sure, there are talks about building railways and Nepal operating its ship. These are necessary, but the government’s priority should be to bring some visible changes in the daily lives of the general public. The citizenry will never believe such announcements of implementing a water transport network or running trains unless the authorities concerned fill the potholes in the streets, control pollution or ensure a regular water supply. The government never fails to boast its two-thirds majority, but what it says is merely political rhetoric.
Decisions taken by the current government, such as the introduction of an amendment to the Guthi Act, have been dragged into controversies. Has the government missed its priority?
I haven’t yet figured out the government’s priority. It seems to be working in an ad hoc basis. It seems the prime minister himself isn’t clear on what he wants. There should be no problem for a government that has a thumping majority in Parliament to implement what it wants. If it doesn't correct its ways of functioning, the Oli-led government could very well be the most unpopular government.
You carefully follow the left politics. What’s with the ongoing ‘rift’ within the Nepal Communist Party?
The merger of then CPN-UML and then CPN (Maoist Centre) was not organic. It was arithmetic and not ideological. But ideology is fundamental in politics. The NCP would have been stronger and functioned smoothly had the alliance been based on ideology united by a common goal to change the face of the country. However, KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s merger bid was based on political calculation. Therefore, there seems to be no problem in the party when the two factions, then UML and Maoist, are on the same page in power-sharing, the day Maoist doesn’t get what it was promised, Dahal starting Oli.
Both Oli and Dahal merely keep their words. Dahal left Oli to support Nepali Congress to form government in 2016 after Oli denied him prime ministerial berth. I won't be surprised if Dahal breaks away if he doesn’t get what was promised during the merger. The future of the party depends on how well the power-sharing is maintained within the party.
There are speculations that Oli will continue as the prime minister, and Dahal will be given the command of the party. How likely is that?
The deal was Oli and Dahal would lead the party and government alternatively. Observing Dahal, I can say that he has a preference for being the numero uno. Though he is co-chair of the party, Oli often overshadows him. Dahal's public remarks reflect his frustration over being treated as a second man. I feel Dahal won't feel at ease being in his current position for long. Oli has to sacrifice either his prime ministership or party chairmanship if he wants to keep the newly formed Nepal Communist Party intact. But in my opinion, Oli would be ready to hand over the party’s responsibility to Dahal as a last resort.