A few Mondays ago, I received a call from a firm trying to explore investment opporunities in Nepal; the representative wanted to know the state of the market and stock exchange. He also wanted to confirm that the stock exchange was closed on that particular day. I had to admit that there was a state imposed closure on account of President Bhandari’s departure to India. He laughed. It was clear that he would rather not look into investing in a country where there are more holidays than weekends.
Last week, I was chatting with a young banker couple who were excitedly making plans for a week-long holiday the government has declared for schools for local elections. While they complained about politics, politicians and the government, they were more than happy to take a holiday and skip the elections that determine the selection local representatives. This sense of hypocrisy has partly kept the holiday culture going.
Culture of holidays
Holidays in Nepal are declared at the drop of a hat. Earlier, feudal rulers ensured that there were holidays on the birthdays of their near and dear ones. The work culture in Nepal has never been based on productivity; the people who work hard belonged to a certain caste or community and they were perceived as never needing a holiday. In contrast, the ruling and rent seeking classes never worked; for them every day was a holiday. And they saw fit to declare some days as official holidays. This trend continued even after the restoration of democracy in 1990.
Such culture has produced teachers who do not go to classrooms and doctors who do not practise in hospitals where they are assigned. Then there are people at government offices and corporations; the government is one of the largest job providers, yet workers have seldom learnt to be productive. They learn ways of skipping and avoiding work from their seniors. Some of these teachers, doctors and workers become leaders and start drawing up plans in conjunction with the people in the bureaucracy. Apart from holidays at the drop of a hat, what else can we expect when these two forces meet? I wonder about Cabinet meetings held to decide on setting holidays. I wonder how many of those attending the meetings have been faithful to themselves and to their professions. The current mess is a result of the culture the whole nation has grown up with; it is a culture that has a tremendous disregard for meritocracy, productivity, professionalism and ethical practices.
Three ways to change
Along with the home-grown catalysts to creating holiday junkies as discussed above, there were two additional sectors that furthered this trend. One is the set of private businesses like schools and financial services, and the other is the development sector. It is very hard to explain to people why banks have to close on all the days that the government is closed. Bankers will tell you they close because Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) is closed. If they are to follow all NRB rules, perhaps they should extend this policy to their own emoluments and perks, bringing them on a par with those of the NRB.
If they are to be operating as private firms, why can’t they effect policy changes? It’s not that bank owners have little clout. If they can go against global norms and practices and change banking laws on governance and accountability to make them favourable for themselves, why can’t they bring about change to this holiday culture? Some bankers who have been at the forefront of providing inspiration to young people may perhaps now take on the mantle of leadership and force financial institutions to stop following government holiday norms. This may give the sector much needed credibility.
Let’s turn to the development sector. This sector enjoyed special privileges during the days when Nepal was closed by political forces. Strikes were welcomed and offices were shut at any rumour about security issues. The development industry, which is nearing three decades of active work in Nepal, needs to introspect on how to push productivity and change the work culture. Tackling the issue of holidays could be a starting point.
There are three ways in which we can change this culture and rehabilitate the mindsets of the holiday junkies we have created. First, the folks in government need to think of ways to create an atmosphere where the productivity and efficiency of the government would be the end goal. Second, change-agents in the private sector need to form an alliance to come up with some workable solutions that they can implement with voluntary agreement from workers. Third, mass uproar is important, as was shown when the holiday on the day of the President’s return from India was cancelled following public pressure.
Then it would be a joy to tell the world that Nepal is open for business, and that we really do mean business.