As a slew of stories about the poor financial performance of Nepal Airlines were getting media attention, I was coincidently turning the pages of chapter 27, 'Cartel Nation', of a book penned by former journalist and advisor to World Bank, Rajib Upadhya. The points Upadhya mentioned on Page 178 are a strong reminder of how the state-run corporations are led to their collapse by agents. Bribes were paid generously for preventing the state-owned airlines from operating on the same international routes that private airlines fly!
The chapter exposes how sordid attempts are made by the national and international agents that have a direct role to dent the state-run corporations. And, are there only agents, cabals and cartels to blame, or the esurient officials in the high positions who welcome the kickback at the cost of the system? It is a biting reality. The pervasive collusion has plagued the system, spoilt governance and disrupted development.
In his book, 'Cabals and Cartels: An Up-Close Look at Nepal's Turbulent Transition and Disrupted Development' by former journalist and advisor to World Bank, Upadhya, has, as the title suggests, made an astute observation on nearly three-decade of malaise and menace, and disruption and delusion by making clear notes on budget, planning, aid, development, finance, government, bureaucrats, revolutionaries and reformers, banks and court.
The political irresponsibility and unaccountability, splurge on aid, incompetent bureaucracy, lack of a right man in the right place, non-coordination and noncooperation, derailed peace, remittance dependency etc are meticulously presented with vignettes. Although, the writer has divided the book into two parts- 'turbulent transition' and 'disrupted development', the brief and clear accounts can be read picking any titles without worrying to relate in the earlier account.
In the first part, he brings references to monarchy, yearning for political freedom, reform 2.0, revolutionaries after the restoration of democracy, etc while the second part deals with cartels and cabals. He claims we are a 'cabal state' and 'cartel nation'. The points presented in the book encourage anyone to argue- collusion is in the DNA of the Nepali system! Having said this, it is not that the book is only a detailed account of a harrowing situation plagued by cabals and cartels. The reference to reforms and impressive economic growth are brought to everyone's notice- 'As State Minister for Finance in the early 1990s, Mahesh Acharya led a series of stroke-of-the-pen reforms.
During that tenure, an alignment of stars between the Ministry of Finance, the NPC and Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), produced policies that led to a record GDP growth rate of 7.9 per cent in 1993-94' (Pg 61). The writer further mentioned that in 1995, the Global Economic Prospects, a flagship World Bank publication, declared Nepal as 'the fastest integrating economy in South Asia.' Yes, there is no denying that smooth coordination and cooperation among these three institutions resulted in national success following the restoration of democracy. But the armed insurrection derailed the pace along with thriving corruption in collusion of politicos and bureaucrats.
The coordination of those days could be taken as a lesson by the later governments but in vain. What ruled the roost these later years however is 'bhaagbanda', which author Upadhya dubs, 'cabal politics.' Here, he links, 'The failure of Nepal's transitional justice systems is only symptomatic of a wider malaise that has plagued Nepal since the signing of CPA'. Another worrying trend he reminds me of is his Constituency Development Fund.
It was such a mechanism that lawmakers utilise to avoid fiduciary oversight, while hefty amounts had come in the form of aid, assistance, donation and remittance. Political leaders misused - all to purchase power with patronage and pork barrel. 'In any other "democracy" such a blatant misuse of taxpayer money would be hugely unethical, if not outright illegal' (Pg 167). He worried. He further worries over bleak investment. Upadhya states, 'While our neighbours all cruise the high waves of the Asian Century, Nepal, sadly, has missed the boat'. Nepal is now poised to hold three tiers of elections within a year. Political parties are mobilising cadres and campaigning massively- some in alliance and some singly. The electioneering will be intensified further as the voting day nears. With the mobilisation of leaders, cadres, voters and the general public, what is mobilised next? Money!
But, where does the money come from? Who provides money and why? It is indeed a dogged situation and manifests at the same time. The writer mentions, 'Well-endowed trade unions and their connections to the political bosses posed an existential threat. The willful defaulters included some big corporate daddies who also happened to generously sponsor both the parties and unions' (Pg 56). What are the prizes these sponsors get for being generous? It later results in the ill influence they exert on policies and law-making that benefits them. It then finely paves way for cartels. We are aware that the sheer lack of the right man in the right place in Nepali bureaucracy is not a new problem. Because of this, the bureaucracy has to handle the affairs with incompetent ones, slow couch. The writer remembers how the late secretary Madhav Ghimire had to censure his staff to excel in work style, deal with donors effectively and deliver efficiently.
Not to forget, Upadhya has talked about the Rani Jamara Kuleriya irrigation scheme in Bardiya, in the western Tarai, appreciating, 'to marvel at how the indigenous Tharu community still operates, manages and maintains an expansive irrigation scheme that is perfectly functional over 100 years after it was designed and developed. It is a remarkable project- an example of innovation which the author says, 'communities took their fate into their own hands.'
In addition to this, UNMIN's biased role, the politics within World Bank headquarters in case of chastising the then Country Director, Ken Ohashi, his (Upadhya) initiative to set up a society of economic journalists (SEJON) by picking vibrant journalists, foreign experts' views on Nepal's development and economic reforms, institution building and 'aafno manche' are another interesting read. The book is a must-read for development professionals, budget makers and shapers, donors and aid agencies, development partners and practitioners, politicos and media persons. The ideas incorporated in the book carry an urgent plea for change. But, are the concerned ones ready to realise it? The book is published by FinePrint. Also available on Amazon, the price is tagged as $ 6.99.