Thursday, 6 May, 2021

Is Our Democracy Pro-Poor?


Nanda Lal Tiwari


Borrowing words from US president Abraham Lincoln, democracy is often referred to a form of the government of the people, by the people for the people. The term ‘democracy’ was originated from ancient Greece word ‘demokratos’, meaning the people's rule - demos (people) and kratos (rule). After being in oblivion for over two millennia, democracy came into limelight in course of the English, French and American Revolutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.
In case of Nepal, democracy was introduced following an armed revolution in 1951 which ousted 104-year long Rana autocracy. A decade later, on January 5, 1961, King Mahendra overthrew the first elected government and introduced party-less Panchayat system that lasted for 30 years before it was brought down by a popular movement in 1990. Yet, another people's movement launched in collaboration with the then Maoist armed rebels in 2006 did away with monarchy that had assumed a dictatorial role, negating the multiparty parliamentary system. It was expected that the new political system as envisioned in the constitution promulgated by the CA in 2015 would be democracy per se.

Plight of demos
Six years after the new constitution, there has been a little progress towards implementing the federal democratic republican set-up. The main pattern of the rule has remained the same.
Democracy has not come for all the demos, especially the poor and downtrodden folks. And there was democracy for the upper layer of the society even during the Rana rule because the upper layer did not have to struggle for their everyday life while the system oppressed the poor all the time. There were no policies and programmes to address the plight of the poor. The poor had no chance of getting rid of the clutches of poverty!
In the last 30 years since democracy was reinstated in Nepal, the communists have been a part of the state, either as an opposition in the parliament or as a the ruling party. The communists vow to work for the poor or what they call the proletariat. In its manifesto issued on September 15, 1949, Nepal Communist Party (NCP) declared that it would ensure rights of all to get education free of cost and that primary education would be made compulsory. Nepali Congress, a democratic party with capitalist ideology, had no different view on education as it then said in its manifesto that the Ranas had taken an extremely anti-education policy.
But, 70 years after the manifesto was unveiled, free education has not yet been ensured. Moreover, such a social situation has developed that sending one's children to a government school where free education is available is like undergoing a kind of stigma. Overall social perception is such that only the poor send their children to the government school while the moderately well-off educate their kids in private schools because private schools provide better education although they take hefty fees. Nepal's present constitution ensures right to education as a fundamental right but prevailing situation compels one to pay price from enjoying even such fundamental rights.
Presenting government work report for the last three years, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli just four days ago, on February 15, said a re-financing fund of Rs. 42 billion was set up to provide relief to businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. He also presented provision was made to provide Rs. 100 billion of loan with 5 per cent subsidy in interest for the small businesses. Unfortunately, his report did not mention what relief measures the communist government took to provide relief to the working class people, those employees who lost jobs due to the pandemic to combat which a four-month long nationwide lockdown was enforced last year. Does it not mean that the way the daily wage earners in the cities were forced to walk for days to reach their homes without any government help after lockdown was enforced is the reality?
The PM said 12,284 landless people got a grant amount of Rs 200,000 each to buy plot for shelter in the last three years and that over 900,000 people have been lifted out of absolute poverty in the last three years. It is appealing to hear that almost 900 people got rid of poverty a day in the last three years but hard to believe that this achievement was made because of the government effort, especially given the fact that the government lacks concrete anti-poverty policy and programmes and effective implementation of the existing ones.
Prime Minister Oli also said 13,085 houses were made under People's Housing Programme in the last three years that amounted to 34,507 houses so far. This programme was started in the fiscal year of 2007/08. It took 13 years to build 34,507 houses for the poor and we are presented with the data that 900,000 people were lifted out of poverty in three years. Tax burden on the citizen is so high in Nepal that almost 24 per cent of national income, the highest when compared with the other South Asian countries, is collected as tax from the people. But how tax is utilised is always questionable.
Ensuring irrigation, fertilisers and seeds, education and health facilities are some ways to help people overcome poverty. But the country's performance is such that a few months back Prime Minister Oli himself had to make a phone call to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to provide chemical fertilisers as the Nepali companies which won bid to procure the same had failed to import it in time! The social security scheme based on contribution of the employee and the employer is a good initiative with regard to the working class people. But then the question is what about the contribution of the government to such a scheme! Prime Minister Oli's work report said three million and sixty thousand get social security allowance a year in Nepal. But, it is evident that even the well-off are getting such an allowance in the name of senior citizen or widow.

Making declaration is one thing but bringing changes in reality quite the other. For instance, Prime Minister Oli said in the work report with pride that Nepal was declared an open defecation free country. But he did not mention how many public toilets were made in the cities, and if we go around the city street in the morning, we can see the reality of such declaration on the streets littered with bodily waste.
Periodic elections, rule of law, human rights and free press are some of the ideals of democracy. More important than this is existence of an enabling environment for all to enjoy these rights and ideals. As long as a daily wage earner has to think twice whether to forsake wage of a day for going to vote a candidate in elections, there is no democracy for the poor. The way the democratic governments in the last seven decades have failed to come up with effective and concrete policy and programmes to rid people of poverty has forced the working class lot to ask whose democracy and democracy for whom?

(Tiwari is the Sub-editor of this daily)