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Development Paradox and Clash of Identities in Nepal : Dr. Geeta Kochhar

Dr. Geeta Kochhar . A Landlocked country Nepal has a total population of 26.5 million (approx) and is inhabited by people of Tibeto-Burmese, Aryan, and local Tribal population, which comprises of 126 ethnic groups and indigenous nationalities. It is said that apart from Nepali language, there are 122 languages spoken in Nepal. Hence, it is regarded as a multi-ethnic and multilingual country. However, the power asymmetry lies among the rulers and the ruled, which has over the centuries created greater animosity among the different nationalities, ethnic groups and tribes.

The 2015 new constitution that was suppose to root out the differences, has actually led to greater divisions and dissatisfaction among various groups, especially from the Terai region who feel marginalized for centuries. Interestingly, the general elections held in the end of 2017 gave a clear majority to the united communists (UML and Maoists combined), who had been prominent in the Nepalese society for decades promising egalitarian society with overall well being of the lives of the people. Yet, after more than a year of their rule many issues have propped up questioning the very ethos and ideological foundation of the Nepal Communist party (NCP) and its work towards the development and betterment of the lives of the people.

Traditional Structures of the Society and Conflicts

Since the rule of Prithvi Narayan Shah, who united the politico-territories in the second half of the 18th century, Nepal was established as a Hindu Kingdom. In 1846, a military general of Rana clan overtook the throne through a military coup, but continued with the Hindu character of the Kingdom. Padam Lal Devkota in his work “Anthropology, Society and Development in Nepal: A Native Perspective” identifies Nepal as a Himalayan Hindu Kingdom of complex and rich syncretic religious culture developed in the course of her long and free history. The social universe of Nepali society is parapharsed as ‘Car-Varna’ and ‘Chhattis-jat’ (ht. Four colours and thirty-six castes). Religious harmony along with social integrity has been observed among various sects of ethnic groups in the country.

The Nepali Kingdom was a well dissected social power structure with elites belonging to the hill “upper caste” dominating the centralized structure along with many other ethnic nationalities that were at the bottom layers. Even though in 1950s, an attempt was made to create a democratic state, by 1960, the country moved to an autocratic rule of the monarchy with the rule of Ranas and Shahs and thus established Panchayat system. It is said that the elite groups attempted to homogenize Nepal by claiming it as a country with “one ethnicity, one language, one dress and one nation”. This promulgation runs high among the ultra-nationalist forces in Nepal even today.

It was only in 2008 that Nepal established secular federal democratic republic. However, this also created space of contestation among various political actors for the principles and goals of restructuring of the state. The traditional power elites want non-ethnic territorial division; whereas the newly emerging powers based on identity groups demand ethnic and identity based restructuring. Among these emerging powers as well, there is clash in terms of the Mathali dominance of other groups in Terai region; while the Tharus and Muslims want their separate identity. Hence, the 2015 Constitution of the Constituent Assembly became a much contested issue leading to widespread protests in Terai region of Nepal, killing hundreds as a result.

The tussle also brings to light the dissent of the power structure and the insecurity of the ruling elite that may loose their power. The demand for equitable representation and devolution of power has led to the emergence of various power centers. As the identity based groups negotiate and renegotiate with the state their demands for restructuring the traditional unitary state and proper establishment of the federal units, the NCP with PM Kadga Prasad Oli has consolidated greater power as the totalitarian rule. Andre Lecours call Nepal as an “accidental federation” whereby liberal political parties were forced to accept the federal agenda due to the historical circumstances of extreme diversity, long rule of the Monarchy, and difficulty in restructuring.

Samuel P. Huntington in his 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies had talked about the ‘institutional gap’ whereby there is germination of common political preferences to fight discriminatory policies of the traditionally dominant actors as and when the elites attempt to marginalize certain sections of the society. The gap is created due to the transition towards a democratic rule whereby there is liberation of oppressed groups to participate in the political process, but as these newly formed groups do not find institutional space for participation with equal power sharing, there is greater alienation leading to conflict in the society.

The reinforcement of identities with the common preference is visible in Nepal with protests leading now to the formation of a ‘New Samajbadi Party’ led by Dr. Baburam Bhattarai who has united his Naya Shakti Party (New Power Party) with the Terai based Federal Socialist Forum headed by Upendra Yadav. The objective is clearly articulated in the agreement of the two parties, which also projects the aspirations of many Terai based parties and people. The new Party plans to work for the institutionalization of federal democratic republic, seek constitutional amendments for parity, and contribute towards sustainable development of Nepal.

Development as the Agenda for Change

The NCP came to power with the call to bring in prosperity. The main objective propagated by PM Oli was ‘Samriddha Nepal, Sukhi Nepali’ (Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali). This reinvigorated the ultra nationalist perspective of Nepal, where all external powers are to be kept at a distance; while reaping benefits only for the development of Nepal. It is worth noting that Nepal that boasts of average 6.8 per cent growth rate of its economy for the last few years, is highly dependent on Foreign aid and remittances. Since the joining of the Colombo Plan for Cooperative, Economic, and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific, aid makes up substantive amount of government budget. In the fiscal year 2016-2017, almost 29 per cent of annual budget expenditure was supported by grants accounting for 10 per cent and loans of 19 per cent. The proportion has increased in recent years with the Ministry of Finance pointing out that in the fiscal year 2015-2016 it was 25 per cent; while in 2014-2015 it accounted for only 20 per cent.

Besides, Nepal ranks 4th in whole of South Asia and 19th in entire world in terms of inflow of remittances. As per the data of World Bank, Nepal received inflows worth USD 8,064 million in 2018, a 16 per cent year-on-year increase compared to USD 6,928 million in 2017. However, the larger issue is the utilization and distribution of these resources. Apart form the fact that some of the remittances trickle down to the marginalized and poor sections of the society, the government has not been greatly successful in equal distribution of foreign aid.

Fisher James F. in his 1987 paper “Romanticism and Development in Nepalese Anthropology” published in Sociology and Anthropology, stated that most of the foreign aid benefits the elites of Nepal. He further emphasize that ‘development in context of Nepal is a process by which the wealth of poor people from rich nations is transferred to the rich people in poor nations, which also implies that the remittances are also not fully benefiting the poor and marginalized people of Nepal.

The development model that is highly dependent on the state’s central control over planing and resources, with a vision that the trickle down effect will eventually lead to betterment of the lives of the larger masses, is more of a utopia than materialized reality. Economists like Schumacher in his 1975 work Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered point towards the development of small scale technologies that are suited to local context and conditions along with the development of human beings than those of material goods. However, Nepal’s state-centric development is focused on achieving immediate results from development intervention for serving the requirements of the foreign donors.

There are many Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) that function under the system mainly through foreign aid, but not much has been achieved to root out absolute poverty, resolve the issues of hunger, and deprivation for decades. It is thus regarded that these organizations only support the development framework of the state, though the expectations of the people are very high.

With the present regime inviting foreign investment to boost the development, there are more complex issues of the model Nepal wants to follow in terms of development, though it looks at China as a role model. Nepal wants to become a middle-income country by 2030 for which the recently concluded Investment summit 2019 secured commitments worth USD 17.5 billion both from domestic and foreign investors, however, there are institutional and leadership issues along with the governance problems. It is blamed that the Investment Board of Nepal (IBN) did not properly coordinate with the state apparatus for pushing forward the reforms that can yield both short term as well as long term gains. Hence, if the present regime wants to make Nepal a prosperous state, there is urgent need to address the issues of identity and make development goals as inclusive.

Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Jawaharlal Nehru University,


Dr. Geeta Kochhar

Assistant Professor

Jawaharlal Nehru University

Email: [email protected]

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