If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there

Former bureaucrat and planner reacts to Nepali Times analysis Business As Unusual

Nepali Times page 1 article last week Business As Unusual

The so-called experts referred to in the article Business As Unusual in the 22 September issue of Nepali Times by Ramesh Kumar, do not seem to have used their ‘expertise’ in making their observations. Their comments are thus simplistic and mutually contradictory. 

If they were using a set of commonly accepted indicators and related verifiable data, their opinion could not be mutually so disparate. I know of no economist in Nepal worth the name who have defined the characteristics specific to Nepal economy and have come up with a theoretically defensible set of prescriptions for investment and economic development in the country. 

Many of them masquerade as economists based on having acquired a degree, maybe, a PhD sometime in the past. Others after spending some time in the finance ministry as part of the musical chair of inter-ministry transfers in the bureaucracy.

Like most ‘observers’ in Nepal, these economists too dare to make profound-sounding observations based on what immediately meets their eyes. 

For instance, this year they seem to be impressed by the size of the crowd visiting the NADA auto show in Kathmandu to claim that despite the nationwide clamour to the contrary, the economy is not really in a slump. 

They are the mob economists who gauge the state of the economy by the size of the shoppers at New Road or Asan Tole.

Nepal's tragedy is that all governments headed by corrupt politicians have spent all their time and energy in defrauding the state and gullible citizens. Examples: massive scams like the Fake Bhutanese Refugee (KPO and SBD governments), Lalita Niwas (MKN and BRB governments) and recent gold smuggling (PKD government).

Meanwhile the so-called ‘Planning Commission’ and other think tanks recycle what is already in writing. There is no accountability for their total lack of delivery from their writings. 

Even at the cost of modesty, I must state that during my tenure in the government as a karmachari, I have had the distinction of innovating three major policy reforms: the institution of user groups, the forest user groups and the mothers' groups and their Female Community Health Volunteers.

Together, these policies changed the face of our nation.  As the saying goes, if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. That seems to be the fate of our planners, policy makers, self-styled economists and of course, corrupt politicians.

As things stand, as per recent agricultural survey, 62% of households remain in agriculture. A decade earlier in 2011, it was 71% whereas the sector's contribution to national GDP was only 34.3%. 

The fact that only 12% farm households have had access to agriculture credit,  a prime mover for development, and only 7% to agricultural grants, remains the most lethal of neglect to a sector on which so many people still depend. 

This clearly suggests massive deprivation of a vast majority of the country's population through unemployment and underemployment, lack of sufficient land and their vastly unequal distribution. 

While 4 million Nepalis plus a vast but unknown number working in India have migrated for income and employment, a 2018 survey showed that 900,000 people were actively looking for employment, and nearly 70% of them were in the age bracket between 15-34 years. 

While Nepal's industrial sector remains miniscule, the irony is that sunflower, palm and soyabean oils remain the major export items. Since none of those oilseeds are produced in Nepal, it only shows that our investment regime remains totally divorced from even the rudimentary rule of economic development — the principle of comparative advantage.  

The size of the crowd visiting the NADA auto show, is more the manifestation of the artificial nature of our industrial sector and remains the handiwork of corrupt and incompetent politicians, bureaucrats and an unscrupulous business community working in cahoots to profit from loopholes. 

Indian economist Jayati Ghosh who teaches at MIT, wrote about the impact of inequality in her own country in 2022, ‘The pandemic brought home to us a hard truth. Unequal access to incomes and opportunities does more than create unjust, unhealthy and unhappy societies—it kills people.’ 

Then, Nobel laureate economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esthe Duflo wrote in 2020: ‘Although no one knows when the growth locomotive will start in a given country, if and when it does, the poor will be more likely to hop on the train if they are in decent health, can read and write, and can think beyond their immediate circumstances.’

Which kleptocrat politician, bureaucrat, unprincipled economist, or hardcore politician disguised as civil society leader has thought of our problems in these terms?

Bihari Krishna Shrestha is an anthropologist and a former government secretary.

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