|ILLUSION: Singha Darbar reflected in a monsoon puddle while the budget was being presented to the nearby parliament on Wednesday.|
Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat presented his government's budget for the coming year but in trying to please everyone he seems to have ended up pleasing no one.
He has increased VDC grants to Rs1 million which should spur local development. The military budget and palace allowance have been slashed. But Mahat presupposed too much: that there will be durable peace, investment will pour in, revenue will be up and donors will come with sacks of cash. Then the Maoists put a dampener on the day by saying they were never consulted.
The trouble is the budget just doesn't reflect the monumental political transformation of the country after April. "I was expecting some surprises," said planner Yubaraj Khatiwada, "but there weren't any. At a time when we needed a transformatory budget we got one that is incremental."
Other speakers at the Himalmedia Roundtable on the Economy on Wednesday agreed. "It looks like the minister looked at tv commercials and decided which products to tax," said Binod Chaudhari of CNI.
Speakers felt that if the seven parties and the Maoists could agree on a joint political agenda for a constituent assembly, they could have easily agreed on a common economic program.
"We have seen in post-conflict countries that the people's expectations are so high that if economic issues aren't addressed properly the whole peace process can fail," said economist Biswombar Pyakhurel. "We should have had a budget with a vivid vision for the future. I didn't see any."
Parameswor Mahaseth of Salt Trading Ltd agreed: "If they can do a 12-point agreement on politics, why can't there be a six-point agreement for the economy?"
But Chandi Dhakal of FNCCI felt it would have been unrealistic to expect the finance minister to have come up with anything better. "There may be no bandas and blockades but things are worse in the industries," he said. "Extortion is intense, the export sector is on its knees, things are worse than before."
Indeed, businessmen don't know what to make of the contradictory statements from the Maoists. Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai met FNCCI delegates this week and assured them they are not against private enterprise. But the very next day the head of the Maoist economic cell, Deb Gurung, said his party was for nationalising private property and assets of big capitalists.
"We put the cart before the horse," said Radhesh Pant of Bank of Kathmandu. "A consensus on which way we should go should have been reached before the budget, not after."
Industrialist Rajendra Khetan said the constitution should guarantee every Nepali two meals a day, primary health and education. "Rapid industrialisation is the only way to deliver that," said Khetan, "this budget should have shown us how to get there."
Former NPC vice-chairman Shankar Sharma saw a way out. "Instead of getting bogged down on what they don't agree on, the government and the Maoists can concentrate on what they agree on, like the Jumla Highway, the need to generate 500 megawatts in four years, on health and education."