22-28 April 2016 #805

Just govern

A border blockade and failure to get relief to earthquake survivors highlight Nepal’s sorry state
George Varughese
Devaki Bista

Initially paralysed by the magnitude and rapid succession of the quakes in 2015, the Nepal government was then able to mobilise and coordinate security forces for rescue efforts and for public safety.

In the several weeks that followed, it was also able to galvanise the civil service to work with ward citizen forums to provide emergency cash assistance of Rs 15,000 each to households whose homes were damaged and vulnerable to the monsoons, and then to add another Rs 10,000 each to help them cope with the winter.

Since then, however, the government has not provided much more relief delivery. The National Reconstruction Authority was only formally inaugurated in January 2016, a full nine months after the disaster. Nearly a year after  donors pledged more than $2 billion for housing reconstruction (out of $4.1 billion for overall recovery) families started receiving the first of three financial installments of Rs 200,000.

The government is yet to reach most of the families in the 14 worst-affected districts, even within Kathmandu Valley. For better or worse, other non-governmental and international efforts to assist the eight million quake-affected Nepalis have maintained momentum in relief and reconstruction efforts, and there is better coordination amongst them and between them and the government.

The blockade along the Nepal-India border has been an oft-repeated explanation for the inability to carry out relief and reconstruction activity. Further, the protests surrounding the new constitution are said to be preoccupying executive and legislative government and diverting attention from the core business of governing the country.

A recent, perplexing explanation given by the home minister of Nepal implicates time-consuming governmental procedures concerning relief distribution and indicates that it would take another year to fully deploy relief efforts. Given all this, it could be reasonable to conclude that relief is not a priority.

Attempts to address the energy crisis are another issue, given that electricity is available for only half the time for the past several years. The state of transport infrastructure reflects competing political interests and irrational choices, resulting in a mélange of hastily constructed roads and unused airports. There is a growing, nationwide epidemic of road accidents, and civil aviation is a tragic mess.

Thus, most measures of state performance in 2016 indicate the dereliction of the duty to govern. Meanwhile, there are perverse examples of government’s considerable ability to mishandle restoration through hastily awarded contracts, inflate lists of survivors in order to provide cash to local political party cadres, perpetuate discrimination, condone violence against its own population, pursue ethnic and religious parochialism, and promote impunity through intimidation.

These are not signs of an absent or incapable state, but rather those of a rentier state, largely disengaged from the public and blithely engaged in the extraction of resources – from its natural endowments, the government treasury, and steadfast foreign aid. There is across-the-board politicisation of state apparatus, democratic development is in a steep dive and the firmly entrenched cross-party culture of collusion promises to continue obstructing accountable governance for at least another generation.

Economically, the long-term implications have been to exponentially increase levels of brain drain and capital flight, while disincentivising investment. Tragicomically, Nepal has also enjoyed a year-on-year increase in foreign aid while demonstrating that its management of public expenditures and strategies is ever poorer.

While narrowly self-interested politics have driven the Nepal state’s failure to govern, politics offers a way out of the quagmire. Whether it chooses to join or topple the United Marxist Leninist-led ruling coalition or prefers to stay in opposition, the Nepali Congress, with its newly-elected leadership must have a two-point agenda of action: to bring Madhesi, Janajati, and other protesting political groups to peaceful agreement on the constitution, and to conduct local elections as soon as possible.

On its part, the ruling coalition must urgently drive parliamentary and legislative business. This should not be too difficult given that the President, Prime Minister, and the Speaker are all from the parties within the ruling coalition.

Concurrently, the government must do what it was put in place to do: get relief to quake survivors before the next monsoon, reduce food and energy insecurity, provide public safety and security. With six deputy prime ministers, 22 ministers, ten state ministers, and two assistant ministers, excuses are unacceptable.   George Varughese is currently on sabbatical from his position of Nepal Country Representative, The Asia Foundation

Read Also:

The Year of Living Off Balance

Helter Shelter, Smriti Basnet

In Dependence, Kunda Dixit

Insult and Injury, Santa Gaha Magar

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