Budget plans low-cost meals, monetary aid for the poor, but experts smell electoral motivesGovernment has yet to identify the prospective beneficiaries.
Last week, while presenting the budget for fiscal year 2021-2022, Finance Minister Janardan Sharma announced that the government would provide low-cost meals to the urban poor from 10 different places in the Kathmandu Valley in association with social organisations. The government also announced that it will provide a one-time payment of Rs10,000 each to 500,000 poor households across the country, based on certain criteria including the impact of the pandemic on them. But the government has yet to identify the prospective beneficiaries.
Both the announcements look like the government’s philanthropic initiatives, aimed at helping the poor. However, such programmes seem to have been inserted in a haste without proper planning.
The plan to feed the poor comes as a reminder of how some groups had voluntarily come forward to run free meal programmes when the pandemic hit the country early last year, following which there was a four-month lockdown. No such programmes were launched by the government during the lockdown.
Some organisations had continued their free meal programmes for the poor when the second Covid-19 wave hit the country in April and the country went under another lockdown. However, with the decline in cases, almost everything has reopened now and the free meal programmes have stopped.
Former finance secretary Rameshore Khanal says the low-cost meal programme seems to have been inserted without any plan.
“Such an announcement would have made sense if the Covid-19 prohibitory orders were in place,” Khanal told the Post. “Anyway, such programmes are needed in times of crisis, when people lose their jobs due to some kind of crisis, like the pandemic.”
According to Khanal, such programmes, if run for a long period of time, can make people dependent on the government.
The government has yet to make it clear where it wants to set up such low-cost food stations. Also, there is no clarity on who all would benefit from the schemes.
“The previous government had also made a similar announcement for the urban poor, but it never got implemented. I won’t believe this government’s announcement will work unless there is a proper work plan,” said Khanal.
Governments in Nepal have a history of making populist announcements, mostly guided by the intention to win votes rather than serve the public, the poor in particular.
Finance Minister Sharma of the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led coalition government on Friday actually presented a replacement bill for the budget ordinance issued by the erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government. Sharma has slashed the budget slightly to Rs1.63 trillion and removed some of the programmes introduced by the erstwhile government.
The budget introduced by the Oli government was largely criticised for being distributive aiming at elections. When then finance minister Bishnu Poudel presented the budget on May 29, the House had been dissolved and the government had declared elections for November.
But the Supreme Court not only restored the House, it also defenestrated Oli and installed Deuba as prime minister.
Deuba is currently backed by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre),
the CPN (Unified Socialist), the Janata Samajbadi Party and the Rastriya Janamorcha. Sharma, the finance minister, is a Maoist Centre leader.
If the current dynamics does not change, the incumbent government will oversee the local elections, which are due in seven months, and the general elections next year.
Many say it is not difficult to understand that the low-cost meal and cash distribution schemes have been inserted with the elections on mind.
Khanal said the government does not actually know how it is going to implement the plan.
The government’s yet another programme of distributing Rs10,000 to at least 500,000 poor households also lacks clarity. The government has yet to identify who the poor people are. There is also no clarity on whether these beneficiaries are the poor identified earlier by the government or those who have been hit by the pandemic.
Though the Nepal government started distributing poverty identity cards about a decade ago, the distribution has been slow-paced.
According to the report titled ‘Nepal: Multidimensional Poverty Index 2021’ released last month by the National Planning Commission, some 18 million people in Nepal–63.5 percent—faced vulnerability of deprivation in at least one of 10 areas determining the status of multidimensional poverty.
Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) is measured based on deprivation across three sectors and 10 sub-sectors—health (child mortality, nutrition), education (years of schooling, enrollment), and living standards (water, sanitation, electricity, cooking fuel, floor, assets).
But people are facing deprivation particularly in the areas of nutrition, water, and cooking fuel due to the pandemic, according to the report.
The report has, however, not reported the impact of Covid-19 on multidimensional poverty in Nepal as it is based on the data collected under the Nepal Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey-2019, before the pandemic.
As per the report, Nepal reduced multidimensional poverty drastically to 17.4 percent in 2019 from 30.1 percent in 2014. Based on a similar survey conducted in 2014, the commission had produced the country’s first Multidimensional Poverty Index Report in 2018. This progress is now in doubt with the pandemic creating further deprivation for the poor, according to the report.
According to the World Bank, with roughly a third of the population living close to the poverty line before the pandemic, widespread jobs and earning losses are likely to have increased poverty, particularly among women, younger age cohorts, and workers in non-agricultural sectors.
“A recent World Bank Covid-19 monitoring survey suggests that the pandemic-related economic slowdown had a major impact on jobs and incomes, with more than 2 in 5 economically active workers reporting a job loss or prolonged work absence in 2020,” said the World Bank review updated on March 31 this year.
Social activists and political economists say successive governments in Nepal have never paid attention to the poor and have barely come up with any concrete plan to lift the people out of poverty.
“None of the parties in Nepal, neither the communists nor those who call themselves democrats, have really introduced any substantial programmes targeting the poor,” said Sanjeev Uprety, a writer, professor and social activist. “Every party when in power likes to do some publicity stunt. None of the parties has made any effort to bring structural changes.”
According to Uprety, if the government indeed plans to launch low-cost meal stations, it should first identify who all constitute the urban poor.
“A government that claims to be ‘for the people’ should actually ‘work for the people’ rather than making tall claims and introducing populist programmes,” said Uprety.
Even the then Oli government last year had said it would provide free meals to the urban poor. However, Kathmandu Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya, in the first week of November, had chased away the volunteers who had been providing free meals to the needy at Khula Manch since the first lockdown was imposed.
Hari Roka, a political analyst, says Nepali political parties have a tendency “to show” how great job they are doing for the people,
“Each and every government makes such announcements but no one cares about the implementation,” said Roka.
According to Roka, there is no denying that the urban poor need support.
“But has the government done any research? Does it have any data?” said Roka. “In the cities when a daily wage worker loses their job, they are deprived of food and then become homeless. If the government indeed wants to support them, it needs to do it in a planned way.”
Finance Secretary Madhu Kumar Marasini, however, said executing the low-cost meal programme is not a difficult task.
He, however, would not say how much money has been allocated for the purpose, which areas have been selected for setting up such establishments and how the government is going to identify the urban poor.
“It’s been just three days since the budget announcement, we are in the planning phase and coordinating with volunteers,” said Marasini. “There will be enough volunteers when we start this programme.”