Hope against hopeNepal’s dream of development may materialise if major parties agree on national goals and priorities
Nepal’s story of development can be divided into three phases: the Rana period, the Panchayat period and the post-Panchayat period. In the early years after the country’s unification, efforts were focused on the security and stability of the new state. Socio-economic development of the country was neither conceived nor practiced. Nepal remained relatively isolated from the rest of the world. It was an agrarian country pursuing traditional modes of farming. The government provided security and raised land revenue from the people.
The Rana period
During the Rana period, which ran from 1846 to 1951, people’s role was conspicuous by its sheer absence. Among the Rana rulers, Chandra Shamsher had some crude vision of development and social reform. In the social sector, he pioneered the emancipation of the age-old system of slavery. In the education sector, he authorised school education under strict control by the government and established the first ever college, Tri-Chandra College, in the country. He also pioneered hydro-electricity, although at a small scale, and started an irrigation project by the name of Chandra Nahar (canal). His successors, however, turned out to be visionless. The people’s movement of 1950-51 brought the Rana rule to an end.
The period after 1951 until 1960 was spent on political experimentation on a marriage between the monarchy and democracy, and it was characterised by political instability. The concept of national development planning was introduced during this period, which triggered the cycle of three-year and five-year plans. The Tribhuvan Village Development Programme with Indian and US assistance laid the foundation of development in Nepal.
But the brief experiment with democracy with the Nepali Congress elected to power was not tolerated by king Mahendra, who eventually dismantled the democratic model and introduced an indigenous model called the Panchayat. The NC’s plan of land reform and other forms of development did not get a chance to be implemented.
The Panchayat period
The first aspect of this period was the consolidation of royal power. The king retained supreme power until the system came to an end in 1990. Political parties were completely banned, but people’s participation was encouraged in various other forms like the Panchayat, class organisations, and the like. People’s institutions called the Panchayat were given power to foster local development. External bilateral and multilateral technical and material assistance was utilised to introduce several forms of development. The earlier Tribhuvan Village Development Programme was transformed in the form of Panchayat Development Programme. Local Panchayats were made the vehicle of local development while the National Panchayat was made the national legislature.
The salient feature of the Panchayat was its emphasis on people’s participation without political parties. The basic Acts that established the local bodies empowered them to raise revenue by imposing different forms of taxes. This empowerment was further strengthened by the Decentralization Act. There was an elaborate programme for implementation of the decentralisation programme. One special feature was the establishment of service centres within the district to facilitate delivery of essential services. Nepal’s decentralisation plan was considered exemplary in the South Asia region.
Development was classified as central and local. While the central development programme remained the responsibility of the central governmental departments, local development was conducted by the local bodies (Village/Town Panchayat and District Panchayat), with the assistance of administrative and technical personnel deputed by the central government. Thus, development was conceived as a joint responsibility of the government and the people’s local representatives. This marriage resulted in the rapid development of basic physical infrastructures, especially roads.
Nepal also saw some big hydro-electric projects in a relatively short period. Some industrial enterprises were also carried in the public sector. Fifteen rice exporting companies were established in the Tarai region which checked the trade imbalance. There was relative political stability, with the exception of students’ agitation resulting in the referendum in 1980. With the referendum going in favour of the Panchayat, there was stability till 1990. During this period, development was given top priority. However, the simmering political discontent led to a massive popular movement against the Panchayat and the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990.
The post-Panchayat period
The restoration of democracy was the best opportunity to bring all-round prosperity in the country by adopting progressive development planning. Unfortunately, it has been squandered by never-ending political instability. It started by dismantling all the institutions that carried the Panchayat label. The bureaucracy has been rendered powerless by the politicisation in the civil service. A strong bureaucracy sustains the state when there is political instability. But with the civil service divided along party lines, it has been rendered a mere spectator to the
political drama prevailing in the country. The 1990 constitution that had laid a strong foundation for a parliamentary democratic model could not check the ambitions of party leaders.
A decade-long insurgency waged by the Maoists added fuel to the fire and the parliamentary model was abandoned. The last phase of political uncertainty has resulted in the failure of one Constituent Assembly (CA) to create a new constitution and the second CA has produced an incomplete constitution, which has been formally enforced but remains in limbo due to the discontent of the Madhes-based and some ethnic parties. This has resulted in political unrest, which represents the present political condition of Nepal. The foundation of the nation has been shaken by the limitless ambition of visionless ‘leaders’ to grab power. Every political norm has been broken. Who gives a damn about development?
Development is shaped by a long-range vision created by a commitment to an ideological goal and a rational analysis of the available resources as a means to achieve that goal. This is partly carried out by a planning machinery, which works under the top decision-makers. But the Nepali Planning Commission is a victim of political destabilisation and cannot act independently. It changes with every change in government. The ministries and departments cannot function independently. Elected local bodies have been absent for almost two decades. The proposed states as units of the federal structures have not even been named. Furthermore, there is no united effort to complete and implement the new constitution. It looks as if the whole edifice is going to crumble under the weight of unseen forces. Thus, the prospect of development is very grim to say the least.
The whole world is ready to help Nepal in the process of development. What we lack is a national will and committed leaders. Our leaders are the finest example of hypocrisy: they speak loudly that they stand for national prosperity, which requires national unity, but they are the smartest actors in creating national disunity.
There is a need to reverse the damage done so far. This may sound like an unattainable dream. But something can be started. National goals and priorities can be set. If the major parties only agreed to not disagree on these goals and remain sincere, there may be some hope for development. Let me not be hoping against hope.
Sharma is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org