In a virtual meeting last week, a group of land rights activists and scholars tried to unpack the budget speech presented by the Minister of Finance a month ago. Central to the meeting was to assess the budget’s implications, both immediate and long-term, for the life of the landless and land poor. The meeting’s moderator asked all the speakers to keep in mind the constitutional vision of the socialism-oriented polity while commenting the budget statement. It is on that meeting that the title of this piece draws on. Constitution of Nepal, 2015 refers to ‘socialism’ in three places, in Preamble, in the definition of the State of Nepal and in the discussion on the economic objective of the State (under the Directive Principles). The preamble’s reference is crucial as it follows the paragraphs that commit the State to, among others, end “all forms of discrimination and oppression produced by the feudalistic, autocratic, centralised (and) unitary system of governance” and “build an egalitarian society based on the principles of inclusion and participation by eliminating discriminations based on class, caste, region … and all forms of caste-based untouchability”. Socialism is a heavily loaded term. Unless specifically qualified, it means different things to different people in different contexts. (This writer has come across at least eight variants of it.) Although the constitution of Nepal has not qualified the term, the preambular paragraphs have done so. Reading them together, one finds it no difficult to conclude that ‘socialism’ means an equal and egalitarian polity and society.
Equal society To build an equal (discrimination-free) and egalitarian society requires, at the very least, freeing the landless and the land poor – who are believed to constitute some 25 per cent of the population of Nepal – from the shackles of poverty, and enabling them to live with dignity, as provided for in Article 16 of the constitution. Six years since the promulgation of the constitution, it is the right time to pause and reflect if we are heading towards that end. One of the ways to do so is to review the annual policies and programmes and budgets of all the governments over the years. There could be other ways, too. I hope competent researchers and analysts will do so and help us see where we stand, and suggest how we should go about now on. What I am doing in this piece, prompted by the discussion with the land rights activists, is to share some inchoate observations that I have had based on the cursory look at the provisions and allocations in respect of the landless and the land poor in the federal budget speech presented on June 29. The budget speech rightly refers to the constitutional commitments and orients itself towards the national aspiration of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali.’ Two of the four objectives of the budget speech – fast recovery of the economy and the consolidation of the welfare role of the State to achieve socially just prosperity – contribute to equality and egalitarianism in general. Out of 10 priorities identified, one relates to the landless and the land poor when it vows to increase agricultural production and productivity and guarantee food security. Another priority, which is not as direct, vows to end all forms of inequalities and discriminations and ensures equitable development and just distribution of development outcomes. However, in terms of activity-specific budget allocation, the landless and the land poor feature very randomly and poorly. In paragraph 115, they are targeted – under the promise of ‘no one will go hungry, no one will die of hunger’ – as a part of a larger group. The paragraph aims to ensure their access to food and nutrition when faced with hunger. Under ‘land management’ – the sub-section that is supposed to provide for policies and directions vis-à-vis the landless and land poor – seven provisions have been proposed. Of them, one paragraph (138) addresses the landless and the land poor, together with former bonded labourers, Kamalaris, Haruwas, Charuwas and so on. The paragraph promises to provide land entitlement certificates, through the commission formed to resolve land-related problems, to all these groups. However, before the certificates are issued, the exact number of these categories of people has to be identified, recorded, verified and updated. By lumping together all these tasks, which are not doable within a year, the paragraph has, in effect, become almost redundant. In paragraph 139, the budget document commits federal and local governments to jointly invest in the establishment of at least 50 branches of land bank in each province. Unused land, private and public, will be deposited in the banks and provided, on a lease, to individuals, groups and institutions for commercial farming and processing of agricultural products. These are noble proposals. However, they will not serve the need or interest of the landless and land poor. Other paragraphs concentrate on land-related information management, digitisation of land records and so on. These, too, do not directly relate to the landless and the land poor.
Contradictory proposals Some proposals are confusing and even contradictory. Paragraph 96, which provides for the policy of commercial farming on unused (barren) land, is seemingly in conflict with paragraph 138, which proposes to distribute land to the landless. Unless rearranged otherwise, such as through ‘revolutionary land reform,’ which used to be a highly charged political jargon at times, the landless are supposed to get their share from the same pool of unused land. To return to the question as to whether we are heading towards socialism, I am not so sure yet. The budget has many promising proposals and undertakings. It has addressed a wide range of issues and themes. However, the focus and priorities keep drifting and wavering as one reads it through. More importantly, by failing to articulate a concrete measure to address the fate of the landless and the land-poor, it has chosen ‘continuity’ over ‘change.’ With one-fourth of the people daily condemned to discriminations, denials and want, an equal and egalitarian society cannot be imagined, let alone built. And, as long as the landless and the land poor will not have title to the amount of land that earns them livelihood, this untoward reality will continue to haunt the Nepali society. Good intentions alone do not pave the road to socialism. They should be matched with decisive actions aimed at breaking the cycle of injustice. Seen in this light, we have many miles to go.
(A PhD on human rights and peace, Kattel is a senior research fellow at Policy Research Institute. firstname.lastname@example.org)