Post-budget discussion: Wishes do not become horses

Going by the deliberations in the “Post-budget discussion 2009/010” organised recently by the Management Association of Nepal (MAN), the chief guest, Finance Minister Surendra Pandey obviously found out that he has much to do before his budget would make sense to the people.

The discussion addressed by a host of luminaries from academia, industry and business including the minister dwelt on such ritualistic aspects as to whether the budget size was too big, the revenue target too ambitious, foreign aid targets attainable, single vs. multiple VAT rates and so on.

Concerns were expressed about higher sums not allocated for education and health, the allocation for the latter being Rs. 19 billion in the current budget. But no concern was expressed about the fact that billions of rupees had been allocated for the health sector for decades now, but hundreds of people succumbed to the simple ailment of diarrhea in the mid-western hills simply for want of a few thousand rupees worth of Jeevan Jal and zinc tablets.

The magnitude of budgetary allocation to the health sector may have its own importance, but the more important question

is building its capability

to bring those allocations

to where they are needed. While the essentially

“ivory tower” academics and the chauvinistic businessmen on the podium could probably be forgiven for this sin, for the minister himself, donning the

mantle of “people’s representative”, it should

have been a major concern, because this tragedy

serves him as an immediate and powerful reminder that his maiden budgetary enterprise could easily flounder when it comes to the implementation part. The minister would be doing a great service to the country if he could get a special commission to look into

this problem to make sure that such tragedies do not recur in the future.

Another major implementation problem of wide concern that came up in the meeting was the continued lack of security and the resulting closure of scores of industrial enterprises. As if to underscore the adage that the road to hell could be paved with good intentions, it was rather demanded of the minister that mere statements of commitments by the government to provide security is no longer enough. It is time to deliver and do it fast and effectively.

Equally harsh was the criticism over the politicization of bureaucracy, otherwise the vital organ of the government to implement the budgetary commitments. It was observed that in the recent promotion of the Secretaries, the candidates were made to stoop so low as to virtually become members of different political parties in the process. These days, the government officials simply avoid taking decisions, and refer them to the ministries, the seat of the politicians.

Therefore, if the finance minister is serious about his commitments being more than hot air, it is urgently necessary that the civil service rules be amended to make performance the major criterion for the upward mobility of the civil servants.

Although the MAN intended the “post budget discussion” to be a democratic exercise, the vast rural

population and their problems were in for total neglect in the meeting. While Nepal’s villages chronically remain the home to acute deprivations — meagre and worsening per capita land availability, widespread poverty, high unemployment rates, lack of access to health and educational services and so on, — neither

the minister nor the

speakers made any reference to these problems. While one speaker from the business community did point to the need for employment opportunities for retaining our workforce, most of those in the podium seemed to be mesmerized by the fact that Nepal received 185 billion rupees in remittances in the last 11 months alone.

The problems of the rural people was brushed aside simply by suggesting that the lack of elected local bodies alone stood in its way. They conveniently forgot that except for the last few years, the country had elected officials in the local bodes for over four decades, and that billions and billions of rupees passed through their hands, only to find that those precious resources failed to translate into meaningful goods and services for the people to alleviate their deprivations.

Broadly speaking, elected politicians have only misused the resources, and it is the user groups, like the forest user groups, that deliver substantive development. So, with or without elected officials, what is urgently needed is for the slumberous Ministry of Local Development to rewrite a few relevant clauses in the Local Self-governance Regulations and put user groups in command of their own destiny. If the UML finance minister does not want the slogan of “afno gaun afai banaun” once again end in a fiasco as in 1994, these are the changes he ought to make to empower the villages to do their own development.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist