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.

Take a Ride and Be Happy – Experiencing Happiness in Bhutan

Thimpu, Bhutan

Thimpu, Bhutan

In May, 2013 I spent a week traveling in Bhutan. My primary destination was the Taktsang Monastery outside Paro (posted here – Insights at the Edge), after which I spent some time in the capital Thimpu. This is a post on some general observations that I made while in Thimpu.

The dense fog on the high mountain roads made the journey into the little kingdom as surreal as the colorful visions of life painted on the walls of the monasteries that I were to see in my journey in this land of happiness. ‘Happiness is a place’, said one of the advertisements in the day’s newspaper in Bhutan. With offices like Gross National Happiness Commission and Sustainable Development Secretariat the country seemed to be driving down a route which is much like its own high mountain passes – lonely and offbeat. In its enterprise, much of the world has only understood money and wealth in one form or the other. It takes a different normative universe to be thinking of spiritual path to life where the commonly understood idea of development remains tangentially relevant. A curious blend of faith, respect for cultural values (I find that respect for the values made the youth wear their traditional dress and not so much that they liked it)  and pragmatism in dealing with ideas and influences of the world made for a striking public behaviour which I were to see across Bhutan’s towns, offices and public spaces. The city roads have an abundance of high end SUVs from Toyota and Hyundai. Yet the men driving them wear a gho which sits very loosely on the shoulders and has a skirt like lower portion matched with knee length socks and oxford model leather shoes. This is what I understand is their formal wear and official wear, having seen men in the government offices, Bhutan’s King as well as other dignitaries visiting countries abroad. Such a combination of men in ethnic wear driving these high end and stylish cars to me was striking. Perhaps, this is the outsider’s eyes view it. The SUVs could just be the need in the mountains, but then the Indian SUVs  offer the same utility at a fraction of the price of a Toyota Prado.

Entering the Thimpu Valley, On its main road which leads inside the city

Entering the Thimpu Valley, On its main road which leads inside the city

Wogzin Lam, Thimpu

Intrigued by the road signage. It has a caricature of a man wearing gho, Bhutan’s traditional wear. Wogzin Lam, Thimpu

A view from the road of Thimpu's many restaurants. The air is causal and very chatty with men catching up over momos.

A view from the road of Thimpu’s many restaurants. The air is causal and very chatty with men catching up over momos.

Another view of Wogzin Lam street, Thimpu

Another view of Wogzin Lam street, Thimpu

Thimpu is said to be the world's only capital city without traffic lights

Thimpu is said to be the world’s only capital city without traffic lights

From the newspapers that I read during the week when I visited Bhutan, I gathered that the government believes the country’s ‘collective happiness’ should be the end value of their development strategy.  Walking around Bhutan’s capital Thimpu I noticed the tempered school like frenzy that the city reflected as the country was closing in on its second general elections. The contesting leaders were being introduced in on the television too as I watched the dinner time news. Some were young thirty-somethings contesting from their constituencies which weren’t any more than a cluster of 200-300 houses. What is interesting is the number of political parties that have come up in Bhutan since the first election back in 2008. The aspiring politicians are mostly educated in India, some of them with graduate degrees from USA and few from UK. Political scene gets busy hereon and will make for sociologically rich observations as in this country.

Unlike its neighbour Nepal, democracy is being handheld and brought in by Bhutan’s monarch himself. This could be seen as an intelligent move by the King himself or as a measure in time against the kind of fate that Nepal saw with a communist party coup and even before that the killings in the royal family itself. There is tremendous amount of admiration and love for the King among the Bhutanese and rightly so. His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuk appears anything but a king in his public appearances, addresses to the public and from what I figured from his interviews. Oh and those adorable photographs of the King and the Queen in public spaces – parks, buildings etc. The country reflects a very friendly and welcome air. Although that extreme behaviour the government had shown to push out the Nepalese settlers in Bhutan is still a fair blot on Bhutan. That urge to maintain racial homogeneity I think may not work out very well for them in the future.

Even as the country experiments with democracy and more interestingly with the European Union’s idea of “good governance” Bhutan is set for interesting times. Sample this – the country is dependent on India for its petroleum, manufactured goods, finished goods, higher education and more importantly for skilled labour. Due to a constitutional provision to ensure a minimum forest cover of 70% industrial and economic growth is limited, which was already limited due to Bhutan’s difficult terrain. The problem that Bhutan faces is of employment for its youth as well as to raise its own industrial sectors other than only exporting hydroelectricity to India. This forms a major source of its earnings followed by tourism and international aid. Tourism is an earner due to its strict control and high tariff of USD 200-250 per day imposed on tourists (excluding Indians) visiting Bhutan.

Clock Tower Square, Thimpu, Bhutan

Clock Tower Square, Thimpu, Bhutan

A residential area in Thimpu. The apartment blocks are usually about 6-7 floors high and have a shop (most likely a bar) on the ground floor

A residential area in Thimpu. The apartment blocks are usually about 6-7 floors high and have a shop (most likely a bar) on the ground floor

As the city settles to a cold and breezy evening. Thimpu, Bhutan

As the city settles to a cold and breezy evening. Thimpu, Bhutan

The tiny nation has its human, ethical and spiritual character very well in place. It is a pure delight to live among the Bhutanese people and see the country go by its work smiling, taking it easy. But as a visitor I see that the government’s present policies would no way help it come out of its least developed country (LDC) tag even in the next two decades. The average Bhutanese youth is either a civil servant after having taken advanced degrees in India or elsewhere or is engaged in jobs and services inside Bhutan which are good as a livelihood but do not really yield high returns or value in the long run. There is very little enterprise in the country of its own apart from agriculture and livestock. With television and internet having already entered late in the country (in the mid 1990s as I know) the youth is watching, reading and listening the sounds and sights of the world. It won’t be too long before the less visible and commonplace discontentment of the younger Bhutanese population takes shape into a major national situation if the government does not keep pace with the aspirations of the country. This is a good possibility now than earlier times because the nation is slowly cutting its teeth into political organization, mobilization and rallying for causes. The natural progression of this is when the youth step in to harness this emerging political scene towards their causes and interests. It should be interesting to locate that happiness in the next decade or so of Bhutan’s experiments with politics and democracy set in the backdrop of evolving media and internet spaces. 

A city bus in Thimpu, Bhutan

A city bus in Thimpu, Bhutan

The bus operated by Royal Government of Bhutan connecting Kolkata, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan

The bus operated by Royal Government of Bhutan connecting Kolkata, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan

From that midnight ‘tryst’ to the high noon – Indian democracy

The recent gangrape in Delhi and the government’s response to the demonstrations in the city has been the most disappointing sight for me. Corruption, scams, policy screw ups… all that was fine with me. But stifling such a protest wasn’t what I thought one would see in India at least (like shutting down metro stations to prevent protestors from getting together). This set me exploring how far has India come along on the democracy road or has it actually drifted away from its path?

Independent India was all about experiments and grand ones at that to begin with. Nehru, the first Prime Minister, felt that the new born nation cannot afford the revolutionary way of the left nor can it afford to be socialist in its approach to nation building. He proposed “a third way which takes the best from all existing systems- the Russian, the American and others- and seeks to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy.”[i] With independence, India’s political landscape began transforming in a manner that would later have accumulated as not quite favourable or even reasonably reflecting democracy in spirit. Sudipta Kaviraj articulates the phases of political transformation as an early period of realignment (that happened around independence), experimentation (when India moved to a passive capitalist growth led economic system), consolidation and instability (a degenerative phase of Nehruvian ideas and Indo-China, Indo-Pak wars). [ii]

Although many views on how old is democracy in India exist, with some Hindu nationalists also claiming that the appointment of kings too was democratic and that the idea of democracy is not new to India. It is also argued that with the British, democracy has only revisited India. These scripture based reasons of democracy are of little relevance to the scope here. It should be interesting to map the emergence of democracy in a post-colonial India. That democracy arises from a peculiar set of historical, social and economic circumstances is helpful in explaining much of the values that independent India inherited, which determined its approach to nation building and governance.

While presenting the new Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, its architect Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said that “democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organization”.[iii] Ambedkar made remarks in that address to the Assembly, which in hindsight appear landmark. These can also be considered as a benchmark to understand that where did India aspire to start and where did it set its eye as a democracy. Doing this, we can then look at the events and explore if she did reach anywhere near that or has only gone wayward in the six decades since Independence. Ambedkar reasoned that three things must be done if India wishes to maintain democracy not only in its form but also in fact. First, he emphasizes, is that constitutional methods must be adhered to, for achieving social and economic objectives. When the nation didn’t have a constitution, movements resorting to unconstitutional methods might have been justified, but now that there is one, no justification stands reasonable for resorting to unconstitutional means. Civil disobedience and Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’, as used post-Independence, was also viewed as an unconstitutional way to achieve an objective which a group felt was in its interest.

Contrasting this view with recent movements in anti-corruption, people’s rights to natural resources, right to reservation in public services etc, one can notice the divergence from the original thought that India set out with. Second, that in a democracy people should not vest so much power in a single person or leader that he may subvert the institutions. Any form of ‘hero worship’ too must be avoided. Although, there is nothing wrong with honouring great men for their service, there are limits to being grateful. Third, Ambedkar urges people not to be content with political democracy alone. He reasons that social democracy must form the base on which political democracy rests. Social democracy, he states, is a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life.[iv]

This address in November 1949, by Ambedkar sets the larger context of understanding of democracy in India and the practice of it. Although, it is debatable how it unfolded over the years, the intent it can be said was much as Ambedkar outlined while presenting the draft Constitution

Democracy- Increasing divide in spirit & practice

When Congress came to power, a realignment of the earlier order happened, as Sudipta Kaviraj articulates. To some within the party, Congress’ departure from reformist agenda was a great concern. For Nehru, as a Prime Minister, democratic social transformation became an integral part of economic strategy. This turned out to be at odds with the socialist ideas as well. He pointed to “country as an area of agreement between opposing ideologies of capitalism on the one hand and communism on the other”.[v] These differences marked the changes that Congress underwent, and its emergence as a party led by Nehru’s ideas about nation building. In this approach, India got its first streak of capitalist development by the way of extensive planning exercises and massive government programs in infrastructure building and public sector enterprises. This shift is important to note because in about a decade’s time a heavy bureaucratization of the government takes place which in later years would come to determine (and undermine) the democratic process in the country. Nehru’s industrialization led approach to growth and modernization had a good run during the period 1950-1964. But it also had consequences which would lead to serious polarization of Congress party, a national dissatisfaction on over emphasis on industrialization whereas India was still agrarian (with a majority of them being small farmers) and an over dependence on Soviet technology and assistance. These factors eventually precipitated into disillusionment and a political crisis with the death of Nehru in 1964. The phase of assertion by regional political parties and establishing their rule in Indian states was about to begin. Within three years of Nehru’s death, the CPI (M) managed to regroup in many Indian states and run for election in those states. Similarly, the rich farmers from the northern belt had formed stronger associations to assert themselves. Several other forms of associations and regional political parties had begun to emerge making the larger political scene noisier and diverse. Theoretically, democracy was actually being well lived by representation from several different groups, communities and classes that India is made of. But this did not guarantee that the government, its institutions and its work was all in public interest.

Indira Gandhi came to power after Nehru, her father, passed away. This was a period of political turmoil which was answered by appointing Indira Gandhi as the successor. Her coming to power marks a major blow to the spirit of democracy in India but in a way it also helped the country look back at what it started with, and attempt a reorientation. It is paradoxical that Indira Gandhi’s style led to a gradual decline of election based choice of leaders within the party and at the same time her rise as a leader nationally. Her mass appeal and the ability to directly connect with the masses bypassing the regional leaders was an interesting phenomenon. While she was leading a party (Congress), everything in the party was about decisions made by her and passed on to the party members. Critical political decision making also began shifting to higher levels of bureaucracy. This had a very debilitating effect on Congress party. Nationally, elections turned into populist referendums which completely undermined the electoral process. The period of emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 is another landmark in the progression of democracy in India. This 18 month period made a good time for leaders and the people of India to experience what it is like to exist in a space of limited or no civic rights that democracy guaranteed. Patronage and cronyism infiltrated politics even when Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power in 1985. During this entire period, the gulf in practice of democracy kept widening, but it would be difficult to present a contrary argument that India on the whole did not move towards becoming more democratic. This is because in spite of severe damages done to the political system by feudal and class led politics, the chaos that it caused only made several other groups emerge and put up a strong opposition. Although, the emergence and assertion of political parties from minority groups did take a considerable time, the sum total of the events by a great measure, moved towards heterogeneity and multi-party political system.

Dalit groups emerged faster as a consequence of this higher class dominated politics. For instance, formation of dalit political parties like Republican Party of India, Dalit Panthers and more importantly BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) which was formed in 1984. From its formation in 1984 to its emergence as single majority party in 2007 Uttar Pradesh state elections, BSP makes an interesting case in rise of oppressed and marginal groups in the political system of India. This could also be seen as a consequence of the early democratic principles that were enshrined in the Constitution of India. It could also be said that the process took a considerable time. But the fact that it emerged on its own accord and from the people themselves makes it peculiar and also ensures that the change is lasting.


i) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010
ii) Kaviraj, Sudipta, (1988), A Critique of the Passive Revolution, in Chatterjee, Partha, State and   Politics in India, OUP 2002 
iii) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010.
iv) Constituent Assembly of India – Volume http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol11p11.htm Date Accessed, Sept 30, 2012
v) Harrison, Kevin and Boyd, Tony, Understanding political ideas and movements. Manchester University Press, 2003