Asked frequently by people about Nepalâs future, my answer has always been: âI am a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.â Yes, things are a mess, but they will get better. They must.
After waiting eight years Nepalâs politicians finally patched together a new constitution. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope that one of Asiaâs poorest countries can make up for lost time to ensure political stability and economic growth for its long-suffering people.
Nepal has gone through dramatic political transformation in the past ten years. A ruinous ten-year conflict was brought to an end. We went from being a monarchy to a republic in a fairly civilised way. We didnât ransack the royal palace but turned it into a museum. We didnât hound the king into exile.
To be sure, not everyone is happy with the constitution that was promulgated on Sunday, especially the Madhesi and Tharu groups. Violent protests against the proposed boundaries of future federal provinces have left 44 people dead in the past month.
Despite its flaws and inability to satisfy demands for greater devolution of power away from Kathmandu, the constitution is probably the best Nepalâs politicians could have cobbled together for now. Under an agreement between coalition partners, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress will step down next week to be replaced by K P Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninists (CPN-UML).
Oliâs first order of business should be to tone down his self-congratulation, and try to bring into the fold those who have kept out of the constitution process. He must heal the ethnic polarisation between hills and plains, and reunite the country by pushing compromise amendments to the constitution, especially regarding federal boundaries. A former revolutionary himself, Oli is seen to be a more decisive leader and wants to leave a legacy of statesmanship. He must now also work on an economic revolution.
If we get our politics right, Nepal has everything going for it. It is a mid-sized country situated between the worldâs two most populous nations, it has vast potential for hydropower and tourism, Nepalis are a hardworking people with lots of international goodwill. The country is an exuberant democracy with a vibrant free press, and registers over 80% turnout in elections.
Nepal is small only compared to its giant neighbours, India and China. Otherwise, with its 28 million people it is the worldâs 40th most populous and has the economy of scale for a viable domestic consumer market. Nepal can benefit from its location to be a trade corridor between China and India, and a major destination for tourism and investment from both giant neighbours.
After the earthquake struck Central Nepal in April, China and India contributed more than half the US$4.4 billion pledged at an international donor conference â much more than the EU and the United States. Happily for Nepal, Beijing and New Delhi donât really compete for influence here, both want political stability in a buffer state between them.
Nepalâs vertical Himalayan topography makes it a regional storehouse for water and energy. Due to the conflict and government mismanagement, generation capacity has not kept pace with rising demand, leading to crippling 12-hour daily power rationing. Cooperation with India on electricity and water-sharing is a win-win for both countries. Asymmetry in past bilateral river schemes has made water a politically sensitive issue in Nepal. But after the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kathmandu last year, three major projects on the Mahakali, Karnali and Arun Rivers that had been delayed for decades are finally moving ahead.
Future growth in this rugged and mountainous land will also depend on fast-tracking transportation. Investors are just waiting for the right political climate to push highway, airport and railway infrastructure. Two new international airports in Pokhara and Lumbini are going ahead, and a proposed third will decongest Kathmandu to create alternative economic hubs.
Nepalâs tourism industry is underperforming because of poor facilities, inadequate marketing and security fears. A Marshall Plan for infrastructure and tourism development can create jobs so Nepalis donât have to migrate to India, the Gulf and Malaysia in such large numbers for work. About 18% of the countryâs 28 million population is employed abroad, and although the US$5 billion they send home every year props up the economy, they would be much more productive working at home on post-earthquake reconstruction.
Nepal doesnât have to re-invent the wheel. In the early 1990s, it opened up its economy, streamlined regulations and attracted a flood of investors in hydropower, manufacturing and tourism. An innovative decentralisation and self-governance legislation devolved power to the grassroots, with positive impact on development. Nepal has shown the most remarkable improvement among developing countries in reducing maternal and infant mortality. It would have been much further ahead had it not been for the war, instability and corruption.
The new constitution marks an important milestone, a chance to fix the politics and concentrate on economic development.
CA passes Nepal’s constitutionÂ Om Astha Rai
Making the best of it Editorial
A constitution, like it or not Bidushi DhungelÂ
Point of no return Anurag Acharya
Open and shut case Editorial