State of the stateThe macro-economic situation may look ok, but Nepal’s economy is a wreck
This tipper truck (above) was washed down by a flash flood on the Sabha Khola on 19 June as the first monsoon squalls lashed eastern Nepal. It showed increasing risk to infrastructure projects from climate-induced extreme weather, especially on rivers with cascade hydropower projects.
But the spectacle of a truck lying half-submerged on its side was also emblematic of the sorry state of the Nepali state. The fake refugee scandal exposed corruption in high places and how it has hollowed out the country from within (Editorial). Impunity is so rife that a ruling party absolves its vanguard students for maiming university officials. Murderers go scot-free to keep the ruling coalition intact.
A populist mayor oversteps his brief to reclaim Nepal’s pre-1816 boundaries and concurrently declares war on Bollywood for a non-existent dialogue so as to distract public attention from failures to address more pressing everyday issues faced by citizens. He then weaponises social media to silence critics. Ultra-nationalism is the last resort of scoundrels.
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The truck is also symbolic of the shambolic state of the economy. Commentators cried wolf earlier this year warning that Nepal was going the way of Sri Lanka despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, Nepal’s macroeconomic state is now quite robust with foreign exchange reserves enough to pay for 11 months of imports, and remittance inflows hitting record levels.
Reserves increased because of last year’s import curbs. But solving one crisis created a bigger one: reducing imports also brought down tax revenue. Without that revenue, the government has much less money for capital investment and most of the available cash is spent on recurrent expenditure.
Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat’s budget is problematic at many levels, and even the NC’s coalition partners have sworn not to pass it because of perceived favouritism to some districts. He slashed the import tax on certain types of LPG cylinders to appease two gas companies, and raised taxes on electric public transport and cheaper battery vehicles.
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Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Delhi signed a deal for two new oil pipelines to import petroleum from India. The commitments Nepal’s rulers have made at climate conferences is just greenwash.
But perhaps the most egregious item in the budget is a provision to retroactively tax FPOs and other profits from mergers, stock and property transactions. Banks and businesses are up in arms and have met the prime minister, finance minister and other officials saying it will kill foreign investment at a time when the economy is already a wreck.
“This does not happen anywhere else in the world,” said one banker who was in a delegation to meet officials, but did not want to be named. “The government is so desperate for revenue so it has money to splurge on wasteful things that it is taxing everything left, right and centre.”
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Finance Minister Mahat has refused to budge, saying the budget is written in stone, and reportedly told businesses which had gone to see him that they could always go to the courts to challenge it.
With cooperatives folding, banks in crisis, and the government cash-strapped, one would have thought that Prime Minister Dahal’s government would be busy addressing the economic crisis. But by visiting shrines, his message seems to be: “Only Pashupatinath can protect us now.”
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