Nepali Times
Labour pains

It is well known that the first thing a Nepali politician does when he becomes a minister is he starts running his office like an employment agency. Relatives, hangers-on, nephews of cronies and other favour-seekers from the home constituency suddenly find job security. But then, the government falls. The minister is changed, and a new set of favourites is added to an already bloated state machinery. This is effectively a system of keeping the unemployed on dole.

The recent government decision to streamline the civil service is thus a welcome step, though it is fraught with political uncertainties. There are also widespread fears that temporary staff are getting the axe because the government wants to fill the vacated positions with its own people. If that were to happen, the whole exercise would be nothing but a sham.

Compared to government departments, the situation is much worse in public enterprises (PEs). Since they are considered to be autonomous, PEs are theoretically free to hire and fire, and determine the salaries of their employees as well. Though there is not much difference in the basic salary scales of PE and government employees, take-home emoluments of the former are considerably higher.

If public enterprises were run efficiently, few would begrudge the generous pay packets they offer. But most parastatals have continuously posted huge losses. Even those that have managed to remain solvent, usually due to their monopoly status, have failed to provide an adequate rate of return on the huge investments made by the exchequer.

PE employees are over-paid, under-worked, hugely pampered, and are heavily unionised. And the government has just given the powerful unions an excuse to flex muscles. It hiked the pay of its own employees, and asked PEs to do away with perks if they wanted the new salary scales. In addition, it told them to sack temporary employees.

The incensed unions began agitating, demanding that temporary employees be made permanent and salaries hiked in line with government scales even as they retained all the perks. In short, they want to have their samosas and eat it too.

But the take-home pay of PE employees is already higher than what the new government levels offer. Bowing to the unions, the government agreed that their pay packet would not be reduced but the resources would have to be sought by the PEs themselves. That seems to have rankled the unions, and a further series of protests is planned.

The upcoming strikes may be aimed at the government, but these will hurt the ordinary consumer more. Collective bargaining is an accepted way of dealing in disputes between management and workers. But here both the managers and workers are commoners, there are no greedy capitalists here.

The PEs are already seriously sick, and increasing the financial burden will only send them into intensive care. It is much more urgent to streamline some of these enterprises, privatise others and even put the really sad cases out of their misery. Squabbling over wages is just running away from the real issue.

Living with monsoons

It\'s that time of the year again. The land is drenched, the soil is soaked and there is more rain. This is when the annual flood season really gets going. Landslides block highways, bury villages, mud-brown rivers thunder down to the plains and spread out over the flat land into India. During really bad years, glacial outburst floods wash away entire sections of roads, and damage power plants and there are catastrophic beshiaris, gigantic flash floods caused by natural damming of rivers by landslides.

This is nothing new for the Himalaya. For millions of years these mountains have served as a rain-trap: forcing moist air from the Bay of Bengal to condense and fall. And it falls in torrents, dumping upwards of 3,500 mm a year in places like Pokhara, Ilam, or the hills on the southern rim of the Kathmandu Valley. What is different now is that the rains are more localised and the storms more intense because of global climate change. Also different is population pressure, driving more and more Nepalis to settle in vulnerable areas and to farm floodplains.

Being young and fragile, the mountains have crumbled under this relentless annual rain. Nepalis know better than to be surprised by floods and landslides. Yet it is amazing that we do so little to minimise the hazards through effective risk-mapping and making use of the findings. Instead, we repeat the mistake of blocking natural drainage paths and building flood-control embankments that only make floods worse. It\'s time to treat rivers with the respect they deserve, and be prepared for their wrath when we mistreat them.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)