The newly appointed Vice Chairman of the National Planning Commission (NPC), Dr Shankar Sharma has been elaborating on the "reform package" to redress the country's ills. When a few days ago, he discussed "reforms" on one of the local channels, the vice-chairman did not look very different from when I had met him fifteen years ago in Singapore, where he was a teacher. The vermilion on his forehead radiated in the studio light. He demonstrated high professional competence and fielded questions about the planning process with aplomb. On many earlier occasions, we have seen him fluently discuss macro-economic nuances.
As I watched him on television I was pained by the ritualistic repetition of the "reform" rhetoric. Reform consists of changes and improvements to a law, social systems or institution. The two key words are "changes and improvements". The state led enterprise of Nepal over the last decade has seen anything but "reform" if we were to use "change and improvement" as the yardstick to make the assessment.
Economy, industry, the financial sector, agriculture, education, and the social fabric were already in tatters at the end of the 1980s. In the last twelve years they have nose-dived to a new abyss and continue downwards in a slide. A majority of Nepalis still live in an earlier century as far access to health, education, social security and other basic amenities are concerned.
The NPC's concept note on the Tenth Plan has admitted resource utilisation in education, which receives the largest allocation of government expenditure, "is not efficient, accessibility to primary education is inadequate, drop out rates and repetition still inadequate, there has been a reduction in the budget share for primary health care". The document further admits that agriculture productivity in Nepal has been "quite low and decreasing" and is largely responsible for the existing higher poverty incidence and severity of it in the rural areas.
Given Nepal's socio-economic reality, the NPC should have focused on establishing governmental accountability to provide basic services, helped foster healthy competition to enhance efficiency and build responsive societal regulation. Instead, it chose a neo-liberal orthodoxy that conceived the free market as the only engine of moving forward towards universal well-being.
The hubris-ridden elements of this orthodoxy were deregulating the national economy, government withdrawing from its responsibility by privatising publicly owned enterprise and basic services, cutting down on social development programs to reduce government spending and shifting production to external markets instead of nurturing local interests.
In real terms, the process stifled the emergence of argumentative civil society voices. The process disenfranchised people and community solidarity, while producing a class of political leadership devoid of accountability to society and self-restraints. The political message unfortunately was of "exclusion". This apex body must transcend the buzzword of "reform" by beginning critical self-appraisal of the ideology that it pursued blindly in the past.
Perhaps we could then re-conceptualise the NPC's role in order that it genuinely responds to society's and the community's needs. NPC needs to graduate from the present highly bureaucratised neo-liberal cocoon into a people-friendly and transparent body.
(Ajaya Dixit is a water management analyst with the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation.)