The old adage about how when it rains in Delhi, people in Kathmandu unfurl their umbrellas
, has come to pass again. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hinted in his Independence Day speech
last month that he would replace the Indian Planning Commission with a different more responsive mechanism, in Kathmandu the National Planning Commission (NPC)
got the sense its days were also numbered.
In its first meeting after Sushil Koirala became prime minister and ex-officio Chair, the NPC recently decided to ‘restructure and streamline its role’. For all practical purposes, the Commission has been a non-performer for the past 50 years
. Proof of this is that a country with an elevated commission of planners enjoying the ranks of state and assistant ministers without any interruption for more than half a century has steadily slid downhill.
Despite some progress, Nepal remains chronically rural
with around 70 per cent of its labour force in agriculture that contributes about a third of the GDP. Manufacturing and industrial development, generally job generators, have always been moribund. This has led to an unprecedented exodus of the labour force, further suppressing economic activity in the country. Paradoxically, though, while Nepal has failed to grow and develop, it has reduced its poverty level down to 25 per cent. Nepal is like a patient surviving on direct transfusion of cash in the form of remittances and foreign dole
. The NPC has been a helpless bystander to all this, affected by both internal and external problems.
During the Panchayat and thereafter, the commission was filled with people who were usually selected not for their academic or professional distinction but their proximity to partisan power centres
, which lately also requires hefty down payments to lubricate the process of appointment. The aspirants themselves make those investments in the hope of recouping them through more impressive CVs.
The NPC secretariat is also treated as a dumping ground for those government employees who failed to ingratiate themselves with politicos in power, and are waiting for their first opportunity to move on. Morale, innovation and commitment is low.
While the NPC is officially designated as an advisory body
, it enjoys and exercises enormous executive powers since it is tasked with formulating periodic and annual plans, fixing ceilings to the budget, and approves every single project before it can be funded and executed by the government. Every periodic plan contains hundreds of policies which are generally so excellent that if just one on them were to be successfully implemented, Nepal would have made a quantum leap in development. But the policies don’t stand a chance when governance is so rotten
This is exactly where the planners have let the country down because they hold such enormous sway and can take innovative legislation and policies to nationwide implementation. A lowly NPC joint secretary, for example, authored the Decentralisation Act of 1982
that provided the basis of the formation of local committees and user groups to manage natural resources. The NPC doggedly pursued the recalcitrant Ministry of Forests forcing it to capitulate and finally introduce forest user groups in 1988. Nepal’s forests, which had been decimated since nationalisation in 1957, rebounded immediately. At least this one example proves that the NPC has the power and potential to achieve policy reform.
But as things stand, given the personal limitations of the planners themselves, their close family ties to those in power, or the backroom deals that secured their appointments, it is difficult to hope that the NPC will be proactive. This then makes the Commission the scapegoat for blame in the progressive economic, social, political and moral deterioration of the country.
So, the reform task that the NPC has lately taken upon itself requires members to address just one issue honestly: how to help the NPC save itself so it can save the country.
Bihari K Shrestha is an anthropologist who served with the National Planning Commission in the 1980s.
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