Policy lessons from Nepal


Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. 2017

This week completes over six months of formal engagement with Nepal’s development sector. On the sidelines of the second Nepal Investment Summit which is being held for the second time, after the first one in the 1990s, there seems to be a recognition of need for investment in economic growth of the country. There is also a pressure on the government to take faster decisions on proposed projects.

I first visited this country in 2008. Early observations were with an eye of a traveler from the neighbouring country. Last year, work led to understanding Nepal’s development context (and challenges) better. Here are a couple of policy lessons that emerge from this experience:

  1. Influence of geopolitics on public policy: This link is under appreciated  in policy literature, in my opinion. Domestic policies in Nepal’s case are significantly influenced by factors emerging outside the country. The choices for low income countries (LICs) in the current global context are by far limited. It is well acknowledged that infrastructure like roads, electricity, healthcare etc are vital for improvement in basic quality of life which then is likely to translate into economic growth. In low income countries like Neopal, most of this vital infrastructure is poor. To get this built should (and is) a national priority. This is where LICs have tough choices to make because their own investment and expertise potential is low. These must be supported by someone else. If these are aid agencies then they are driven by the aid providing country’s strategic agenda. If the support comes from multilateral agencies then these come with conditionalities (as Latin American and Asian countries very well know by now). If the support comes from regional powers (in Nepal’s case India and China) then the geopolitical considerations take the center-stage. Nepalese attempts at improving its economic growth are limited by the rate at which it builds highways, electricity generation and supply among other things. Japanese agencies have helped fund some of the highways over the last decade. One Belt One Road (OBOR) project proposed by China is another strategic project which awaits Nepalese government’s approval. On the southern side, India continues its support to build postal highways and other roads leading into Nepal from Indian border. The progress on all of these highways which are important for Nepal’s domestic trade are influenced by changing nature of relationship with its neighbours. A basic core of policies driven by domestic context and demands appears to be weak in Nepal. Our discussions with civil society groups reveals that the national policies on water and sanitation too are influenced by aid agencies and their financial support. This is what I mean by influence of geopolitics on public policy. 
  2. Governance capacity gaps are more debilitating than financial capacity in the long run : The common refrain for state of affairs – poor infrastructure, weak state capacity, governance issues etc, is that LICs lack financial resources to fix them. This need not be true. Answers to efficiency and service delivery do not emerge from national exchequer.
  3. Often times, strengthening democracy is a necessary condition in societies with diverse ethnic and social groups: At ATREE@20 conference last month in Bengaluru, Kamal Bawa sat listening to the presentations on conservation and development. The tension between development aspirations and conservation was a key theme. Towards the end, Bawa remarks that only an authoritarian regime can decisively and conclusvely act towards the environmental, conservation and development challenges. Democracies aren’t as capable. I could see that Bawa was acknowledging the strength of a democratic system and at the same time speaking of its strong limitation in being able to address the challenges in a short span of time. In its long drawn process of addressing societal and environmental challenges. However, what democracies come up with are equitable solutions, if not entirely sustainable.

Though on a tangential topic, this insight is useful as one sees Nepal struggling with laying a foundation for a strong democracy since the democratic Constitution of 1990. Until democratic form of governance finds its root, there might not be an end to the frequent clashes and shutdowns of various regions that are fighting for rights and representation.

Journalist Prashant Jha writes that “instability has remained the norm, with a government canging every nine months.Nepal democratic trajectory is framed succintly in his book “Battles of the New Republic” –

From war to peace, from monarchy to republicanism, from being a Hindu kingfom to secularism, from being unitary to a potentially federal state, and from a narrow hill-centric notion of nationalism to an inclusive sense of citizenship – Nepal’s transformation was, and is, among the most ambitious political experiments in recent years in South Asia.

4. Public policy in fragile states must engage with and respond to political reality:

While some debate whether there can be any semblance of policy in a fragile state (politically), I argue that if it engages with political reality and respond to it within the extremely short time that an incumbent government has, that can lead to a minimal core of polcies. Every incoming party tends to pick up reins from the past and improvise on it. If the template is engineered such that it formalises priorities, there might be hope for continuity. This is arguably difficult. For instance, labour policy in Nepal can benefit from this. Almost every government in the last decade has seen its youth migrate to Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and to Europe for work, any kind of work. The country now earns substantially from remittances. A policy to regulate and channelize remittances and at the same time care for its migrating workers’ rights in distant lands, could have earned the government a major support group. As it now stands, the migration is largely driven by distress at home.

The above are visceral responses to the state of public policy in Nepal. On a deeper engagement, it could be true that some or all of these are unfounded. However, it helps my learning that I put them here as they emerge in the head.

A way forward for aid agencies that work in Nepal could be to look at interventions that enhance governance and policy-making capacities of the government as a priority. This involves the danger of transplanting ideas from elsewhere into a different context and see things getting messed up, however, this is arguable. There still exists a core set of ideas that are useful and effective in helping an economy make best use of its resources and enhance living conditions of its people.

The cross seems heavy to bear


A hyper modern museum space (Astrup Fearnley) right on the old harbour in Oslo. The landscape continues to change with high intensity construction activity.

In Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent six weeks in Scandinavia (Norway mostly) and in countries of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveler, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. Likewise with me! It was to do with Brexit, immigration crisis and the rise of nationalistic fervour above the super-nationalistic identity that EU tried to drive in all these decades.

In Norway, the human-nature relationship is said to be special (vs. other part of the world). The fact that Norwegians enjoy a very high standard of living and at the same time have managed to achieve a high degree of environmental conservation is always foregrounded in discussions. Norwegian values and its landscapes are also said to be a part of the inspiration that led Arne Naess to articulate his ideas in deep ecology. This meant that while I moved around Oslo and its suburbs, I was quite consciously looking for evidence of such a relationship. Oslo’s high number of electric cars and ubiquitous charging pods for these cars for sure was one. However, I wanted to know what kind of discourse on environment, nature and human relationship went on here. This is what I was after. And then perhaps, having identified it, contrast it with the Asian context. Is it some kind of enlightened thinking going on in other parts of the world that is amiss in the Asians or Indians in particular?

The intent is to talk of environmental thinking and the contemporary discourse on environment. Climate change negotiations at those high profile and widely televised COP meetings to me smack of a doublethink on the OECD nations’ part. It seems unfair ( coming from a region which loves ending its sentences with “… in all fairness.” & “To be fair…”) that the burden of environmental concern and therefore reduction in carbon footprint should fall on countries in Asia, primarily India and China.

To complete this twisted picture of an environmental values of the OECD countries, we have the activists in Indian metropolitan cities whose action and thought go as far as the city’s parks and town halls where they can either light candles or hold placards or arrange public talks against the latest proposed infrastructure ( a steel flyover lately, in Bengaluru). It appears incomplete – their variety of action.

The Cross Seems Heavy to Bear

There appears to be an undue burden placed on an average man on the streets of India, to think about environmental impact and the impending crises. What is she to do about it? Everyone seems to have a prescription. But is that practicable or should the action start with an individual first (followed by systemic measures) is a question which needs a thought. This has been a continuing frustration with the arguments and reasoning that the activists and some of the policy makers push forth.

An ecological consciousness which drives conduct from a mere instrumental relationship to a blend of altruistic and instrumental behaviour with nature has undergone a re-discovery in twenty-first century. India seemed to have locked up its ecological consciousness away in a chest which would later on be broken into by recurrent environmental crises – year on year drought, floods, loss of soil fertility etc. During the decades of Nehruvian push towards modernization of India through its modern ‘temples’ – industries, damns, power plants etc, ecology formed neither a consideration in public policy nor in scientific planning a worthy factor. Note that it was the modern Indian state making that decision. The citizenry followed along – some gained from the benefits that the projects had to offer, some who stood in the path of the big projects were relocated and some others found careers of a lifetime in those enterprises. What agency if any could have an individual exercised if she felt not in favour of these large projects of modernization?

Also, this was well within the paradigm of the times, wherein the countries of the West took the same path to development – by dispensing with considerations of ecological impact and pushing up the exploitation of natural resources to the advancement as well as fulfillment of human needs. Soon enough, the impacts of ecological recklessness were to be felt across countries, with each one facing consequences proportionate to their extent of exploitation. The cross of environmental degradation and resultant loss seems heavy to bear. What are the options then, that a way back to an ecologically sustainable way of life can be found? With whom and where must it start from?

A look at the current ecological discourse shows a resurgence of themes like ecological processes and their relationship with development. This was identified by thinkers like Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, E F Schumacher and within India, by Gandhi with his ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. Besides these, anthropologists have written about man and nature relationship in earlier societies which embodied this form of behaviour.[1] Among these, an idea which perhaps hold potential to provide a philosophical foundation to the thought on way ahead is Naess’ exhortation for an ‘enlargement of the ego-self to eco-self’. This, he argued, might result in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. While Naess’ gaze appears to be directed at the individual, I argue that the same thought must be first applied to nations and their governments. It is with the state’s apparatus which should move towards an eco-self – an ‘eco-self of the state’. A state’s eco-self is a better suited site of action than an individual who as a citizen may not have the same influence and power to negotiate with the state vis-à-vis other citizens. Partha Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil society and political society identifies this differential power equation and how the state deals with the two groups in accordance with their status.

The climate change negotiations at the Climate Change summits are unlikely to work with technological and monetary interventions which are forever sharpened as though someday it would reach a state of perfection where the inter-nation differences over environmental impact and conservation would suddenly cease to exist. It needs a combination of these approaches with a direction for governments which face the crisis of venturing forth into imagining an ecological-self that does not call upon them to sacrifice their lifestyles and neither impinges on their future desires of consumption, material comfort and aspiration. This is the real challenge that domestic as well as global public policy is set against. These might manifest as conflict of interests, however, the underlying cause is a deadlock in being able to think about how one might conceptualize a path which lessens the human impact on environment and at the same time makes the inevitable cross a bit easier to bear.

[1] See Martinez Alier on Environmentalism of the Poor, Jared Diamond on collapse of societies and Rev John Malthus on overpopulation.

The Middle Path to Development: Lessons from Bhutan’s environment policy

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

If there is a place which can make a traveler feel intimate with it in the shortest time since her arrival, Paro would be it. A gushing river of clear water and a fort marks the entrance to the town. The air is an invitation to inhale deep and a reminder that this is not usual for a traveler from any other part of the world – to breathe deep! Two main thoroughfares encompass the town- its houses, shops, parks and public spaces. Sitting on a ledge at the Taktsang Monastery waiting for the monastery to re-open after lunch break, a chance conversation with an officer of Bhutan’s Forest Services served as the early hints of ‘the middle path’. The place couldn’t have been any more momentous. The ‘middle path’ in Buddhism is described as the path of moderation. To Buddhists, it signifies a path of wisdom which strikes a balance between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Path is also how the environmental policy of Bhutan articulates the way forward.
High in these mountains of Eastern Himalayas, the remarkability lies in the relationship between the people and environment. Does it hit the sweet spot of ‘sustainability’? Not quite. Yet, there is something of great value that the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan offers in thinking about the environment. The National Environment Commission of Bhutan was born in this town after the 1990 Paro Workshop on Environment and Sustainable Development. The NEC’s responsibility was to draw up a ‘national strategy to ensure that environmental concerns become an integral part of the development agenda’. The ultimate goal of the National Environment Strategy (NES), a report of the Commission explains, is to ‘minimise or mitigate the impacts that are likely to result from the development process’. This is where Bhutan’s remarkability lies. The NES, which is a policy document, articulates, with remarkable honesty, the kind of challenge the country is likely to face in the future.
The following quotes from the NES document of 1998 illustrate the environmental potential of a political system. Formally, this system is a constitutional monarchy currently, although at the time NES document of 1998 was written Bhutan was a monarchy. The democratic reforms are of very recent origin. The members of the National Assembly have mandated the country to maintain a forest cover of more than 60% (National Forest Policy, 1974) at all times. Forest cover stands at more than 72.5% of the country. The document on NES, 1998 states,

The Middle Path-National Environment Strategy for Bhutan aims to highlight issues, potential problems and constraints, and choices that our country has to make in order to ensure the conservation of our natural resources while pursuing economic development.

There is a certain kind of policy thinking that this statement reflects – one in which problems are articulated and acknowledged in the barest form of honesty. Problem recognition in policy making is regarded as the first step towards effective policy making. Further, examine the questions that the NES, 1998 posits to itself and seeks to remedy,

Can we adopt modern development while still maintaining our traditional values?
Can we accept the need to develop industries, social infrastructure and markets, while still recognising that development is not material development alone, but the enhancement of knowledge, spiritual and cultural development? Can we maintain our traditional values and sustainable livelihoods in a changing global environment? Can we raise the living standards of the present population without compromising the country’s cultural integrity, historical heritage or the quality of life for future generations?

These questions reflect a searching intent in the policy thinking of Bhutan’s political system. Another instance is use of the word ‘spiritual’ in a policy document which stands at odds with the positivist and objective traditions of policy science. This is the variety of progressiveness which is yet to be seen as a norm in policy thinking. The intent of this piece has been to highlight how political systems do hold potential for environmental consciousness and factor in sustainability in their development process. Does Bhutan have these answers? Why don’t we see political contestations in Bhutan over different interests as one might see in India? Ethnic homogeneity in the Bhutanese society seems to be advantageous on this front. In addition to it, democracy is nascent in Bhutan and this perhaps explains the absence of dissenting voices.

In 2012, Bhutan announced its decision to become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The country has been known as a model for proactive conservation initiatives and has received international acclaim for its commitment to its biodiversity. This is a testimony to the fact that Bhutan’s policy thinking is in a direction that other countries can take a leaf from.

Quick Take: Policy as the new law

Is policy the new law? The quick take here pursues this question.

The observation appears to hold ground considering the manner in which important decisions are made and implemented by governments worldwide, although this applies more to democracies than other forms of political systems. There is an increasing preference to policy making over law making. This shift in a way marks a weakening of constitutionalism as the traditionalists knew it. The shift was subtle to begin with in post World War – II era and became a rapid transformation after the emergence of structural reforms and new public management.  Newly independent countries  either accepted the structural reforms which basically made countries change their governance style via policy than law making or had to forego development aid and loans. The preference for policy making in such a context is evident.

The policy route to change is probably due to a shorter path to implementing a new order and significantly less public resistance and scrutiny that policy making involves. Making laws is slower and fraught with public scrutiny and interference. Policy making tends to happen in a government space which is deeply embedded and is far higher in reach and access to citizenry in comparison to law making. This procedural and structural advantage is likely cause for the safety and ease that policy making provides to governments.

Moreover, the legitimacy to such a style of governance (by policy making) is given by global pressures of trade, globalized economic processes and inter-dependencies. Domestically, it is the political demands which make governments opt for policy route, as this delivers well to satisfy popular demands. Policy is a faster and comparatively obstacle free solution of a modern democracy’s problems. Take for instance the regulation that defines use of coastal zones in India. As a policy it caters to the demands of the market as well as the state itself. This also gets legitimized by the fact that the guideline document is issued by the legislature itself (in this case Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change).

It is likely that the most important precedent for greater preference of policy over law was set by the economic reforms of 1991. While that yielded on the intended outcome of jump-starting economic growth, it was also in a way a signal to subversion of democratic process. Most certainly, it was the beginning of end of constitutionalism as a cornerstone. Policy process is seen to be at odds with constitutional values at times. However, contemporary policy process is a mix of desirable and undesirable consequences. Economic policy which led to liberalization of Indian economy has been regarded as a desirable change whereas environmental policies have largely failed in being inclusive and has consistently been violent in its impact on marginalized groups.

With emergence of regulatory governance we see that preference of policy route to governance has increased further. Independent regulatory authorities which have near complete autonomy over controlling key government sectors have achieved success through policy making. The RBI and TRAI are fitting examples of the trend. With mainstreaming of regulatory governance as a practice, policy’s position as the new law will only strengthen.

The space (policy and law and things in-between) is getting complicated to understand, navigate through and study. We are likely to see more policy think-tanks setting up and public policy programs being offered by top institutions in India. While this take is about governments’ preference to policy making as a procedural ease, a much broader take on public policy and its relevance was pursued by Shiv Visvanathan  in this editorial.