Can't get no satisfaction

On the face of it, when 41% of Nepalis in a public opinion poll say the country is headed in the right direction it could be taken as a decent level of approval of the government’s performance. Indeed, the way the question is framed in the Nepali language gives broad leeway for interpretation: if we should be going north, any course bearing between 270 degrees to 90 degrees would mean we are more or less on the right track.

The question was part of a public opinion survey carried out by Kathmandu-based Sharecast Initiative in January among a statistically representative sample of 4,129 respondents in Nepal’s 42 districts. The survey takes the pulse of the nation, showing the general mood of Nepalis two years after local governments took office, and a little over a year after the federal and provincial governments were formed. In all three tiers of government, it is mostly the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) that holds sway – only Province 2 and a handful of municipalities are with other parties.

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As with Himalmedia polls in previous years, the results show that the Nepali people are alert and aware of what is going on – they also seem to be short-term pessimists and long-term optimists. Even if 41% of respondents felt the country was on the right course, a full 27.1% felt Nepal was headed in the wrong direction, and 22.6% were undecided (see chart above).

One of the more positive outcomes of the survey was the response to a question on which facilities people have in their homes. The government’s initiatives over the past four decades on safe drinking water, sanitation, rural electrification and infrastructure appear to be yielding results. Well over 90% of Nepalis now have access to electricity and latrines. Three-quarters live near a road, or use gas cylinders for cooking. Although the 74% with access to safe drinking water is still quite low, and only 5% of mountain dwellers live near a black-topped road, overall the country is making progress. Which may be why so many seem to think that Nepal is headed more or less in the right direction.

However, there is growing public dissatisfaction with the government: only 4.2% were happy with the functioning of the federal government, 35% were dissatisfied and nearly 61% said they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. The greatest discontent is in Province 3 and Far-Western Province. People in the centre and the periphery both give Kathmandu failing grades.

People do not seem to have faith in the federal Parliament either: more than a quarter of respondents said they did not trust the legislature, only 7% said they trust it, and 43% were ambivalent. Neither was there much approval of the performance of local governments: more than 26% were dissatisfied, and only 7% satisfied with the way provinces and municipalities were going about their business; 66% were apathetic.

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The survey also proves just how important migration for work overseas has become for Nepalis. More than a quarter of respondents said they had a family member working abroad, with the highest percentages among Muslims and Hill Dalits, and in Far-Western Province. Tarai 'High Castes' in Province 2 and Tharu households had the fewest members abroad. Most of the money sent home by overseas workers goes into subsistence (food, clothing, children’s education and medical treatment), and very little of it is invested in land, saved in banks or ploughed into productive sectors.

Opinion surveys are a way for a democratic country’s rulers to gauge the public mood between elections. They should also be a wake-up call so course corrections can be made. They are a tool available to politicians, the bureaucracy and other agencies of the state to see if their actions fulfil the aspiration of citizens. Many of these checks and balances in a country are performed by democratic institutions and the mass media, but when the performance of other sectors of the state (legislature, judiciary, executive, bureaucracy and the security agencies) is not at an optimum, opinion surveys directly reflect the public’s frame of mind.

It is clear from some of the results of the survey in this edition that citizens’ faith in government is faltering, that a large section of the public does not trust politicians and that they are unhappy with the slow pace of development. Yet, they have not given up hope and hold out the expectation that things will get better. It is still not too late for the NCP government to go beyond slogans, deliver more than rhetoric, and walk the talk.