Nepal’s elusive ‘Great Transformation’


This short book, Political Economy of Social Change and Development in Nepal, by Jeevan Sharma, a senior lecturer on South Asia and international development at the University of Edinburgh, packs a punch.

Drawing on his own original field research and the ideas of Karl Polanyi on The Great Transformation (1944) as well as secondary literature, Sharma has produced a holistic overview and analysis of the economic, social and political transformation that Nepal has experienced over recent decades.

`His work challenges many of the prevailing characterisations and explanations of that process, and identify some of the contradictions that underlie the more visible fault lines that others like Ram Sharan Mahat and Baburam Bhattarai also have identified.

In his Introduction Sharma writes that ‘change, transformation and development have been recurrent themes, not only in everyday conversations, political rhetoric and social movements, but also in Nepali public culture and literary writings since the 1950s’.

He then reviews both the main features of the changes that have taken place since the 1950s and also some of the different theoretical and empirical studies that have addressed those changes.

Sharma warns against the uncritical adoption of Polanyi’s framework for ‘the Global South’, but argues that a more complex model, involving ‘a three-sided constellation of conflict among proponents of marketisation, adherents of social protection and partisans of emancipation’, would make it possible to connect ‘politics, society and economy’.

He does not consider in any detail alternative approaches to the ‘political economy’ of social change and development in Nepal (eg the ‘neo-liberal’ and the Marxist) although he sees the ten-year Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) as part of a broader movement for social justice, rights and citizenship that he argues has been developing ‘since the 1950s’.

The book has four main chapters, each considering an axis of change. Chapter 2 ‘From Subjects to Citizens’ considers Nepal’s political ‘transition’ focuses particularly on the period since the 1950s.

The first half of the chapter charts the uneven process the transition from subjects to citizens at the national level, the second half examines local perceptions of the dynamics of social change with particular reference to changes in caste, gender and local power relations and to the role of the Maoist insurgency in bringing about these changes. This section draws on Sharma’s own fieldwork in western Nepal.

Chapter 3 ‘Peasantry, Mobility and the Changing Face of Rural Nepal’ looks briefly at the economic and social history of the peasantry in Nepal and ‘changing rural society’, exploring the diversification of rural livelihoods, the weakening of ‘caste-based feudal relations’ and the commodification of labour. This leads on to a consideration of migration, which he rightly sees as having a long history from the mid-18th century onwards.

Somewhat controversially, Sharma identifies three to five ‘waves’ of migration, the last of which became more widespread after the 1990s and ‘has come to shape the nature of the remittance-based national economy of Nepal’ – leaving many Nepalis in low-paid, highly exploitative and precarious employment.

I would have preferred to see migration as characterised by different ‘forms’ or ‘regimes’, often contemporaneous rather than sequential. And despite the undoubted importance of remittances in contemporary Nepal would contest the notion that Nepal’s economy is ‘remittance-based’.

There are many different strands in Nepal’s complex integration in the wider regional and global economy, including not only the export of labour, but also of other resources as commodities, and the importation of commodities from other countries, foreign direct investment, loans and ‘foreign aid’.

It is also debatable, as the climate crisis deepens in this most vulnerable of countries, whether paid employment away from home is necessarily more precarious than livelihoods based on agriculture and embedded in a local economy and society often characterised by hierarchy and inequality.  

Chapter 4 ‘Mobility and Educational and Occupational Futures’ focuses on the experiences of young men from rural Nepal as they struggle to overcome the challenges of mobility and find secure, and salaried employment.

It draws heavily on Sharma’s fieldwork in Palpa and explores ‘social meanings and patterns of mobility’, looking at the links between education and employment in particular, but also considering the significance of caste and ethnic identities in determining outcomes.

This chapter is particularly rich in ethnographic terms, and complements Sharma’s earlier work on ‘youth, migration and masculinities in Nepal’. It would be good if some anthropologist were to undertake a similar investigation into the education and subsequent livelihoods of girls and women.

Chapter 5 ‘Development and Patronage Politics’, while referring to programs undertaken during the early 20th century ‘that would fall under what is broadly regarded as development’, Sharma sees 1950 as ‘a critical moment in Nepal’s development history’.

He examines briefly what he calls the ‘initial rush for development’ in the 1950s and then the program of ‘nation-building through Bikas’ under the Panchayat System dominated by King Mahendra.

This is followed by a review of the period after the first Jana Andolan from 1990 to 1996 (‘democratisation for development’) and of the Maoist insurgency (‘conflict and development’) from 1996-2006.

Sharma considers the Maoists’ theory, strategy and practical contribution to economic, social and political change. While recognising that ‘development was at the core of Maoist ideology and strategy’ and acknowledging their positive influence in certain areas – notably addressing inequality and social discrimination – he seems largely unimpressed by their actual achievements and has a number of negative things to say about their practice.

Somewhat surprisingly, he does not refer in any detail to their theoretical and political analysis of development and underdevelopment, despite several of the Maoist leadership publishing them widely.

He notes, however, that the Maoist insurgency prompted various development agencies to reconsider their own strategy for addressing ‘structural violence and discrimination’ – resulting in the establishment of a new consensus on the priority on gender, caste and ethnicity through the lens of  inclusion and empowerment.

This effectively downgraded the concerns of economic (class) inequality, and poverty, which had hitherto been a main concern of both the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development (DfID).

He also remarks that the conflict itself had the effect of accelerating the process of migration, both temporary and permanent, from the rural areas to the towns and abroad, thereby contributing to the transformation of both rural and urban economy and society.

‘The Maoist insurgency coincided with a major economic change in Nepal, that is, the commodification of land and labour as never before, with the deepening of the market in the citizens’ everyday lives,’ he writes.

This process continued in the next period, following Jana Andolan II and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2006, as the Maoists re-entered the mainstream of Nepali politics and contributed to the peace process and state re-structuring.

This led to the establishment of an interim government, the abolition of the monarchy, and the election of a Constituent Assembly charged with the task of drawing up a new constitution, for a secular, federal republic.

The excitement of the early years of this period (2006-2008) was followed by seven years of political wrangling and lack of direction until, eventually, shortly after the April-May 2015 earthquake, a new Constitution was finally promulgated in September.

This was marked by controversy, and failed to advance any of the promising elements of the CPA, including Article 3.13. which envisaged ‘a policy of massive increase in employment and income generation opportunities by increasing investment in industries, trade and export promotion’.

Sharma argues that ‘sluggish economic growth and lack of jobs have created economic precarity’, and that while demands for greater rights for various social minorities have tended to take centre stage, there has been little or no appetite on the part of government or opposition, development agencies or civil society, for economic justice. 

Sharma argues that ‘beyond the immediate impact on the economy and lives and livelihoods, the earthquake had a seismic impact on Nepal’s long political transition’.  I would disagree.

Although it resulted in the ‘fast-tracking of the Constitution-writing process’, the earthquake failed to promote a new sense of common endeavour or urgency, even as regards physical reconstruction after the earthquake. The interventions of the foreign agencies in its aftermath were un-coordinated and subject to widespread criticism.

Controversies over aspects of the Constitution and the very different responses to it from China and India, provided fuel for a ‘new Nepali nationalism’, as Sharma suggests – even if this nationalism proved divisive rather than integrative.

This period was marked on the one hand by a national debate over the precise form the promised new ‘federal’ structure would take, and efforts to delineate the contours of a new, more decentralised polity, while on the other hand, political discourse and practice continued to be characterised by the dominance of elite politics at all levels, national, regional and local, and by the pervasive and malign phenomenon of corruption and patronage.

Sharma ends this chapter by remarking that ‘the politics of the distribution of development has been realised in practice by distributional coalitions’. In other words, development in Nepal is not the broad-based, inclusive form of positive economic, social and political transformation that the term often implies, but rather a narrowly conceived and implemented, and fragmented, ‘sharing of the spoils’.

The book ends with a consideration of ‘Precarity and Paradox in Once-Remote Locations’, on the contradictions of globalisation for a social formation on the periphery of the global political economy that retains many of the characteristics of pre-capitalism. It also looks into the nature of life on the periphery – which involves integration in the global political economy but creates ‘precarious livelihoods’.

Sharma is concerned that Nepal’s integration into the wider world has so far failed to generate the appropriate ‘counter-movement’ to safeguard and protect the lives and livelihoods of the majority of ordinary Nepalis, even if it has apparently reduced poverty, allowed the emergence of a middle class, and enabled a minority to accumulate considerable wealth.

Nepal’s continuing and arguably increasing reliance on foreign labour migration is both a cause and a consequence of the failure to generate decent, reasonably secure employment and economic opportunities within the country.

It is a failure of both the public and the private sector, but it is also a consequence of the lack of an enduring movement for economic, social and political reform (or revolution) to bring about a ‘great transformation’ in Nepal.

David Seddon is a former Professor of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia and now independent researcher and writer.

Political Economy of Social Change and Development in Nepal

Jeevan R. Sharma

Bloomsbury Academic India, 2021

215 pp.