Nepal at the edge of the COVID-19 precipice

Connect the dots: oil import, electric cars, drop in remittances, air pollution, corinavirus lockdown

Illustration: Bhanu Bhattarai

Albert Einstein is attributed for defining insanity as repeating the same process again and again, but expecting a different result. By this logic, we human beings are stark raving bonkers. But excelling even more on Einstein’s madness scale would be us Nepalis.

President Bidya Devi Bhandari recently recited a two-and-half hour long speech about the government’s plans and policies. In parliamentary systems, this is just a formality. But Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada proceeded to deliver his budget speech from the same podium that completely contradicted what she had laid out a few days previously.

As usual, the budget speech is a cut-and-paste job that repeated ad nauseum a wish list that has been repeated ad nauseum before.  Wonder if the same person has been writing the speech for decades, with minor edits to suit the political masters of the day.

The budget cannot just be a menu followed by ad-hoc allocations and some vague source of revenue. It needs to give the people a clear direction – especially at time when it is clearly headed to the edge of the coronavirus precipice.

Traditional wisdom says that if you want to make God laugh, tell him/her/it that you have A Plan. Nepal always seems to have a plan for every situation. The only problem with these plans is that they never get implemented.

Some donor-funded projects do get some work done because the agencies doling out the money are accountable to tax payers back home. But even here, Nepalis have to watch from the sidelines because the way contracts are awarded and the method with which the government, its development partners and lenders procure services, is opaque and restricted.

One of the goals is ‘capacity building’. It always has been. The hidden costs of doing business in Nepal is on the rise, and unless you have an inside track nothing moves. No wonder the poor always end up paying more for almost everything.

So, chocolate is going to be cheaper and electric vehicles are going to be more expensive. That is what the average person on the street has concluded about the budget. Nepal will generate 1,300MW more power this year, doubling its generation capacity.

But the Finance Minister does not want to create a market for surplus power by encouraging electric vehicles. Everyone gets it. A senior government official says  government drivers, administrators, and accountants will never allow us to replace diesel and petrol vehicles because they still have not figured out how to pilfer from electric vehicles. Once this problem is solved, you can be sure electric vehicles will become a normal part of our life.

So we will have plenty of cheap chocolate, a lush new carpet at the presidential palace, and cabinet ministers who look really fit because they are getting a new gym. Now that foreign hospitals and treatment are not an option due to the lockdown, it makes perfect sense. Someone has also figured out that Nepal’s donors will pay for almost anything in the wish list, but a carpet and gym maybe a bit of a push. We know how to work these systems.

Many thinkers and writers have taught us that the problem with the present application of capitalism is that all the profit goes into private pockets or bank accounts, but all the costs and risks are ultimately socialised. No one can tell us where and how our politicians became so good at condemning capitalism, but they do not quite seem to get the idea for the need to replace imported fossil fuels, which are paid for by precious foreign currency earned by our young migrant workers.

They do not seem to get the link between the cost of imported vehicles, imported fossil fuel, declining jobs in foreign lands, numerous Indian blockades and air pollution that makes all of us vulnerable to COVID-19 which seems to prefer to attack the respiratory system. Then there is climate change, but that was dealt with on World Environment Day. The budget should be the platform that establishes these linkages.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that our vulnerability depends on our health and also our wealth. Many rich people do not work in the essentials services sector, have health insurance and access to the best services. The poor, who should be more concerned, demand an end to the lockdown and the need to go back to the old normal that was, all said and done, working in their favour. Change is easy to demand but very difficult to implement.

The poor, who have neither health nor wealth, get sick, die and leave their families poorer than before. Breaking this vicious cycle is what the budget needed to address. It is this systemic poverty that keeps many politicians in power.

The poor become the vote bank, and the poverty card is played every four to five years to get into positions of power. The budget making process forgets who and how they got into power in the first place.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddhartinc and this is his fortnightly column ½ Full in Nepali Times.

Anil Chitrakar


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