The streets are now aflame with protests against the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the $ 500 million grant from the US government. History may later point out fingers to these protests and the younger generation may ask why the politicians and civil societies objected to infrastructure and hydropower development that could create jobs for the needy as the pandemic has brought about untold sufferings to the people from all over the world, especially in countries like Nepal. They could also ask what the protest against MCC was all about. Will the failed opportunity to endorse MCC have a lasting negative impact on the development of the hydropower sector in Nepal? Although streets in Nepal have witnessed protests against several injustices against the people and sovereignty of Nepal, this protest may not be to the wellbeing of the Nepali people.
Short-sightedness As the streets are swelling up with protests against MCC, I wonder how many of the leaders inciting the public and how many think tanks giving umpteen numbers of interviews have actually read the documents related to MCC. I am neither for nor against MCC, but I am definitely for development of Nepal and job creation during the despair created by COVID-19 pandemic. The question that all Nepali people should be asking is: Is this grant being victimised by the lack of foresightedness and petty interests of Nepali politicians?
The MCC project has become a victim of extreme political polarisation, which was one of the reasons that fuelled intra-party conflict in the then ruling NCP, eventually ousting former PM K P Sharma Oli from power. Now it threatens to split the ruling coalition. The anti-MCC rhetoric had been so effective in convincing the cadre and public that it is anti-national, that even supporters in Deuba’s Nepali Congress, Oli’s UML, the Maoist Centre and other public figures and intellectuals are afraid to speak in favour of.
The documents do not include the US Army involvement and MCC vice president Fatema Z Sumar has openly said this during her recent visit to Nepal. She stressed on the fact that the MCC Nepal Compact was not above the laws of Nepal and in case of any issues, the international laws would be applied. The slogans of “Nepal being another Afghanistan” is misinformation that needs to be wiped out of the minds of the general public. Never in the history of Nepal have hydropower projects been completed on time. This programme is expected to help Nepal put renewable energy infrastructure in place that could be an example for a world coming to terms with climate change. The main attraction of this project is that MCC will complete the programme in five years and for that they claim to be best in the world and will deliver provided that the Nepal government provides a conducive atmosphere during the project period.
It is important to note that Nepal applied for this grant from MCC. The criteria Nepal fulfilled to receive the MCC grant was its democratic polity, guarantees of basic freedoms, and protection of human rights. A panel of Nepali and American experts concluded in 2017 that increasing hydropower transmission capacity and upgrading highways would be most cost-effective at a time when the country was suffering 12-hour daily power cuts. MCC makes three types of grants: compacts, threshold programmes and concurrent compacts for regional investment. Nepal’s grant is a five-year compact agreement with the MCC that allows an eligible country to fund specific programs targeted at reducing poverty and stimulating economic growth.
When a country applies for a grant from the MCC, the board examines its performance based on 20 policy indicators, and selects the countries based on policy performance. The MCC says its grants are given to country-driven and country-led investments and infrastructure priorities for achieving sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction, and Nepal has qualified for the grant.
So far MCC has approved $13.7 billion in compacts and $631 million in threshold programs worldwide. After Sri Lanka pulled out, Nepal is the only South Asian country on the list of MCC- approved projects. A major chunk of the $500 million MCC grant will go to build the Kathmandu-Hetauda-Butwal 400KV transmission line to distribute 3,000MW which will come on stream in the next three years from new hydropower plants. The line will also connect to a high-capacity electricity corridor to Gorakhpur so that Nepal can sell surplus monsoon electricity to India in the future. This week, the Nepal Electricity Authority signed an agreement with the state-run Power Grid Corporation of India for the Butwal-Gorakhpur cross-border transmission line extension in anticipation of the MCC project being completed.
In my opinion this is not the time to stage “Go MCC” protests but to be proactive and ask the parliament to rectify it but make sure that the interest of the Nepali people are secured in terms of first priority to all Nepali human resources, both skilled and unskilled, to get the jobs associated with this programme. Nepal now has world-class professionals both in the engineering, health, social and other sectors that this project will require. The main focus should be in ensuring that the people living in the project areas get their rights, compensations and jobs and of course electricity! It is important to ensure that gender equality and social inclusion are incorporated and implemented as MCC and Nepal Government claim to do in the documents.
(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights activist. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NamrataSharmaP)