Mind the Gap

Diwakar Chettri

Whatever the political ambitions of the Maoist leaders, their justification for taking up arms was the inequality historically embedded in Nepali society. The rebels lit the spark on terrain that was tinder dry with disparities. Nepal would have gone up in flames sooner or later, the Maoists just had their timing right.

The tragedy, of course, is that in an allegory of Animal Farm 13 years after the war, the Maoist leaders people elected to government forgot what they fought for, and Nepal’s income and wealth gap have grown even wider. As our review of a recent report shows, Nepal’s poor are trapped in poverty while the few rich have prospered.

The report by HAMI, South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication and Oxfam paints an alarming picture of deprivation  and disparity in Nepal: the average income of the richest 10% of Nepalis is more than three times that of the poorest 40%. Worse, the richest 10% own 26 times the wealth of the poorest 10%.

Read also:

Nepal's great income divide, Ramesh Kumar

Some are more equal than others, Anil Chitrakar

Removing poverty with jobs, David Seddon

It's a rich man's world, Ramesh Kumar

Economic inequality is most evident in agriculture in which 66% of Nepalis still depend. The wealthiest 7% of households own 31% of the agricultural land, and many landless are tenant farmers at the mercy of landowners. Social discrimination multiplies the misery: 81% women are landless, as are 44% of Dalits in the Tarai.

Nepal’s wealthiest man has a net worth of $1.6 billion and is the 1,561 richest in the Forbes list. His wealth grew by $200 million last year. A history of feudalism, a rent-seeking state and neoliberal economic policies have concentrated Nepal’s wealth in the hands of a dominant elite which has made policies and laws to perpetuate its hold on it. Rulers and hangers-on have deliberately kept the poor out of reach of new opportunities, depriving them of a chance of a better life.

Such disparity also gives the movers and shakers an unfair advantage in a democracy because they can bend the system to keep getting elected, which then deprive the underserved even more. Politicians, bureaucrats and businesses can carry on with business-as-usual with no accountability, full impunity and no fear of retribution from a rigged system.

The government’s failure to deliver on basic services like health and education have driven the private sector to fill the gap. But consequent over-commericalisation and lack of regulation have put quality schooling and medical care out of reach of the poor. The government’s reaction has been to back a populist call for nationalisation to cover up its own delivery failure.

Inequality is taking its toll on the physical and mental development of children. Malnutrition begins at a very young age: 36% of Nepali children under five are stunted, 27% are underweight, and 10% suffer from wasting due to lack of adequate food. There is no greater proof of chronic governance dysfunction than this: the apathy and failure of the state to protect its most vulnerable.

No society or nation can have totally equal income or wealth distribution. But there must be a certain equilibrium so that all citizens can attain a basic quality of life and earn a standard, minimum income.

But inequality is so bad that the 8 million Nepalis who live in poverty have shorter lifespans. A poor Nepali child is three times more likely to die before age 5 than a rich child. The poor and excluded receive unequal care at government hospitals.

What is most tragic is that there is minimal recognition or commitment from successive governments to redress this injustice. Nepal ranks 138, which is nearly at the bottom of a list of 157 countries, for its Commitment to Reducing Inequality. Rampant poverty and extreme inequality build frustration among suffering citizens, increasing the chances of social instability, and possibly renewed conflict. After a revolution to liberate the poor from poverty ended up killing 17,000 of Nepal’s poorest people, the gap between the rich and poor has actually widened.

The way countries try to compensate for the inequality inherent in free market capitalism is through progressive land reform and taxation, by spending on a social safety net, and through  government investment in affordable, quality health care and education. There must be minimum wages for even those working in the informal sector, because that is where majority of Nepalis are engaged. All this would lay the foundation for a more equitable society, where the poor may not be immediately guaranteed greater income but all citizens would have a level playing field.

We have seen the current government make tentative moves to address some of these issues, but they are too little and too half-hearted. The chasm between the rich and poor is so wide that it will take more than the hollow populism of the government's ‘Prosperous Nepal and Happy Nepalis’ slogan for prosperity and happiness in our lifetime.

10 Years ago this week

This passage from the Editorial in Nepali Times #439 of 19-26 Feburary, 2009 about how the still Royal Nepal Army was trying to reassert itself warns of danger to the civilian chain of command. Excerpt:

The Nepal Army's 'recommendations' to the CA Committee on Protection of the National Interest has raised hackles. While it is the fundamental right of every citizen to respond to the CA's call for suggestions, an instrument of state is expected to abide by operational norms of proper procedure. The NA brass has clearly overstepped its limits by bypassing the executive to present its case directly before the legislature. Under normal circumstances, an organ of state has to access parliament through the concerned ministry.

 But even more alarming is the tone of the content. A civilian chain of command means the army shouldn't have a political position of its own other than that of the government of the day.

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