Defending private sector business is getting difficult in Nepal. Civil society leaders talk about rights, liberties, and political issues. But they never engage a vital subset of the civil society-the Nepali business community.
Thus, we get abstract lectures, but no effort to start a national conversation about how our hard-won rights can be effectively practiced within a framework that adds to employment, income, and workforce empowerment levels, while reducing job-related vulnerabilities. Yes, a gold-plated constitution is a good start. But as we saw through the 1990s, without continuous collaborative work to translate people's dreams of a better future into reality, a well-crafted legal document alone offers no certainty that Nepalis' lives will significantly improve.
One reason the business community is shunned is that it is perceived to be 'damaged goods'. During the palace's direct rule, influential business leaders became ministers and advisors. That made them notorious for 15 minutes, but publicly untrustworthy for life. The issue of what to do with loan defaulters has also dragged on for far too long. Business leaders have no workable solutions, they dither or offer lame defensive explanations. In the public mind, businessmen are crooks-in bed with other crooks, aka politicians.
The cost of the failure to deal with those few bad apples is mounting. The integrity of Nepal's financial system is open to question, and the risks associated with doing business in Nepal make the capital requirement for it high. Given this, how can Nepal attract even small-scale investments and nurture entrepreneurs?
The recent actions of and against the business community don't help either Contractors surround the prime minister's residence when procurement rules asking for transparency are introduced. Truckers are up in arms against firms that depend on them to transport goods. Workers in industries ranging from tea to hospitality have formed pro-Maoist unions. They make radical demands, even when that means shutting down production and service lines.
Meanwhile, despite an admirable start two years ago, Business Initiative for Peace has fallen by the wayside. The business community has lost an opportunity to exercise leadership and use the interim times to explain how better business policies and practices give more Nepalis jobs and pay.
The Maoists are riding the wave of anti-business mood, which they helped create and sustain. They've escalated acts of extortion and intimidation. They harass bankers and financiers, force firms to hire and train their unskilled cadres, and get away scot-free after beating up businessmen.
In such an environment, how is anyone to do business in Nepal? How is anyone to get into business when there is little sympathy for those who run for-profit private sector businesses? And can anyone articulate the role businesses play, when firms are portrayed as tools that do nothing but exploit people?
It's time our business leaders rose above their petty concerns and started articulating answers. When the notion of private sector business is continuously under attack, it must be a priority to marshal credible arguments in its defense to create a better business-enabling environment in Nepal.