Labour, Poverty Alleviation And Democracy


Democracy flourishes in a well-ordered civic life of people, not in the nuisance of scarcity. On the contrary, poverty is one of the critical barriers to human progress towards freedom. For many years, poverty has been accepted as a fate of the wretched. The system, structures, laws and ideologies were created to perpetuate it. Even now about 10 per cent of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. More than 700 million of people are not productively employed to secure their livelihood. Pervasive poverty and unemployment have grown to such an extent that they are assumed as one of the critical challenges to political stability, social cohesion, eco-balance and social peace. South Asian countries share a huge (13 per cent) number of exceedingly poor people. Poverty implies powerlessness of people who are unable to productively use their labour, land, skill and resources for their empowerment. They do not have adequate access to income, education, resources, health care facilities and nutrition to live a life of liberty and dignity.

 Politically, poverty means dehumanisation, the loss of critical attributes essential to participate in the democratic life of the nation. Such people live a precarious existence and endure basic needs deficits. If the flashy display of wealth by elites of society is not balanced with the needs of the majority of the poor, it is hard to stabilise democracy.  The quality of human capital, social efficiency and reasonable standards of living in Nepal are essential prerequisites for democracy consolidation. It is also vital to arrest the hurtling drift toward unpleasant economic uncertainty created by the nation’s low economic growth, high inflation, waning revenue, foreign aid and investment, inability to spend capital in the real economy and excessive import relative to export.  

Socialisation of cost 

Despite structural transformation of Nepali polity, its economy bears no productive transformation to make a major dent on the level, intensity and directionality of poverty, allow labour to engage in life-enhancing opportunities and find a better world. The key knots of this problem are geophysical constraints, selfish economic elites, unstable government, indulgence of authorities in corruption, capital flight, limited export diversification, bureaucratisation of progress and socialisation of cost and privatisation of profits in the transaction of labour and capital. One can see Nepal’s economy is remittance, import and commerce dependent, not industrial one which is essential for poverty alleviation, job-creation and revenue generation for a self-reliant state. 

Prosperity cannot come if political rules do not create incentives for a balanced constitutional rights of citizens and private property rights of the wealthy and the symbolic economy is freed from all legal fretters. In contrast, peasants and workers are taxed on all goods they sell or purchase. Nepal remains highly dependent on primary production and export of a few commodities which has left its economy vulnerable to volatility in commodity prices. Deforestation, soil fertility loss, climate change and emigration of active labour force badly affect agricultural production turning Nepal once a grain surplus nation to grain deficits unable to feed itself.  Democracy becomes risk-prone where people do not owe their life to desirable choices.  

Nepal’s share in world trade is held back by premature de-industrialization. This nation is, however, laborr surplus, natural resource rich and a strategic site for takeoff if economic policies remove the structural barriers through entrepreneurship, productivity and fair social mobility of the poor. Social justice, social security and social protection included in constitution, in this context, hold great value to provide a social foundation for an economy of peace and redistribution of the nation’s wealth for poverty alleviation. Nepal’s policy wonks have, however, often fallen to the lure of development models fabricated in an entirely dissimilar context rather than inventing indigenous vision relevant for its use in the native society.  The borrowed model deems the image of human beings as rational beings who always act in their best interests. 

 Nepal’s classical model of business based on just prices is more apt as the rational image has been largely falsified by the descent of political condition, conflict, poverty, migration and ecocide creating a critical paradox: the constitution entitles Nepalis with too many rights including the right to work and decent living but the nation imports most of the essential goods from abroad. It exports both unskilled labour and best brains while they are needed the most in the nation to give Nepalis sovereign choice to decide apt public policies to their general progress.  Nepal’s prosperity can scale up if it cuts the undue costs of politics and bureaucracy, curing ecological and social ills, wooly elixir of markets and invests surplus in decentralised small-scale enterprises.  

The official figures reveal that about 15.1 per cent of Nepal’s population is under the poverty line living   below $1.90 daily income.  Efforts towards alleviating poverty have been slow and the relative gap between the richest and the poorest people has continued to widen. Public policies could not overcome the structural, policy and political cultural barriers. Similarly, the approach was either welfare-oriented or growth-focused and the poor were treated as labour, not citizens causing avoidable human suffering. The illusion of progress is no secret. The only escape route to poverty is migration to unsafe international labour markets and burdening them with the duties to earn for family and the nation. Poverty alleviation strategies focusing on economic growth presumed that if the national output expanded, the poor would be automatically lifted up. It was believed that growth incentives would go initially to those at the top of the economic ladder, but later the benefit would trickle down. 

With the increase in income, poverty declines and the conditions of health, education and infrastructure improve. This strategy suffered its own fate, like modernisation, structural adjustment and neo-liberal financial globalisation. Even technological innovation has failed to deliver the desired outcome for poverty alleviation by bringing the winners and losers in the same template of shared prosperity. It is unwise to enforce law in the absence of lifeguards for the losers of political and economic games. It prevents them from entering the public life of democracy which promises freedom and equality. The novelty of social contract between the capital and the labour gave birth to welfare states and mediation of economic policies through co-determination through tripartite social dialogues aiming to set free the productive sectors of the economy, creating jobs and social integration. 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and its social partners, including trade unions, found that poverty and social exclusion are the cause and consequence of faulty policies. Hence, its major work sought a linkage between political, economic and social policies and advertised the Declaration of Philadelphia, "Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere." It unveiled that poverty at the individual level is the effect of defective nature of the system -- national, regional and global. This means fighting poverty entailed democratisation at all levels of governance by involving workers in the ongoing technological, social and economic evolution. Only the educated manpower in Nepal is prepared to adapt to the changing labour market.

 One positive trend is that international development organisations are trying to involve workers’ organisations in the national ownership of the poverty reduction strategy. Other worker-friendly bodies are helping them to keep “due diligence” of business practices on their labour and human rights.  Still other civil society groups are helping them to increase their leverage through solidarity and networks. The growing concern for national ownership, aid alignment to national priorities and involvement of multi-stakeholders, is intended to reduce the risk of non-execution of public policies, even polarising effects between the capital and the labour thus suffocating the quality of polity donned by democratic ideals of equity.

Nepali workers’ unions have participated in the reshaping of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, MDGs, SDGs and several plan documents, though many of goals inherent in them have veered off track. In the scaffold of macro-economic policy, Nepali unions had sought conflict management by joining with the Business Initiative for Peace. Industrial democracy and free collective bargaining for productivity-related wage increase and minimum wage provisions are the vital contributions of Nepali unions to poverty reduction and a semblance of the democratisation of the capital and the polity. Organisation of the unorganised sector, promotion of gender equity, ending child labour, removal of bonded labour, workplace democracy, recruitment of youth, women and agricultural workers in the unionisation and building solidarity across the unions have paid off as social security measures have been extended to informal and self-employed sectors as well.

Workers’ rights 

 Unions’ are raising awareness of workers’ rights, gender equity, education and training for members, government accountability and labour standards, health and safety conditions at home and also migrant workers abroad. They exert pressure on the state to adopt employment-intensive economic policies as per the constitutional vision of socialism-oriented economy. Nepali unions resort to collective haggling as a means of determining wages and working conditions, better housing, health and safety conditions, education for the children and fair income. Their stress on social development is attuned to spell democracy, human rights and social and gender justice grows in tandem. Still, the struggle for gender and inter-generational justice has remained unfinished, which are also keys to poverty alleviation through empowerment measures. 

An understanding of the nature of the linkages that exists between constitution and economic renewal through social dialogue among all stakeholders can identify the institutional incentives, rules and processes shaping dynamics of poverty alleviation and assessing the constraints undermining their potential of efficient and responsive voice, visibility and dignity.  Nepali business community has proposed a broad-based social dialogue with multi-stakeholders of society for addressing not just the question of poverty but also development and democracy. Suitable policies are needed by the state for the creation of economic security that alleviate poverty, set equal concern to all people and strengthen the moral and material verve of Nepali economy, leadership and democracy.  

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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