Sujeev Shakya

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Cronyism in Nepali politics

We have seen the lives of people who became close to politicians transform dramatically.

One of the most significant economic activities post-Dashain and Tihar festivities have been the individual, business and party spending of annual conventions held by different political parties. Muscle power and money power, nexus of business and politics, politicians becoming businessmen, and businesswomen and business people becoming politicians have been a hallmark of Nepali politics after 2006. Still, the conventions of the two major political parties have indicated what is to come in the elections 2022-23. Here are the three big things that we see happening.

It isn’t about ideology

If you see the campaigns of the different leaders of the different parties at the various conventions, it was clear–it’s all about the personalities and cronies around you. So, you are either with me or against me and do not care for what. Apart from a document released by a Nepali Congress leader on economic transformation, it was nothing else. Like for any other association, chamber, Rotary, Lions, or other social organisation elections–it’s about wining and dining, promising posts, and favours in return. In politics post-2017 federalism, people have realised that money does trickle down, though little. Therefore, local leaders unheard of in Kathmandu can contest critical positions as they know what can be on the right side of a $35 billion economy. 

However, people are glued to the elections. The media is giving it liberal coverage—it’s so easy to report what people say and gossip rather than write something that requires deep research and analysis. So, Nepalis are getting what they love—talking about people, nothing to do with ideologies, what he or she will deliver or how that impacts Nepal’s future in a society and culture that is getting more individualistic with the proliferation of individual devices and social media.

Proliferating graft

In West Bengal, India since 1977, when a communist coalition started ruling the state, people have found that hanging around with politicians gives a better chance for a better education than doing something productive. Therefore, the state and Kolkata, once the capital of the British Empire, have seen widespread migration into different parts of India and the world. I continue to draw parallels with Bengal as our communism also originated there. Institutionalised graft kept the communists going, and now the people who overthrew them have not deviated from the graft rule book. 

In Nepal, the annual graft potential with a $10 billion government spending is conservatively $1 to $1.5 billion. People have seen the lives of people who became close to politicians transform dramatically in just a decade and a half. If the source of funds was to be a key check when purchasing land, houses, gold or jewellery or spending for children’s education, then perhaps the markets would crash. The stakes become bigger, and graft legitimises as a rarely political person wants to take this on as everyone is involved in it. Further, the international community not really caring about who they are working with has given politicians much courage. 

Bad governance is not limited to the legislature or the executive; it extends to the judiciary. Regulations do not matter. The job of a peon or guard at a government office or affiliated institution is worth paying hundreds of thousands for as it allows one to have a little outlet as a tea shop for their relatives that can, with the right connections, become a property they can own in the long run. Similarly, Nepali citizens do not even care that eateries or shops should be regulated, businesses should function as per government regulation, or traffic should move in a certain way. If everyone is milking through political connections, why not me, and why should governance matter to me? In Kul Chandra Gautam’s words, the impact of the pandemic of lousy governance will be far worse than the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Business and politics

The mega trends at these conventions have been the number of business people who are taking on becoming politicians also. While this is not new, the scale and magnitude are different. People have seen how one can influence legislation and institutional functioning as a politician, demonstrated by some of the business people in politics; now they want to cut out the middlemen’s (yes, generally men) fees by getting a seat on the gravy train. They have also figured out that if one is directly not in politics, then no one is there to help you in times of difficulties, so it is essential to protect your business to get into politics. 

A study done by the Nepal Economic Forum has shown that out of the significant business houses that have emerged in the past decade and a half, a substantial number have appeared through political connections. Further, by restricting foreign direct investment and international companies from doing business in Nepal, the interactions done directly or through the political groups they support have protected their business. In the last local elections, more than one-third of the people were people in business who got into politics. 

They say one cannot be a president in the United States if you do not have a war chest of funds to fight elections. It is true for many other positions also. Still, Donald Trump, a business person, has shown one can recalibrate politics to suit oneself. This has inspired thousands of business people worldwide to really explore, why not get into politics to get what you want. It’s not only money, but the combination of power and money.

The conventions were a trailer to the movie to come. Tonnes of plastic flex wasted, and billions spent on wining, dining, and entertainment that crossed lines. But perhaps, it just reflects the society we live in. 

Read it in Kathmandu Post – https://bit.ly/3rXM5zb

Post File Photo/Elite Joshi
Post File Photo/Elite Joshi

Ensuring government service delivery

The money we earn goes to the government as taxes and is spent without accountability.

Videos of people running amok to get to a driving test or complaints about filling up a form online only to have to print it out and submit it after queuing up for hours are doing the rounds. Earlier, the inefficient ways of managing vaccination forms where one had to disclose everything apart from the colour of one’s underwear had created havoc. Whenever it comes to Nepalis receiving services from the government, it is always a mess. The chaos at the passport office where Nepalis pay one of the highest prices for a thin passport book has become the norm. Maybe our practice of queuing haphazardly at religious shrines has given us the tenacity to go through all this without ever complaining.

Folks in government service and political parties will give you a “ho ra” (is that so) look. The government earns billions each year from airport taxes, vehicle registration taxes, driving license fees, passport fees, no objection certificates and lots of other sources of revenue; but the officials and the leaders do not think they are providing a service that people are paying for. People have learnt to just cope with it. So where does all this stem from?

The extreme influence from the democracy model from the south, where government programmes are given fancy names tied up with politicians or their ancestors, is one reason. When those programmes are announced and big functions are organised, it is projected as if generally the person is giving out money from what he had earned. People get excited to get money that one earned and that the government took away as taxes. But one never feels that you were just made a fool! The money we earn goes to the government and is spent without accountability. Auditor General reports are the biggest joke books that people seem to read and laugh it off.

The democratic system in terms of financial accountability is designed to ensure that, through the process of voting, one can choose a leader that will be spending your money and demand accountability from him or her. Never do we think that in an election, the people we are electing are basically the folks that will be spending the money you have earned and paid as taxes. But do elections work that way? Of course not because the people who are paying the least taxes generally work very hard to ensure that people who can ensure he or she is not taxed are elected, and they can get to spend through the leaders the money other people have earned.

Working for the government

When people ask me what I do, I say I work for the Government of Nepal. Many people in Nepal work for the Government of Nepal or some work for banks. Since the government takes more money than I get to take away from the revenues, you can only say this is the case. There is 13 percent value added tax (VAT), and if one employs people, they pay taxes and you basically are a tax collector for the government. Then there are different statutory taxes to be paid. Then, of course, the big chunk of income tax. So, if you are engaged in a business with a 15 percent margin, the government is taking off at least 30 percent of your revenues! So, you basically work for the government.

You do not mind working for the government if one can also get rich and make the government richer; but the issue is that there is complete lack of accountability on how the government spends that money and how it decides to distribute it—at times as doles to parliamentarians, or as payment for medical expenses of politicians and their family members, or as payment for projects that are not completed.

Therefore, it is important that we start thinking from this perspective of how we work for the Government of Nepal; and, in turn, how we can make the people spending our hard-earned money accountable.

Demanding better services

There are two services the government provides—one as a profit centre like airports, passport services, driving licence services, issuance of no-objection certificates and so forth where they make more money than they spend. With development partners and agencies supporting these sectors, the government actually makes super-profits. In these types of services, it will be important to take a corporate approach and make them fully digital. If the government is earning money on this, it can afford this. Also, this will ensure that the staff stay longer at these agencies and they can be well paid.

The second is services that the government is supposed to provide people for free, be it vaccination or basic government documents like citizenship documents, birth certificates and so forth. These are apart from bigger services like infrastructure, healthcare, education, security and other responsibilities it needs to take care of. The approach has to change from the government doing the public a favour to the government spending someone else’s money, therefore it needs to be accountable to the public. Like at times we have to remind civil servants that they work for us as we pay their salaries through the taxes, the government needs constant reminders.

Finally, we have seen how digitisation has helped to bring about accountability the world over; and in these days when every keyboard warrior is a journalist, it is easier to develop pressure and make institutions accountable. The key is to eliminate the middleman. Our religious practices always insist on having a middleman; that needs to be eliminated. Like by downloading religious scripts and chants one can do rituals without a middleman, we need to extend that to government services also. If one can apply for renewal of the driving licence online and it can be sent by Nepal Post to the digital address one has provided, we will eliminate all the middlemen (generally men!) who thrive on other people’s problems. It does not require money to bring transformations, but it requires change in the mindset!

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https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2021/11/29/ensuring-government-service-delivery

Source – Shutterstock
Source – Shutterstock

Who is stalling reforms?

We need to stop involving ‘cartelpreneurs’ in policy discourses around reforms.

Last week, at multiple discussions organized around Nepal and the world by the Nepal Economic Forum and the National University of Singapore (ISAS), we discussed the perspective of investments in Nepal as part of Nepal connects better with the world and reaping economic benefits besides pushing economic growth and job creation. 

Former Indian ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae emphasised the need to look at issues concerning intellectual property, labour laws and other regulatory frameworks that will provide a favourable environment for investors. United Kingdom Ambassador to Nepal Nicola Pollitt hit the nail on the head in terms of all the money being lined up, but the necessity of Nepal to reform for investors to feel confident. One pertinent point she indicated and that is least considered is that economic diplomacy is not only about Nepali embassies in foreign countries promoting Nepal, but Nepal taking care of the people and institutions these embassies identify and assist. These issues are continuously raised, but then this time, I thought of taking a slightly different approach by identifying the people who are behind stalling reforms. We generally blame the government, but is it the government or some others who are stalling reforms?

The issue is attitude

In 1990 when Nepal’s economy was worth $3.5 billion, may be money was an issue; but now it is not the issue when the GDP is valued at $34 billion and stock market capitalisation is at a similar amount with companies at $1 billion plus market capitalisation. But why is it that we are not seeing foreign investors rushing into Nepal? First of all, we need people, who have made money out of collaborating in the 1990s when foreign firms came in, speak up. For instance, the local promoter group that invested about Rs3.7 million (less than $100,000) in Unilever Nepal’s capital of Rs73.6 million in 1992 today have their investment worth Rs900 million–25 times their initial investment. Similarly, local company Butwal Power Company, a company promoted by a consortium of then large private sector groups, today has a market capitalisation of Rs15 billion! They all need to be ambassadors for reform and talk about why reform in Nepal is ready. We need to hear their success stories that we find few people talking about or in the media. They need to really come out and talk about their stories and tell they are not rent-seekers of the investments that they got in those times either as local agents or investors. 

Similarly, we have seen how the entry of the Oberois and the Sheratons, changed the way hotels operated in Nepal. The advent of KFC changed how restaurants managed operations and back office. Nabil and Standard Chartered changed how banking is done in Nepal. Restaurants like Chez Caroline and Fire and Ice changed customer expectations that led to many great Nepali restaurants to emerge. In the banking sector, FMO is emerging as the largest shareholder in NMB Bank, and is challenging the status quo of many established banks. Sherpa Adventure Gear changed the way apparel manufacturing and marketing is done. Thompson Nepal (now J Walter Thompson) changed the world of advertising. The list goes on. Many of these businesses were not investment heavy, but it brought about global practices to Nepal. People who worked in these different establishments became global workers who can be seen in 180 countries that Nepalis work and live in. 

Money is not the constraint. Development finance institutions (DFIs) have more than $2.5 billion in investment-ready money lined up. Development partners are willing to put in a fresh $4.2 billion in Green Resilient Inclusive Development (GRID) Action Plan. The Nepali investor base now comprises of millions of people who can invest with the tap of a button from a smart phone. We just need people with the right attitude, and exclusion of people with the wrong attitude. 

Push and alienate

We all need to push reform, including pushing opening up of Nepalis to invest abroad that will force Nepali companies to adopt global practices. Words need go-get action—it is now or never.People who are working towards getting foreign investment understand very clearly that it is not the officials at the Department of Industry or the ministry; clearly, it is the cartels who grease the system to tire off foreign investors. After all, the cartels allegedly get to raise money to pay political parties and appoint ministers of their choice. 

For international development partners, it is time to also do some introspection and look upon all the past literature published on cartels and nexus—and really start to alienate them. On the one hand, harping on investment and getting the same people who have been working behind the scenes to vigorously obstruct reform in the room will not work. Perpetrators against reforms cannot be part of efforts to push reforms. We know who the “cartelpreneurs” are; and we need to stop involving them in policy discourses around reforms. Internally, one also needs to see within one’s own organisation, who have been indirectly supporting these cartelpreneurs and why. Unprecedented transformations would require unprecedented action. Having been working to push reforms relentlessly for 30 years, I will not tire off despite threats when I tweet on a certain cartel or cartelpreneur. We just need to combine our efforts and continue our crusade to unleash Nepal’s potential.

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2021/11/15/who-is-stalling-reforms 

Climate change and religion

We need religious leaders also to push the climate change agenda.

Shutterstock

In Buddhist monasteries during ceremonies, it is not difficult to spot the thousands of packets of packaged foods that are offered to the monasteries and monks. During alms-giving ceremonies, when devotees are offering packets of biscuits, instant noodles and other packaged food, I have questioned religious leaders why they do not tell their devotees to not indulge in these practices. Yes, it is convenient for devotees to make these offerings, but they also need to learn that they are doing more harm than good. Each one thinks it is just me and a few packets; but when thousands of devotees do that, they are creating a situation of excessive waste. When I was ordained as a temporary monk, I did not know what to do with the hundreds of packets of biscuits and instant noodles that came as my share. 

As people in Glasgow talk about climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), and world leaders meet and rant, we also need to introspect why the implementation of agreements from decades past have been difficult. It stems from lots of behavioural issues that we do not want to talk about or change.

Consumption waste

The next time there is a religious function, just observe what is going on and what sort of wasteful consumption can be curtailed. Our religion and culture suggest that opulence is doing more dharma. So, we land up consuming more and spending more than is required. With economic prosperity, of course, the number of days of religious functions is expanding, and so is consumption. There is more waste at such functions than ever before. In Dubai, there are campaigns that have started to reduce food waste during Ramadan, which, as a festival of austerity and fasting, produces the biggest food waste as hotels and houses start to serve endless varieties of food that never gets eaten. In Nepal, in recent years, Teej, a fasting ritual for Hindu women in certain castes and communities, has become widespread and pushed consumption along with food waste. 

Our culture has been about the demonstration of opulence as a matter of social pride and arrival. At family functions, we used to finish our plates as trained in our childhood without a morsel of food left. Religion has created unnecessary constructions. I have been continuously campaigning for reforming religious institutions amongst the Theravada Buddhist community in Nepal. The country is dotted with dilapidated religious structures of religious leaders who are dead and gone. In Kathmandu Valley itself, there are so many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries that have sprung up in the past 50 years. Every hill, if not covered by a view tower, is covered by mammoth monasteries. In my interactions with the monks, I ask them how right it is to keep building structures to teach the teachings of the Buddha who actually teaches about detachment from the material world, frugality and conscientious consumption. 

Need for a global effort

The governments can do little in combating climate change if it does not have support from their citizens and certain age-old traditions and beliefs are not recalibrated when it comes to reducing consumption and construction in the name of religion and culture. In Southeast Asian Buddhist countries, many studies are emerging to highlight such issues and the need to tackle them. In Thailand, brands use religion to push consumption of luxury goods that results in conspicuous consumption. A strong government in India is encouraging Hindu temples to go global, and huge Hindu temples are coming up around the world. And it seems there is never a dearth of funding for building colossal structures that could have gone into building much-needed schools and hospitals. The acceptability of one pursuing a religion in China has increased interest in Buddhism and created an industry that, like other consumer brand products, links one’s religiosity to consumption and materials. 

Economic prosperity has a direct correlation with corruption. Studies have shown that an increase in illegal business activities, criminal activities and unethical practices and a decline in moral and social values fuel spending on religious activities. We are seeing this happen in Nepal too! 

Twenty years ago, there was a conference in Nepal where leaders from all religions congregated in Kathmandu under the aegis of the World Wildlife Fund for an Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) meeting. They made a pledge on “Sacred Gifts for a Living Planet” where each religion made pledges. “The Gifts are ground-breaking actions pledged by the faiths to combat forest and marine destruction, climate change and a wide range of other environmental issues.” But in the last 20 years, we have seen minimal impact of such pledges. 

This year at COP26, there are again voices raised by inter-faith groups and other campaigners to again look at climate change through the lenses of religious leaders. In a world where religion and conservatism are seeing a revival, it could also be an opportunity to revisit and reform, human religious and social practices to push contentious consumption, eliminate opulence and make one’s conduct in protecting the planet an act of compassion and merit-making (earning punya). Yes, Nepal with a nationalist population that shouts at the top of their voices, “Buddha was born in Nepal” has an opportunity to make Nepal, and the Buddha that resides in each one of us, proud. 

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2021/11/01/climate-change-and-religion

by Hemanta Shrestha
by Hemanta Shrestha

Travelling is not the same

Post File Photo/Hemanta Shrestha

After landing at JFK Airport, as I was getting through US Customs and Border Protection, I was asked where I had travelled in the past 14 days. When I said I had travelled to India, I was told I could not enter the USA as India is still in the restricted country list. I spent 10 hours alone in a room and then boarded a flight back to Doha on my way back to Nepal. 

In times like these, when travel advisories change frequently, the onus is on the airlines to ask the key questions. I was never asked in Kathmandu or Doha about my previous travels. In the USA, of course, they are doing their job as they say. They lectured me on the Presidential proclamation of restrictions and the way one was treated; it was not different from the others who had issues entering the USA. They told me they were being generous and not cancelling my visa. I was left pondering: Who do you rely for information as the scenario changes each time? 

Last week, in New Delhi, when I went to get a new sim card for my phone as the old one had expired since it had not been used since the pandemic, I was surprisingly told that you needed to have a visa to be able to get it. I saw the electronic form used by the vendor on his mobile, and there was a provision that could not be over-ridden. So, I was stuck with no sim card. Then I realised that data while roaming was not working, and I could not use the free wifi at New Delhi airport as the one-time password was not working through a Nepal number. 

I was with electronic tickets, all forms stored in the cloud. But I could not enter the airport as I had no printed ticket, and I could not access anything online. We may be used to so much digital stuff during the pandemic, but it seems keeping printouts for backup is still essential. 

New travel environment

Airports are just getting back to normal; and people whose jobs are secure, pandemic or no pandemic, are upset they are getting back to normal. Government staff, people in security and other fixed tenure job holders, who kept their jobs during the pandemic and will not lose them if there are subsequent waves, are unhappy things are getting back to normal. I have been shuttling the past couple of weeks, and they are complaining things are getting back to normal. They have not changed their ways and do not want to adhere to the new normal. For instance, one would show one’s boarding pass across the glass partition, but they want to touch and feel it. When I told them that you should avoid touching hundreds of boarding passes and smart phones, he sternly told me that “corona is gone”! 

It would be best to get ready for airports that can be super hot like the one in Bhadrapur and have no air-conditioning and dilapidated ceiling fans. Mosquitoes improve your travel experience as per the airport regulators of Nepal, so do not forget to carry repellent sprays. There are generally no good places to eat at airports in Nepal, so be prepared with food and drinks. You are not sure how many hours your flight can be delayed, and it is not easy to travel in and out of airports unless you are one of the VIPs. Of course, do not drink too much water or get to try the local fare; the toilets at the domestic airports are sinus treatment centres that you would like to avoid!

There are QR codes and bar codes on everything; but in Nepal, they are never scanned or used by anyone. They go back to writing by hand or not checking at all. There is the great Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) form we all have to fill up when departing, but it never seems to be limited. It takes a while to fill the form. It has a wonderful section where you are asked your last 30-day travel history, and there are no options for flights, though there are options for “walking”. In Nepal, people have very little expectation from the government, and they will only complain when things go down the drain, as happened in the case of vaccine certification. 

In a country with the highest per capita VIPs, people don’t care as they are above the rules, so they can get away without bothering to do anything. Exactly two years ago, I volunteered to manage crowds at the airport, which I wrote about. I was assured of improvements, but they never seemed to have happened. We could read the frustrations of entrepreneur and author Jiba Lamichhane on his Facebook wall, and he also responded to authorities who got back to him, but it’s just temporary. So one has to be ready for queues, delays and challenges one can only meditate through.

Of course, some companies have been able to transform. At the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata, the entire experience was made contactless apart from getting the key! 

Memorable experiences

In my column a month ago, we had discussed reviving tourism and focusing on experience; but for this one, the key issue we need to address is having a competition and pushing collusion out. At Kathmandu’s international airport, you have a new option with the opening of a lounge by the Soaltee Hotel. Hopefully, domestic airlines will also give competitive differential services for their frequent fliers. 

Travelling is back, but so are newer sets of problems. It seems you will never know about the problems until you land in one.

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2021/10/18/travelling-is-not-the-same

Towards multimodal connectivity

With geopolitics rapidly changing, Nepal needs to make multi-modal connectivity a reality.

Source: Shutterstock

For the past couple of years, there have been groups working silently to push regional multi-modal connectivity. On a trip to eastern Nepal, people get surprised to see the highway connecting India and Nepal looking so nice and good with different integrated checkpoints being developed. The pandemic has pushed back many key deadlines, but there are some serious movements on pushing connectivity within the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) region. Global think tank CUTS International, and some leading think tanks in the region, have been pushing this study and development that is seeing some slow but steady progress. Through the Nepal Economic Forum, we have been engaged with many people on the border despite the pandemic to understand what regional connectivity means to future economic growth and development. 

The earlier BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement has moved ahead, but all countries thought the discourse moved to multi-modal transport. Therefore, for Nepal, it is to talk about inland waterways like Kolkata-Kalughat, Raxaul, Kolkata-Sahebgunj, Biratnagar and Kolkata-Varanasi-Raxaul routes that can be integrated into the existing road transportation network. Similarly, for cargo transportation, it will be essential to have the railway networks linking inland container depots and integrated checkpoints. In the case of Bangladesh, rail links are also in place wherein it may not be a distant dream to have a railway that can start in Bangladesh and end inside Nepal. Further, the biggest unleashing of the multi-modal strategy would be to link with the Trans-Himalayan Railway network, wherein China can be connected via Nepal and India to Bangladesh. This is definitely not going to be a short-term objective to be achieved, but in the long run, this seems obvious.

However, for Nepal, we also need to understand that the import duty on vehicles is high, labour costs are higher, and the operation costs of Nepali vehicles are higher than those of India registered vehicles. Also, the biggest complaint from Nepali transport entrepreneurs remains that Indian vehicles continue to take short-haul work in Nepal at lower costs, eating into their business. Therefore, regulation becomes a key factor when we move towards integration. 

Going digital

Compared to a few years ago, where people moved many papers through different offices at the border points, digital platforms are now quickly replacing the brutal old ways of working. However, a lot needs to be done in changing the mind-set as people are still used to having paper backups despite progress in the Nepal National Single Window system. When a smartphone can track cargo and conclude all documentation originating in one part of the world and getting to Nepal and vice versa, it would reduce costs and delivery times. Electronic tracking of vehicles and ensuring that vehicles are not flouting the rules/regulations of the different countries they are travelling to will boost confidence. 

Many people on the border seem to be working as agents and managing incredibly informal and illegal trade, trying to create a perception around why BBIN multi-modal platforms may be a problem by citing livelihood problems. Yes, there would be a handful of people engaged in loading and unloading cargo who may lose their jobs. Still, like elsewhere in the world, they can be retrained and reskilled, and continue to work on loose cargo as the platform will only take care of containerised movement. If people are engaged in smuggling or are just acting as agents who know whom to bribe, then surely the state or anyone should be least bothered about it. However, these people have the closest links with politicians through their various local organisations, and therefore have loud voices that need to be repelled through facts and figures. 

Building awareness

The key challenge remains in building awareness of multi-modal platforms and thereby providing a better, efficient and cost-effective method of moving cargo across countries. With regionalism and geopolitics going through constant redefinition, a platform like BBIN is apt for Nepal to reach out for its exports and make its imports efficient. The success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the East Africa Community (EAC) members is purely based on pushing integration despite the local political challenges one has to go through. The key strategy has to be multi-pronged and proactive so that people on the ground are aware of the various benefits of moving towards a multi-country regional platform. 

Nepal needs the BBIN platform more than any of its partner countries purely on two counts. First, it is landlocked, and it has to use Bangladesh or India to access the sea and ocean; and second, more importantly, any linkages to China are most effective through Nepal. Therefore, a proactive move is required to accelerate this discourse and make the BBIN multi-modal movement a reality. 

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2021/10/05/towards-multimodal-connectivity

My Vision for Nepal | A complete transformation of Nepal

Sujeev Shakya is a celebrated author and entrepreneur. His books include Unleashing Nepal and Unleashing the Vajra | Photo by: Pratik Rayamajhi

A complete transformation of Nepal

Three ways to realize the vision:

1)   By heralding a societal transformation.
2)   By changing our limiting mindset.
3)   By fostering a culture of learning.

Based on my work and background, I see Nepal primarily as a country of potential. When we look back over the past 30 years, the GDP has grown 10 times, quality of life and life expectancy are increasing, education access is getting better, and there are job opportunities for Nepalis not only in Nepal but around the world. When we look at all this, we can definitely call Nepal a country of potential. But we have not been able to achieve our full potential because of certain issues. 

Societal transformation

Nepal’s transformation most definitely has to be based on societal transformation. If we look at our politics, it is the reflection of what happens at our home. There is no home without a fight and we can see this reflected in Nepal’s larger political issues. If we look at our culture and value system—be it on corruption, nepotism, patriarchy, or hierarchy—all these happen in the society and are reflected nationally. So, the key would be societal transformation. Without that, there will be no economic transformation. 

Change in mindset

The second thing to look at is the change of mindset. It has been around 20 years since I first talked about Nepal being, at that point of time, the 40th most populated country in the world. Nepal is currently about the 50th most populated and in terms of economy there are a hundred countries that have a smaller size. So, we are not a small country. This narrative has to change.

We are land-linked to the two fastest growing economies in the world: the narrative of ‘landlocked’ needs to go because we are connected to a market of 2.8 billion people. That is a great potential we need to work towards. Which means we have to change our mindsets, start believing that we can integrate into this global world. We need to change our mindsets to become global citizens by adapting global practices: Be it by considering English language as important as other languages of Nepal, or allowing our regional languages to flourish, or syncing our calendars to international calendars. We also need to align our time. We are the only country with a 15-minute time difference to major time zones. 

The demographic potential

Women compromise half of our population but we hardly see them in key positions, although this trend is changing. In the 90s, only 12 percent of those giving SLC exams were girls; now it is 50 percent. If there is no nepotism, come 2030/2035, half of our ambassadors will be women. That would be a huge transformation. Fifty percent of the population that was excluded is going to be integrated and I can see women-power driving many changes. 

Along with that, our youth power needs to be taken into account. We’ve seen in the past 15 years the tremendous transformation in the IT industry—all led by young people. We are a country where 50 percent of our population is under 25, and 70 percent is under 35. The challenge is how to unleash their potential. Once their potential is unleashed, Nepal can transform beyond recognition. And it’s not difficult. In the past few decades, we have seen countries like South Korea, Sri Lanka and Ghana progress by leaps and bounds.

Learning culture

We have to have a learning mindset. We tend to not learn. We are averse to hiring smart people and getting international experts to do things. We need to create that learning culture to make the transformation. It is about taking your stories to the world and letting good stories from the world influence you.

Quick Questions with Sujeev Shakya: 

Is there such a thing as “too many entrepreneurs?”

No. Every person is an entrepreneur. You may be working for yourself or others, but you can continue to be creative. 

Are Nepal’s tax policies conducive for new businesses?

Policies are conducive, but they can surely be better. Yet the real issue is their implementation. 

Are trademark/copyright laws in Nepal too lax?

Yes, and I hope media houses stop accommodating advertisements of those who violate such trademarks/copyrights.

https://theannapurnaexpress.com/news/my-vision-for-nepal-a-complete-transformation-of-nepal-3648

Reviving Tourism

One of the sectors to take the biggest hit around the world has been tourism, on which one out of every 10 people depends as a source of livelihood. Travel restrictions have hit the sector hard, but we can now see a silver lining as countries are learning from experiments. Singapore finally decided to open even if it is just for people from Germany and Brunei. Thailand’s experimentation with “sandbox” has gone well, and they definitely would not like to miss the new year rush.

During my last quick trip across the border in eastern Nepal, we saw people moving across the borders following the travel protocols of PCR test to get to India, and full vaccination to get to Nepal. United States citizens are now being allowed to enter Canada after 17 months. The Maldives took advantage of its location, and its arrivals in August 2021 were higher than those in 2019. Every country is looking at ways to open up for tourism. For Nepal, it will be essential to look at how it can build a good strategy and execute it.

The Right Protocols

Every country should establish protocols that are centred around the visitor to make the person feel safe and welcome. The Nepal Tourism Board can initiate live chatbots to ensure people’s queries are answered and create a dedicated call centre to answer calls. In the days of calls over the internet, this is the cheapest and most cost-effective medium. Yes, we can start opening up for people who are fully vaccinated and ensure mandatory PCR reports are taken before departure.

We need to be mindful of the requirements of the countries that people will be returning to. Our travel protocols have been developed keeping in mind the mass market labour, but we need to understand that Nepali outbound tourism will also bounce back as countries open their borders. Our airport, now managed by a private firm, competes with the bus park on aesthetics and services. Similarly, there will be more Nepalis travelling for meetings and work. And let’s not forget, there is already a million-strong Nepali diaspora settled in different countries around the world, who will be travelling on non-Nepali passports but would like to seek better treatment at the airport.

Nepal’s track record of its airport, protocols and government action has been very poor, only compensated by the hospitable Nepalis who make people’s trips memorable. We need the government and tourism trade industry to learn how to convert goodwill into government actions.

Given the way Nepal has been able to implement the control measures and non-regulation of hotels, restaurants and bars in terms of crowds or protocol, we have to be clear: No big conferences will happen in Nepal till we pull up our socks. Similarly, people who have the money and fly in private jets don’t find Nepal ready to cater to this group. Therefore, it will be back to mass-market tourism, especially from China and India, and that is what it should be. Overland tourism from India will start gaining momentum, and the key is to ensure that the folks at the border treat you as a person whose business we need rather than treating everyone as a criminal trying to smuggle something or the other. Definitely, the folks at the border have to go through some massive “customer service” training, and there could be a Tourism Help Desk manned by personnel who can speak the local language to make people feel they are welcome.

We are, after all, connected to a market of 400 million-plus people within a few hours’ driving distance. From China, it will be about flights, and as it decides to open up its skies cautiously, it will be time for Chinese tourists to travel again. For one of the Southeast Asian markets, there were support schemes under which Chinese travellers could avail of state support worth $1,500 provided they fly a Chinese airline and spend a week outside China. Given the mental health challenges the pandemic has brought about around the world, going out for many people can be the only way to bring about a change in their daily rut.

Long-term strategies

While much of the blame is put on the government, the Nepali private sector working in tourism also must introspect and see what they need to do. The associations that have converted themselves into political cartels have not helped as the focus is never on looking at the industry but at personal gains. A few champions are trying, but many are giving up. Hotels are a priority area for lending, whereas for banks they are a real estate business, and only a few are really in the business of hospitality. Further, family feuds and feuds with workers have not helped either. The business is still owner-driven, and even the largest conglomerates have decided to run the business themselves rather than bring in professional management. For someone who has spent two decades in a hotel group as a professional, this is really saddening.

We have messed up our exclusive products like mountain climbing by selling them cheap; we have not cared about trekking routes; places like Sauraha have been converted into an urban ghetto; and everyone is in a hurry to finish Pokhara and replicate that destruction in Lumbini. The pandemic, hopefully, has taught us some important lessons as we reflect on our mistakes; it is time to set things right as we open Nepal to the world again. 

https://tkpo.st/3E21KBh

Impose inheritance tax to change politics

Family feuds generally revolve around ancestral assets in the form of land and property.

The splitting of political parties is being widely discussed in Nepal as if it is something alien to societal norms. However, the way political parties behave is a reflection of the society we live in. Our societies have always seen family feuds, and they generally revolve around ancestral assets in the form of land and property—land being the biggest of them. It is rare to see a family where there has been no family feud for assets in the past three generations. We grew up learning how my grandfather’s family took away the family assets, and our dad and his brothers were on their own. When it happened again, we stopped speaking to one of my uncles after he took away all the assets and left us with nothing.

We siblings thought it was important to start off on our own rather than fight for the family assets, and now we do not think that was a bad idea. I am not sure how my life would have been if I had assets I had inherited and could live on the rental income. Would my siblings or I been as hardworking and push ourselves hard? Our society is one where lives revolve around inheritance. Earlier, women were excluded from inheriting parental property by law. No wonder Nepali women are more hardworking than Nepali men as they are not sure they will inherit wealth from their parents or husbands.

Weddings and funerals

Fights for family assets, especially land, form part of every discussion at large family gatherings. We remember weddings and funerals where there were showdowns between different families. I have vivid memories of people fighting over who should light the funeral pyre at cremation ghats as society determines family relations based on who attends funerals and lights the pyre. You will see warring brothers fighting for family wealth together as kriya putra (mourning sons) even though they may not be on speaking terms. It is not rare to see brothers who have had fist fights in front of hundreds sitting together at death rituals. Family members fighting in court for decades can be seen posting large obituaries in the newspapers. They all do that as there is inheritance to look forward to. The disintegration of wealth amongst Rana families, perhaps the richest rulers in South Asia, can be attributed to fights for assets across different branches of the family. Only those who chose to get professionals or kept family communications open and legal have survived.

This sense of fighting within families is reflected in our political parties. It is rare to see a political party that has not had such fights. Even the new ones have fights as the leadership of the party is seen as legitimate inheritance, which means that they are like family members fighting over inheritance.

If one has inherited a plot of land, especially in urban centres in Nepal, the usual practice is to rent it out. With sky-rocketing land prices, there are many Nepali billionaires in terms of land value. There is no incentive to become entrepreneurial. They start businesses because everyone is doing it. They do not have to think hard as the business is for identity; and if it folds up, it’s not your hard-earned money that you have lost. Some ancestor earned it for you. Therefore, it is important to tax inheritance in a big way so that what comes to one is not guaranteed, and you have to work hard early on in life like in many countries in the world.

People ask why second generation Nepali children in the United States are so successful, or some of the young people who have started businesses in the ICT sector in Nepal have flourished, and the answer for the majority would be the same. They started on their own without inheritance or moved away from their families to be independent. If we did a survey of women (daughters or daughters-in-law) below 30 years of age, many would say they would choose independent nuclear living instead of being in families where in exchange for inheritance, you have to trade your independence.

More open spaces

Japan and South Korea’s economic growth can be attributed to their 55 percent and 50 percent inheritance tax respectively as people do not wait for their parents to die to inherit their wealth. Of course, there has to be a threshold above which this should apply. Further, making a will and registering it with competent authorities should be made mandatory for everyone who owns assets, like we have to name a nominee for bank accounts and shares of companies in the event of death. This will also reduce the number of litigation after the death of the asset owner.

In Nepal, a high inheritance tax can also lead to more open spaces. With more Nepalis settling abroad, the assets in Nepal become just another bonus for them. So if there is inheritance tax, they would not mind if the local government takes over their assets and gives them the money after taxes. In Boulder, Colorado, the local government buys such houses and dismantles them, creates more open spaces and increases the prices of houses in the neighbourhood, resulting in more taxes. In Patan, we see so many abandoned houses in clusters which are mostly disputed. They can be taken over to create open creative spaces that can also generate revenue.

It is important to look at this issue deeply if we are to resolve our political landscape in the next decade. We need to have the next generation of political leaders push the cause of inheritance taxes to secure their own political future. Otherwise, in the 22nd century, we will be talking about the 150 years of different party splits and unification like in families. 

https://tkpo.st/3De3KpE

Unleashing the potential of Nepali sports

Since the monarchical days, the Olympics have been a junket for near and dear ones of authorities.

For those Nepalis who like to compare their country with Bhutan, the Olympics this time was an apt opportunity. Nepal, a country of 28 million people, sent five athletes and 21 officials whereas Bhutan, with a population of 800,000 people, sent four athletes and five officials. In Nepal, the Olympics have been a junket for near and dear ones of authorities since the monarchical days. Therefore, the wife of Bamdev Gautam being singled out for criticism this time is not fair. People who have generally nothing to do with the sports have been part of the delegation each time.

Like in many fields of our life (apart from selling momos), there is an association or a cartel for everything. And, of course, there is a cartel of people who control the games. The only difference here is that the cartel members may not even know the rules of the game they are associated with. But in a country where seniority, ethnicity and gender can decide what one can lead, it is not surprising to see this happen when it comes to sports. However, we need to continue to be activists of change and recognise some of the transformations that are taking place and hope we can build on them.

The potential

I have been continuously writing about this issue as I see hope. When the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) was held in 2013, the gate money from matches did provide lots of “party” funds of both kinds—lots of parties and money for political parties! In leveraging sports we discussed how it is possible to bring about a commercial scale to activities. Perhaps, this led to some entrepreneurial pursuits around the cricket and football leagues in different parts of Nepal, some of them without the toll tax and blessing to the syndicates. After the South Asian Games in 2019, we made calls again for transformation and learning from other countries.

Building a world-class facility using the abandoned Mahendranagar Airport with private or international government efforts still makes sense. Let us look at the big medal baggers—can we ask China, Japan, or the United States to help build academies and sports facilities that can sustain through hosting tournaments? The key issue remains to get the games to be managed by people who know the game rather than political appointees, spouses, or relatives of politicians. Perhaps Paras Khadka, the just-retired Nepal cricket captain, can show the way by leading the transformations of institutions as he has led the transformation of Nepali cricket.

Much has been written about the training regimes of swimmer Gaurika Singh and the dedication of family members for her to get this far. As The Nepali diaspora of knowledge workers and entrepreneurs grow, we will see more parents putting efforts behind their children to get the foundations right. This surely requires not only financial resources but dedication. With more Nepali companies in the day and age of social media and online platforms finding newer ways of seeing the association of brands with individuals, we may see more firms willing to provide their support. So it could be Goldstar shoes finding enough reasons to get associated with the teams like many global brands. The growth and aspiration of Nepali brands going global can fill the much-needed resource gap.

The inspiration
It is heartening to see Nepali film making getting away from the shackles of all sorts of associations, and now a YouTube show like Blind Date can garner close to a million views. Music-making and sharing has changed. Instagram stars can give everyone else a run for their money. With Nepalis in 180 plus countries connected by the internet, there is a huge market for products and services along with connecting with the Nepali identity. Like we see in the arts, music and entertainment, there are many global Nepalis coming out to help, we will see similar activities. We can imagine football teams and cricket teams that are backed by Nepali corporate houses from different parts of the world, there can be no limit to imagination.

While it is easy to blame politics and syndicates in the garb of associations, they stem from how our society is structured and how we define culture—be it of caste or ethnicity-based superiority, caste hierarchies within ethnic groups, gender, and our quest for pushing seniority over meritocracy. We are a country where 50 percent of the population is under 25, and they are growing up seeing in real time what is happening around the world. When they see that countries with a smaller population than Nepal produce so many world-class athletes and sportspeople, they will start wondering why they can’t do it. They will challenge the status quo and unshackle the potential. Hopefully, by the Olympics 2028, we will see Nepal in the tally of medals. For that, there are many things that need to start today.