View from the hills

  • The government’s recent announced policies and programmes reflect a distinct hill-centric bias
- Dipendra Jha
View from the hills

Jul 3, 2014-

Dissatisfaction expressed by lawmakers from opposition parties and even some from ruling parties on the government’s recently announced policies and programmes are genuine as the work plan lacks anything substantive. The government’s new policies and programmes, presented to Parliament on June 29, seem to be designed to meet the interests of specific geographical areas and a few constituencies of powerful ministers. However, it did attempt to touch upon all areas that need government focus as far as development is concerned.

A history of inequality

Equitable development in a democratic society requires that taxpayer money go to the poor and marginalised sections of society. However, the government’s new programmes continue the legacy of the Panchayat-era budget disparity where certain sections of society are penalised for political reasons. For example, when king Mahendra’s car was attacked in Janakpur in 1962, he punished Madhesi communities for 30 years by minimising the development budget to the region. The headquarters of districts in the Tarai like Jaleshwor, Malangwa, Gaur, Siraha, Rajbiraj, Taulihwa, Kaliya, bore the brunt of the Panchayat’s discriminatory policies.

The Permanent Establishment of Nepal, or PEON, reproduces itself over time with a view to continuously enjoy power. Proposed development policies forced marginalised sections to be socialised into accepting the basic ideas of structured inequality and wide disparities in wealth and resources. In this context, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that development depends on freedom, which covers a socio-economic arrangement together with political and civil rights.

The government’s current policy document is not in line with the directive principles of the Interim Constitution—primarily, inclusion. Not mentioning the agenda of inclusion in the government’s policy documents shows that this government does not care about the constitutional compulsion to include deprived communities such as Madhesis, Dalits, Muslims, Tharus and indigenous nationalities. Moreover, the government seems to have paid more attention to the hills rather than the Tarai as far as development is concerned.

 

Ignoring the Madhes

The government has not given the priority to the Postal Road (Hulaki Marg) as it has done to other hill projects, including the Mid-Hill Highway. Intentional delays in the construction of the Postal Road, which could potentially change the fate of the residents of the Tarai, is a reflection of hill-centric development policies. This highway is under construction through Indian aid; however, India hardly goes beyond the ruling class’ interests, which could then hamper their own national interest. The Nepal government had pledged to construct bridges but has not followed up. Now, India cannot complete the road construction on time. Once built, the Postal Road would facilitate fast transportation of goods and passengers across the Tarai, potentially changing the face of the region.  

This policy document further does not say anything about the dozens of Tarai rivers that wreak havoc during the monsoon every year. Take the case of the Rato River in Mahottari district which washes away hundreds of hectares of land every year. The government says in its policy document that it will build embankments on the Kali Gandaki and Seti Rivers. Why has the same priority not been given to similarly large rivers in the Tarai? Many rivers in the southern plains need to be tamed and better managed. There are many places in the Tarai where embankments need to be built.

The government has talked of building new urban centres across the hill areas and nobody is opposed to that. The policy document does not have a similar plan for the Tarai. Despite the fact the Madhes provides 80 percent of revenue to national coffers, the budget allocation to the region has not been more than 20 percent. How is this fair? The Madhes, with better infrastructure, offers incentives to investors. Yet, no new industries have been set up in the region. Old ones, such as the Janakpur Cigarette Factory, Birgunj Sugar Factory, Butwal Spinning Mills, Biratnagar Jute Mills and many others, are sick but nobody has bothered to revive them.

Misplaced priorities

The weakness of the development policy is that it does not address the needs of society through available indigenous resources such as hydropower, tourism, herbs and agriculture. The government promises to achieve self-sufficiency in food production and food sovereignty. How can the government achieve these lofty goals without giving due priority to the development of agriculture in the Tarai? The policy document is silent on the subsidy needed for agriculture. Not only that, it also does not talk of providing fair prices for agro products to farmers. Every year sugarcane farmers in the Tarai resort to rioting and other extreme forms of protest demanding fair prices for their products. The document is again silent on these core economic issues effecting Tarai farmers every year.

The document does not pledge to give concessions to the residents of the Madhes on the goods they import from the other side of the border nor does it talk of developing the district headquarters of the Tarai and launching other ambitious projects in the region. The government has talked of developing places of historical, cultural and religious importance but most of them are outside the Madhes.

The government’s emphasis on the development of Janakpur city and its pledge to protect the Chure range from environmental degradation are a welcome step but there are many other places of historical and cultural significance that also deserve the government’s continued attention. The government has no plan to develop Biratnagar, the second largest city in the country, and places of historical importance in Kapilvastu, Bara, Saptari, Jhapa and Morang have been ignored.

Many Nepali citizens, particularly from the poor and deprived communities in the Madhes and mountains, are not able to get their citizenship certificates easily in a hassle-free manner. Tashi Tewa Dolpo’s opinion piece, ‘Exclusion in the mountains’ (July 1, Page 6), explained well the barriers to acquiring citizenship in the five VDCs of the Upper Dolpa region. The government should have pledged to these citizens that it would try to ensure hassle free distribution of citizenship certificates to all eligible candidates. Surprisingly, the government’s policy document does not say anything about providing citizenship to that 20 percent of the population currently without documentation, according to the a report by the Forum for Women, Law and Development.

The current policies do not take into account existing economic and social contexts in terms of quality and equality, which ensures minimal success, if not total failure. The government needs to make honest efforts to change the imbalance in priority given to the hills and the Tarai, which will only happen when the Singha Durbar mandarins free themselves from a hill-centric mentality.

A deconstruction of the Panchayat-era legacy is essential to rebuilding a society based on equity. This is why the government should develop a comprehensive and inclusive development policy to address the needs of socio-economically disadvantaged communities through the equitable distribution of resources to all areas. A new federal Nepal will be possible only when the government makes an inclusive effort to change this imbalance.

 

Jha is a lawyer practicing at Supreme Court

 

Published: 04-07-2014 09:09

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