Wah Mauritius, alas Nepal

From The Kathmandu Post (3 January, 2013)

Flying into Colombo at night a couple of months ago, the trip from Katunayake airport to the city was intriguing for this Kathmandu person for one reason—every streetlight was on and working. The same held true some time later, visiting Yangon—I was spellbound by the necklace of working streetlights that led all the way to downtown. Travelling back to Kathmandu both times, there was only continuous darkness from Tribhuvan all the way home to Patan Dhoka, with just a bit of relief from the “public social responsibility” solar lamps on the Bagmati Bridge.

The pitiable state of our urban infrastructure has many causes, but the two all-important ones are: the armed conflict and resulting (and continuing) political chaos; and the absence of elected local government for more than a decade, which hits the Valley population in the solar plexus even though no one talks about it. The city is reduced to a turf for competition between the national line ministries, while the citizens have no recourse through elected ward representatives and elected mayors. The last time we elected a represented to look after our interests—including streetlamps—was 15 long years ago. During this time the population of urban poor in need for public services has increased in volume and proportion. It is past time to begin to consolidate the various municipalities of the Valley under one representative, elected umbrella body, but for this we first need an urban intelligentsia that can draw a line between the darkened streets and local body elections. Instead, all we have is silence. And darkness.

Dark country
It is not only the streets that are dark, of course. The whole country is literally sunk in gloom, to the extent that you can trace the southern boundary of Nepal in night-time satellite imagery of the Subcontinent by looking for where luminosity gives way to black. Kathmandu is but a tiny smudge of light in the darkness of eastern Nepal, and Narayanghat and Pokhara show up as smaller dots. Other towns suffer the ignominy of not even showing up in the imagery.

The darkness we experience every day stands as testimony to the turn to violent politics a decade and half ago, disallowing representative democracy to correct itself along the way and serve the people. The violence was begun by individuals—one of them is prime minister today—who did not believe in representation and pluralism, and who never really understood how well endowed Nepal is in natural and human resources.
A country in the low latitudes with such high volume of natural biomass production has no business being so poor. A land which has such an incline in its geography—20,000 feet by 70 miles on average—allowing monsoonal, spring-fed and snowmelt white-water to gather energy should not be gasping for electricity. No country with an open border astride the highest concentration of population in the world—the Ganga maidaan—can be excused for not developing service industries to serve that market.

But it is a national trait and tragedy that we have not been able to harness all that history has given us, including a mixed demography of micro-communities that promotes societal openness. Above all, historical evolution has given us a nation-state of “size, sensibility and sovereignty” that can be put to use to ensure an extraordinary quality of life to the populace.

A kind of Finland
We can compare Nepal to a country that has much less than us in terms of resources—Mauritius, whose success was highlighted last week by the economist Joseph Stiglitz on his Project Syndicate column. This country off Africa’s east coast is ocean-locked and severely deprived of natural resources if you compare it to Nepal. When the archipelago gained independence from the British in 1961, the per capita income was USD 650 per annum, and today it is USD 6700.

Mauritius had nothing more than sugarcane plantations during the colonial era, and indentured labour was taken from the Subcontinent to work the fields. But from the beginning the focus was on quality education, social welfare, and an innovative economy, and it resulted in prosperity, making Mauritius a kind of Finland of the Indian Ocean.
For 30 years now, the country has managed a continuous annual GDP growth rate of over 5 percent. This happened, writes Stiglitz, because of decades spent “successfully building a diverse economy, a democratic political system, and a strong social safety net.” He adds, “The country has progressed from the sugar-based monoculture of 50 years ago to a diversified economy that includes tourism, finance, textiles, and, if current plans bear fruit, advanced technology.”

And what of us?
If we are not to blame all of history for the present condition of our society and economy, we can start with where Mauritius stood in the early 1961 and see what happened to us. Whereas Mauritius was developing representative democracy, accountable government and rule-of-law, all-important for investment and growth, Nepal was entering the Panchayat era of absolute monarchy, crony capitalism, and a closed society marked by a no-party system. All of this weakened scholarship, killed innovation and entrepreneurship, prevented free speech and activism, and made a joke of development. If representative democracy is at the root of all social and economic progress, then Mauritius was building it while we were intently headed the other way.

When the Panchayat fell under its own weight and the democrats came to power after the 1990 People’s Movement, the future seemed to beckon. Nepal made great advances, industry bloomed, local government was put in place, community forestry took off, and participatory development began to happen at last. Open society and press freedom helped release the energy of grassroot activism, and a healthy questioning became a hallmark of the budding civil society. True social transformation had begun at long last, even as the GDP growth rate passed the six percent mark.

But then 1996 happened, with the Maoists taking the underground road of “people’s war”. Rebel excess was answered by state terror, the royal palace decided to take advantage of the disorder, and the people ultimately arose in the People’s Movement of 2006. The Maoists were drawn out of the woodwork with the promise of a constituent assembly, but then they cheated on their promise of democracy and stalled the Constituent Assembly. This is where we find ourselves today—a country that exports labour on the cheap to India, the Gulf and Malaysia even though the land has the capacity to keep everyone at home, well-fed and in relative prosperity.

One day, an accounting will be done, as to why and how a country so rich in resources has been kept so materially poor in the latest decade of the modern era. For now, the most important task is to get the polity out of the darkened cesspit in which it is imprisoned and back on the democratic rails. The escape from the extra-constitutional prison is through free and fair elections in April-May, which will take us back to representative democracy, and the stability which will allow us to try once more to reach for prosperity.


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