From The Kathmandu Post (31 January, 2014)
Nepal is transforming as we speak, at breakneck speed. The century of stasis under the Rana regime, the retarded acceleration of the three-decades of Panchayat, all that was to have ended with the emergence of open society in 1990. Instead, we were dragged back towards feudocracy. Thankfully, that regressive phase seems over, and we are asked to chart a course at a time when society is being pummelled by cultural and economic forces beyond its control.
The good news is that citizens are making their own choices under conditions of enhanced individual manoeuvrability. There may be little in the form of planned evolution in the country’s headlong rush, but the least those with power and influence can do is to try and keep it democratic.
Accountability in governance will provide the required course corrections. Nepal on democratic autopilot will attain its destiny, of raising the material standard of living on the basis of available human and natural resources. If representative democracy is made inviolable, the citizens will do the rest that is required.
We stand at the threshold of the Nepal Century, and it’s not a pipe dream. Success in the 21st century was defined back in the mid-18th, when Prithvi Narayan Shah established a nation-state even as many of the European nation-states were being formed. Nepal is today the only sizeable country of South Asia with naturally evolved land boundaries, rather than one foisted by departing colonials. This must say something about the country’s social possibilities and economic prospects.
If only Nepal can find its balance, it could be the South Asian exemplar. While the other countries of the Subcontinent are either too large and require devolution, aren’t as lucky in natural resources, or have the dimension of city-states or principalities, Nepal has the size, scale, spread and resources to optimise the nation-state formula. What was required as the feudal era ended in 1950 was the extra ingredient of self-correcting representative democracy.
Democracy was finally at hand in 1990, but before long, a band of brigands swooped down to attack the system. The parliamentary derailment lasted through the decade of war and interminable transition , but finally we are back in the running. No sense in crying over the wasted years—and the colossal cumulative volume of lost opportunity— as we try once again to deliver on the promise of nation-state. Nepal has the sensibility and sovereignty; leave the country on democratic autopilot and the push and pull of forces will ensure growth, inclusion and equity.
Cures and ills
The world needs Nepal more than Nepal needs the world. This, Kathmandu must internalise, the capital having lost its creative edge by going on the international dole. The Himalaya is important to global citizens who seek solace in grand vistas, cultural diversity and spiritual pursuits. The rich of South Asia have not even begun to discover Nepal’s bounty. The challenge in Lumbini and Janakpur will to keep them open to spiritual pursuit when ‘mass pilgrimism’ takes off.
Kathmandu Valley may be ruined environmentally, but its cosmopolitanism will make it the natural hub for this part of Asia, also with the most liberal visa regime in the neighbourhood. The ‘peaking power’ of Nepal’s hydropower will be precious for the regional electricity grid, and the value of stored water for urban use, irrigation and navigation in India are as yet uncalculated.
The possibilities are everywhere—altitudinally-defined agro-forestry, high-yield farming in the irrigated Tarai, high-end tea and coffee, and organic produce of all kinds. The day of all-weather road links between the Ganga plain and Central/East Asia through Nepal is not far off, while connectivity within the country is being spurred by the ‘Hulaki Marga’ of the plains and ‘Lokmarga’ of the midhills. Local government elections will bring promise and performance to the grassroots.
Air links will once again link Kathmandu to Colombo, Rangoon, Guwahati and Bangalore, for starters, and Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines will return to the Nepali skies. The national flag-carrier will have numerous wide-bodies on account of the more than two million migrant workers overseas. Tourism will go high-end, and the fine eateries of Kathmandu will be hosting not development consultants and peace-contractors, but investment bankers and blue-chip executives.
We were well on our way after the opening of 1990. The economy was at a canter, touching six percent GDP growth; development finally became ‘participatory’, reflecting rural Nepal’s genius at managing the commons; elected local government and community forestry energised the districts; and the FM radio movement broadcast worldwide what Nepal was capable of. The social mobilisation towards ending age-old marginalisation—untouchability, gender inequality and exclusion of whole communities by deep-set Kathmandu-centricism—was the work the development partners, activist groups and the government bureaucracy.
It was proved to satisfaction, contrary to Panchayat era propaganda, that Nepal could make democracy function. It also became clear that that good ideas, if lobbied with consistency and staying power, could overcome political and bureaucracy inertia and see implementation.
Then, the bandits arrived, masquerading as revolutionaries. They gathered young followers by mouthing ‘social justice’, but had dagger-in-hand to threaten the people in the name of ‘People’s War’. The economy immediately decelerated, the parliamentary process was wrecked, and society became polarised in many layers, nearly till the point of no return. Kathmandu’s intelligentsia buckled under the threat of insurgency or succumbed to the lollipops of the conflict-management industry.
Then came the grandees of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), the International Crisis Group and other entities, telling us what they wanted to hear about Nepal’s ills and the cures. The democratic players were so demoralised and enfeebled by the positioning of the international community that it’s a wonder that we even got out of the rut. Nepal teetered at the edge, but then the people saved the day with their ‘cloud intelligence’ at the ballot of November 19, 2013.
The chain of recovery
It is vital to make up for lost time, but the recovery and advance requires understanding the continuous chain that binds human rights to accountability, criminal procedure and rule of law. And this chain continues onward to protection of property rights, security of assets, foreign direct investment and economic growth. And within democracy, there will be civil society to demand and ensure equity, a sharing of the wealth that Nepal’s human- and landscape have the ability to generate.
How will this happen, who will fuel the growth? Three categories are there to do the needful: a) the inhabitant citizenry, who knew enough about democracy, development and growth to rise in the People’s Movement of 2006, the most significant national uprising of the past few decades in the Subcontinent; b) the migrant workers who will return by the millions from Malaysia, the Gulf, India and elsewhere, once they realise they can earn with dignity at home; c) and, the educated who have understood how the West functions, and return with the conviction that economic leapfrogging is possible for Nepal.
Our ancestors waited in vain for more than two centuries for the nation-state to deliver on its promise. We seem to have arrived at the beginning of the road, not its end.