Budget 2009/2010: Focus on earlier strategy

Apart from the distinct eloquence of the presentation, Finance Minister Surendra Pandey seemed inspired by the same “sins” committed by many of his predecessors in the making of the 2009/10 budget: inflated outlay in a politically motivated bid to outdo the previous ones; populism as reflected in what is now being bandied as “lacking in focus” and conspicuous absence of convincing operational modalities, raising the question as to whether the budget would deliver any good at all. To reinforce the “UML mark” to it, the minister also revived the 1994 slogan of LUBOVO (Let Us Build Our Villages Ourselves), and “Co-op in every village and jobs in every household”, both coming from the then finance minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari in 1994 and 2004 respectively. While the latter never got off the ground, the sole contribution of the former has been to entrust billions of rupees in inflated grants to the elected local politicians particularly in the VDCs which have, however, made little tangible impact in local development.

It was only about two months back that the coalition partners had signed the so-called Common Minimum Programme that, among others, promised “immediate relief” to the people in terms of “essential commodities” and improvement in law and order situation. While extortion, abductions, violence and impunity continue to remain the order of the day, the budget, - otherwise the most potent of instrument at the disposal of any government, - remains deafeningly silent on those promises. While the new budget provides something for just about everybody - women, dalits, widows, Madhesis, Muslims, Karnali people, unemployed youths and so on - people find no reason to cheer about, because all such promises have floundered in implementation.

In all likelihood, the major implementation shortfall would be in the eye-catching domestic revenue mobilisation which is targeted at 161.billion rupees and seems to have been inspired by the urge to supersede the preceding finance minister Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai’s historic performance in this regard. The reason is simple. Surendra Pandey is not Babu Ram Bhattarai and is not equipped with extra constitutional assets to exact compliance from targeted individuals. However, Dr. Bhattairai had drawn a blank in development spending, a shortfall duly acknowledged by the former prime minister Prachanda too but lamely attributed to their “lack of experience”. This is where the present government could make a difference.

The opportunities lie in the proper implementation of the LUBOVO and cooperative-related commitments. Lack of elected officials in the local bodies is regularly cited as the reason for not releasing funds for local development. But the track record of the elected officials during all those years of their existence has been that they generally distributed money equally among all village or municipal wards, and spent them on little things here and there with the result that those vast sums of money consistently failed to make any positive impact in terms of increased production and productivity, reduced unemployment, enhanced social services or better infrastructures in the rural communities.

Effective and sustainable development in the villages is done by the “user groups” (UG) and the 15,000-plus forest user groups remain the most outstanding example in this regard. More recently, NEWAH, a premier water and sanitation NGO, did six modest drinking water and sanitation projects to promote universal coverage in equal number of villages in Gajuri VDC of Dhading district. The village-specific user groups were in total command of their projects and, as experimentally provided in the project design, bought their own supplies and hired their own engineering consultants. The District Development Committee, the VDC secretary and the local all-party meetings (of eight political parties including the Maoists) provided necessary and valuable support to the UGs in this task. The entire process was participatory, transparent and free of any allegations of resource misappropriation even as the projects were done in a record time of only four months. The government must, therefore, recognise that it is the people in the communities and not the politicians, who are both the actors and beneficiaries of development.

Similarly, the three-tiered Small Farmer Cooperatives, as distinct from other cooperatives that are only two-tiered, enlist the participation of the poorer villagers in saving, credit and income generating activities with demonstrated success in alleviating their poverty in a span of only a few years.

There exists sufficient institutional capacity for the successful and nationwide implementation of the two aforementioned program-mes, LUBOVO and the cooperatives, that have the potential to help people make gains in local development and poverty reduction. The relevant government agencies must be made to act to this end, and unleash what could be the onset of the much-awaited “peace dividend” to the people.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist