19 October, 2008

Touching the Moon

Sushma Joshi

The budget speech of Fiscal Year 2008-9 was given a month ago, but people, I amongst them, are still mulling it. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai quotes poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota on his fourth point: “we should aim to fly high and touch the moon.”
The shadow of poetry is apt -- indeed, the document is a piece of literature in itself, gripping in the way it tries to address the concerns of an entire nation. And like a poet's dream, the vision is large and slightly hallucinatory, addressing everything from social security for elderly people and widows to ambitious highways, from cleaning up the Bagmati to mainstreaming madrasas into the educational system. After a while, reading line after line of Dr. Bhattarai saying “I have allocated” followed by a seemingly astronomical number, the budget starts to look like a good piece of fiction. From money to prolapsed uterus to herbal collection facilities for Jumla, from electric fencing to keep out wild elephants in Jhapa to the cultivation of jatropha for bio-fuel, how will the government of Nepal deal with it all? Where will all this money come from? If a good fairy appeared waving a magic wand, does the government have the capacity to deliver on its promises?

There are points in the budget that appear to be mere poetry -- multiple infrastructure projects, which include electric railways from Mechi to Mahakali appear to be a wishlist, rather than an operational plan. As you do the math, you realise the astronomical sums are actually not enough. Is Rs.350 million enough to build 180km of Pushpalal Lokmarga, or does it require more money? Even with the donors kicking in (Indians, Chinese, British, Swiss as well multilateral donors all pitching in for the ambitious road projects), some of the infrastructure projects may not be completed for years. Five hundred rupees a month for elderly citizens above 70 years is hardly going to buy them anything, even if they walk to the nearest government office and wrestle the money out of some canny bureaucrats' hands. And the waiving of debt for people affected by natural disasters -- how will that work out, with a significant number of people beset by annual floods and droughts? Half dug roads, multiple ambitious but underfunded projects in disarray, plus those that simply never take off seem likely. The room for disappointment looms large.

At the same time, one cannot help but admire the commitment, if only on paper, to social security, food storage units in remote areas, bio-diesel, and yes, even poetry (2.5 million to celebrate the great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota's centenary ceremony.) As Dr. Bhattarai himself acknowledges: the budget is enlarged, but it has to be so to address the concerns and grievances of people through the first elected government after the conclusion of the People's War. The 100,000 rupees promised to families whose members were disappeared seem inadequate to replace a wage-earner -- at the same time, the compensation, though token, addresses the human rights violations that occurred, and gives them legitimacy and redress through government recognition and compensation.

The “seed money”, then, even if purely symbolic (let's say the Climate Change Research Centre is never established, or programmes which encourage indigenous scientists to engage in innovative research never takes off), has a purpose. The symbolic planting of the idea, including the notion that such endeavors are to be encouraged in Nepal, falls on fertile ground.

State-sponsored social security, and the notion of taking care of vulnerable citizens, along with its attendant psychological impact, may just have made a real entry into Nepal -- a pleased and excited buzz around Kathmandu informs me that senior citizens are aware of their Rs.500 entitlement, and some of them have even gotten it. Let us hope the poor can access it, not just the well-informed middle class.

The Maoists were underestimated twice -- once when the world thought they would never win the People's War, and second when they thought they would never win through a democratic election. In each occasion, the Maoists surprised the world. So let us give them the benefit of the doubt with this new budget -- surely people with vision may be able to pull it together when those with less ambition failed?

Nation-builders lay out visionary plans -- the implementation, when it happens, will happen not just through the elected and selected 601 but the entire 26 million. Perhaps that's the only point that could have been stressed more in the budget. While Dr. Bhattarai has said “I allocate” many times, and given the hope that the Government of Nepal will provide everything for everyone, he has not called enough upon people's contributions. Can the government provide the human security needs of all 26 million? Is this a reasonable demand, even?

Like the U.S., which gives tax breaks to small businesses, and to women and minority-owned businesses, which encourages entrepreneurship and rewards hard work, the government of Nepal needs to think more about ways to encourage people's contributions in budget. The U.S. has one of the easiest processes of registering a new business. In Nepal, a new business-owner steps into a byzantine process of paperwork and legal fees.

Encourage communities to start their own businesses, schools and hospitals -- give them tax breaks, or small seed grants as a financial incentive, but don't do it all. Reward those who work abroad, then return -- make it easy for them to start ventures, and invest locally. Open borders, create a safe environment for business along with labour, and create markets for Nepal's rich products. Give people hope, but don't make them wait for years.

That's when the script is rewritten from the tragedy of “Muna Madan” to poetry that flies high and touches the moon.

Posted on: 2008-10-17 21:14:22 (Server Time)

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