Nepali Times Asian Paints
Strictly Business
Dealing with disputes


. A federation of Dalit activists splintered into factions early this week.
. Disgruntled employees of Kathmandu University (KU) are battling it out in the letters pages of the papers
. For the last several months, the Nepal Industrial Development Corporation (NIDC) and Yak & Yeti Hotel have been at loggerheads over the use of an access road.

On one level, these quarrels do not make sense. NIDC exists, presumably, to help companies including hotels. KU must have procedures in place to address employee grievances. And you'd think Dalit leaders would cast differences aside to maintain unity for the far more important goal of fighting to end discrimination.

But these and other quarrels that spill into our public domain do conform to an observation about our societies: when it comes to finding ways to end conflicts, our social, political and legal institutions routinely fail us. While few see Nepalis as quarrelsome people, when faced with quarrels, we lack institutions to help us end conflicts as speedily and amicably as possible so that we can pick up the pieces and get on with our lives.

As a result, we often see no choice but to either drag the quarrels on for a long time, even through generations, in some cases, or apply fistfight-equivalent tactics to get quick justice. In either case, the damages in terms of hurt emotions, dented reputations, strained relationships and lost businesses are bigger than any putative short-term gains.

Isn't it time we looked for ways to see what can be done to better resolve our inevitable disputes faster? Take our courts, for instance. They make up a bulk of our formal dispute-resolution process. But they are overwhelmed by an avalanche of cases.

From 1999 to 2003, more than 500,000 cases were filed in the Supreme Court, appeals and district courts. By types, almost 300,000 were about just three issues: land, family and business transactions. Given the constraints of time and resources, it's safe to predict that the courts will never address the majority of those cases. And even in cases where courts render decisions (as in NIDC vs. Yak & Yeti) enforcement of verdicts remains an issue. Disputing parties continue to engage in fights instead of accepting decisions, cutting losses and moving to solutions.

Since democracy allows people to have differences without having to kill one another, quarrels are bound to happen. As such, we should welcome them as openings to air differences. But once they are aired, we need to have institutions in place to deal with them. One solution is to develop alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as arbitration and give such processes a legal authority to address quarrels.

Anecdotes suggest that we have informal arbitration processes in some communities. But the challenge is to formalise them so that arbitration with regard to land, labour, contract and family disputes becomes a respected alternative to going to courts. Such respect will have three good effects: the load on courts will be lighter, more quarrels will be resolved and many interested Nepalis will grow up to be arbitrators.

One result of all this is not that we will have fewer quarrels. It's that in case of disputes, we will know what to do to resolve them speedily, inexpensively and with respect for our social, cultural and legal norms. After all, it's in the interest of our larger democracy to see all sorts of quarrels as problems in search of solutions, if only we are creative and persistent enough.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)