Mind your own businessNepali politicians have managed to constantly block long-term socio-economic development of the country
Raising the living standard of the people and being responsive to their needs is one of the cardinal objectives of the government, irrespective of the ideology of the party in power. But this objective has simply become a rhetorical statement of every successive government in Nepal. The Nepali people have been governed under a totalitarian Rana regime (1846-1951), absolute monarchy (1742-1846 and 1951-1959), multiparty parliamentary democracy (1959-1962), partyless Panchayat system (1962-1990), constitutional monarchy (1991-2008) and, since 2008, a multiparty parliamentary democratic system. Moreover, in 2008, Nepal was declared a republic. The socio-economic development of Nepal throughout these periods progressed at a snail’s pace largely because of continuous political instability. It is time to stop failed political experiments and start focusing on economic development.
After having been liberated from the Rana regime in February 1951, the first act of the government was to establish the Public Service Commission in June the same year. This was followed by expanded diplomatic ties with a number of countries beyond the US and the UK in the West and beyond India in the East. Thus began the flow of international assistance for Nepal’s socio-economic development. Between 1950 and 1990, there were hints of development activities across all sectors, but nowhere near what was achieved by countries with similar economies that started their development effort about the same time.
In 1955, the government set up the National Planning Commission which produced a series of five-year national development plans. The first such plan (1956-1960) emphasised building roads and expanding agriculture through irrigation, especially in the Tarai region. Investment in industry was given prominence with the formation of National Industrial Development Corporation in 1959 and the establishment of the first industrial complex in Balaju. During the second plan, the country was divided into 14 zones and 75 districts, up from 35 districts of the Rana period. Likewise, a radio communication network and the east-west highway were established. A ropeway built in 1924 for transporting goods between Hetauda and Kathmandu was upgraded in 1964. Other important developments include expansion of the postal system to all 75 districts and expansion of the telephone network through microwave technology. Hydropower generation increased from 1.1 MW in 1951 to just under 600 MW in 2011. With the advent of satellite networks, Radio Nepal and Nepal Television now reach the entire subcontinent.
After the advent of constitutional monarchy in 1990, there were several five-year plans emphasising manufacturing (1997-2002), increasing employment and alleviating poverty (2002-2007) and introducing a new industrial infrastructure development policy (2010-2013). But all of them seemed to lack continuity between the plan periods, required resources and exhibited design flaws. One important feat was the control of malaria in the Tarai plains. This was followed by large-scale deforestation creating land for farming. Between 1960 and 1980, more than two million people from the hills were resettled in the Tarai under a government sponsored resettlement programme. During the same period, hordes of migrants from all over Nepal also entered Kathmandu to take advantage of the capital-centric development. There were overall declines in infant and child mortality (an indirect indicator of wellbeing), improvement in literacy and limited expansion of public health care despite appalling water and sanitation conditions.
The ethnic heterogeneity of the Nepali population is supposed to be an asset (unity in diversity) but it has become a liability because of its politicisation by leaders for their own interest. Bringing equity and equality to such a diverse population under a politicised environment will remain a difficult challenge, irrespective of the ideology. This is compounded by the lack of natural resources (other than the much talked about hydropower potential) and difficult terrain. But the most serious hindrance lies in the continued lack of political unity among the various political parties. This threatens important aspects of Nepali society—economy, as well as national and individual security. Nepal with a population of some 27 million has at least 84 political parties, demonstrating how fragmented its politics has become. The political parties are expected to serve the entire nation, but in reality all of them are based on specific interest groups and tend to focus their agenda on limited population groups. This is a formula for disaster and fragmentation of the country.
Political nepotism and sycophancy, which have their roots in the Rana regime, continue to flourish uninterrupted. They have not allowed the system to engage well educated and well meaning citizens without political affiliation to contribute to the development effort. The routine elections being held since 1990 no longer have significance as we are electing and re-electing the same old people who have proved irresponsive to Nepal’s development and governance needs. Leaders of all the political parties have managed to constantly block long-term socio-economic and political reforms in favour of short-term populist and economic interests of a few. Everybody continues to hope for a better future, but hope alone cannot and will never usher in a better policy. Nepal has a leadership crisis, not a knowledge crisis, as there are hundreds of thousands of capable Nepali who are devoid of opportunities.
What can be done
There are many ongoing development activities initiated under various development plans. Some need course correction or realignment while others may need a new initiative or strategy. However, nothing will succeed if there is a weak infrastructure and non-functional leadership. The national development plans must be freed from the shackles of political interference. Presently, every decision taken on the budget and human resources deployment and even signed proposals are subject to change with a change in the administration. This has to stop so that development can progress unhindered while politicians continue to sort out their differences. If all the politicians are committed to the country’s development, as they repeat publicly in their speeches, it should be possible for all the parties to pledge not to interfere in development. Let the development endeavour be non-partisan!
Shrestha was Unicef representative in Myanmar, Yemen and Ghana and coordinator for the Oil-for-Food Programme for Iraq