Saturday, 4 April, 2020

Celebrating Democracy 2020

Prem Khatry 

The writer walks decades back in his memory lane and makes few voluntary stops here and there. There was a time when Falgun 7th as the cherished D-Day was long awaited by the people of different walks of life. In Kathmandu and district headquarters the procession used to be a long line of jubilant people. It was a festival. School children always made the procession and the programme meaningful, colourful and memorable. In Kathmandu government officials and university teachers, staff and students marched around the city including Tripureshwar, New Road, Jamal, Ghantaghar and finally landed at the large Tundikhel, then true to its name before it began to be truncated from both ends as if it was a heavy burden for the government.

Spirit of democracy
In a democratic era, such enthusiasm is no more there. Speeches from the head of the state and the government apart, popular participation is getting smaller and general attitude is that of indifference than celebration. Why bother? People ask when questioned. In districts the charm has not fully gone yet indifferent attitude is there, too. Youths and students have forgotten that they sacrificed to bring political changes in series over the six decades therefore their presence in the D-Day programme is still meaningful. It is one day phenomenon when all cross-sections of Nepalis can show unity in upholding the spirit of democracy and its institutionalisation.
As a matter of fact, every Democracy Day is an occasion for celebration. For a country suffering from chain of autocratic regime one after another, experiencing democracy or something near to it as a short stint of time, a full-fledged democracy is an achievement of the highest kind. Nepal finally had it in the form of a republican state. It was quite a quantum jump from the constitutional monarchy under the last king Gyanendra Shah, who voluntarily abandoned the power, the regalia, and the Narayanahiti Royal palace with a history of his four predecessors – Prithvi, Tribhuvan, Mahendra and Birendra reigning from the huge complex. Gyanendra, the fifth in line had a brief, about five years' of controversial stint of ruling career.
Today, the nation celebrates the completion of three decades of democracy amidst jubilation, high and always surging hopes on the one hand and the saga of imbalanced development, series of scandals as hurdle for a clean image of the country on the other. The multiparty system installed after series of struggles seemed to focus on providing better opportunity for those who made it to the front leaving the real people in the back to sweat, break the backs and stay away from access to available resources. The sugarcane farmers are in the recent memory of media surfers. The cane farmers worked hard, the factory owner earned from the sugar and shunned the factory gate when the farmers approached to claim the price of their product: sugarcane. The factory had also spent the compensation fund paid by the government to the farmers. It was the dishonesty of the worst kind. Here, the company played an unfair game with the sugarcane producers.
Nepal's democracy has seen a checkered history. The farmers and workers live with their broken bone from the time of the undemocratic days of yore. And, if democracy cannot protect their rights which system will? This is a serious question.
The Lalita Niwas scandal is a recent and much talked about case. The two former prime ministers who put final signature in some controversial papers have gone scot-free whereas a group of guthi samsthan individuals including a former minister and one dozen administrators who forwarded a paper vouchsafing the existence of a historic guthi (trust) property in the controversial complex, have been rendered to 'criminal' by CIAA. They not only face humiliation, temporary loss of their job, social prestige and further legal action, they may be jailed for speaking what has been documented in black and white in the historic documents.
Not only that, they never created a new 'guthi' as media often propagated, they followed the command of the cabinet to not delay in documenting guthi as the government property, according to one of the convicted officials. The same official explains this particular guthi was created by the donors to grow and offer a particular species of flower to Lord Pashupatinath during a particular festival in the holy month of Magh. Strangely, Lord Pashupatinath doesn’t speak for or against the case. As a deity of the old times, he has to forgo his own history and keep silence in the changed, secular context. But, it wouldn't take too long to check the validity of the book if there is any and find out its historicity, or the cabinet decision to bring the guthi back to the government roster. Genuine case could be sifted from the fraud like rice from the chaff. Patience is what is required in cases like this.
This is perhaps the reason why Mirza Salam (pseudo name), a schoolteacher from Sunsari comments: 'The definition of democracy has now changed. In Nepal, it is 'For the leaders by the leaders.' Often, it may appear like it is not fully untrue. CIAA may be grinding the corn for good reason but with it many innocent insects may have also been perished. Who knows?
One major achievement of democracy in Nepal has been the growth of academic institutions in the country. As the per capita income grows, people chose better, preferably private schools for their children. The public schools have lost their charms of the old times. Effect of partisan politics is very clearly shows on the mushrooming universities and their management. Do we need these traditionally structured universities repeating more or less the same curricula, style of delivery with limited or no specific expertise to use the obtained degree in real life? Sadly enough, more names are in the pipeline. In fact, mediocre leadership has ruined many universities. There is no competition in quality as the crane-pulled leaders have no vision to push the institutions forward in the global arena.
Thus far the major problems in Nepal's development can be listed in a full size A-4 paper. But precisely, they relate to a) Direction, when our plans move from top to bottom so a 360 degree U-turn is necessary, b) Inefficiency, where budgeted amount freezes at the end of the fiscal year, c) Monitoring, where M&E of development projects – big, medium and small – go without proper and regular monitoring and evaluation of progress achieved, d) Partnership, when state and people joint venture has not made any visible dent, and e) Seriousness in lessons learnt, where mistakes and successes are left where they are found.
Let us examine these one by one. First of all, with the restructuring of the State, planning must not come down; they should go up. National Planning Commission needs a full term life. It mustn't be kicked out in the middle road with a change in the government. This is erroneous. All the three tiers of government have responsibility to prepare development plans. Second, several years; graph in a row show government inefficiency in spending. People pay the tax and what do they get in return if the allocated budget goes into the treasury, annually? An unwanted trend has been set and this must be reversed if development has to take roots in a sustainable manner.
Third, there is no reliable monitoring system in place. Reports arrive when damage is already done. With efficient monitoring we can prevent unexpected failures in development programmes, at least partially. Fourth, for a country like ours with democracy in place, people's expectation surge faster than expected. Their enthusiasm must be counted with due attention to proper model for development. Participatory approach to development is the need of the day and the present restructure is the best one to apply PPP model where voters have space to think, plan and act. The state has to be ready for this shared model of development in a democracy like ours. In top-bottom model there will always be comments, demands and large spaces for corruption. The best way to avoid all these confusions and misgivings is to empower people and enhance their credibility.

Finally, three decades have been spent in experimentation of different models of development. Dependency syndrome has increased whether it is on foreign aid or business sector. Elections at all levels have been way too expensive. The former Indian president Dr Abdul Kalam said that donation money squeezed from the business sector during elections has come pretty heavy on the common people as leaders like to recover their election expenses as soon as they are elected putting people's need on the lower scale of priority. In such as case development becomes only a dream.

(Former Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences, TU, Khatry writes on cultural issues) 

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