Reflections on Trials, Tremors and Hope

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When I got hold of a copy of Dr Ram Sharan Mahat’s new book Trials, Tremors, and Hope – The Political Economy of Contemporary Nepal, I immediately went to the bookshelf and pulled out his last book in Defense of Democracy – Dynamics and Fault Lines of Nepal’s Political Economy. When I was writing my first book Unleashing Nepal, I did read his first book multiple times and quoted him in a few instances. It was a defining book as Nepal was getting embroiled in a protracted insurgency and authoritarian rule. This time, he begins where he had left off from his first book and walks us through contemporary Nepal. It is a fitting sequel to his earlier book as the format, the writing style, and the presentation are completely identical.

This book is from the academic in Dr Mahat rather than the politician. He at times refers to portions where he talks about an event when he was Minister for Finance or Minister for foreign Affairs, but apart from that it delves into details and uses a lot of data to put across his points. This book is surely a data mine like his last book with lots of information. For students of economics who are always looking for information packaged well, this book is surely it.

He begins the book with a discourse on socialism and very pertinent it is too, as the current ruling unified Communists have pushed the Maoist agenda out and are more geared to socialism. He brings about, from the days of the end of Rana rule till now, the perspectives on the socialism movement – history and contemporary issues. He also provides a good perspective on the inside movements within the Nepali Congress (NC) party. When you read the book and take a moment to reflect, perhaps it also sheds light on why the NC is in the current state as it is now.

There are many nuggets in the book to treasure and keep. The chapter on economic reforms does complete the storylines from his previous book with a compelling argument on why there has to be more reforms. He writes, “The challenge in the days ahead is quite simply, to build upon the set of past achievements to launch a fresh wave of economic reforms by reclaiming the same spirit of ambition and purpose that was seen in Nepal in the 90s.” In the chapter on Maoist Conflict and the Peace Process, he talks about how out of 17,052 combatants verified, only six took up rehabilitation, “an option favored by the government and the donor community. This reflects the mindset of the Nepali people. The total cost of the management of arms and armies was estimated at Rs 19.7 billion.” In what we believed was paid for by the donor community, he writes, “As the donor community was reluctant to pay cash for voluntary retirement, the entire cost of the package was paid by the Nepal government.”

While many books and articles have been written on hydropower, the chapter on Unleashing Hydropower does provide a quick and comprehensive read on the history, current status, and potential of hydropower. It is information and data-laden and perhaps, for me, one of the best chapters of the book. There is a good insider view on foreign aid and the challenges as he is definitely the most respected finance minister for the donor community who had good access and also spoke their language.

As someone who was a minister when the 2015 earthquake hit Nepal, it is a good read on what the issues were and where the challenges were in terms of rehabilitation and rebuilding. However, I would have liked to hear more on why the money pledged by the donors was never fully accessed and the politics behind the way political parties went about converting the Nepal Reconstruction Authority into a No Reconstruction Authority. I would have also loved to understand whether out of 888,000 houses reportedly destroyed and damaged, 824,621 household grants were made due to government efficiency or if there was a scam.

His indication that there is a need for a change of culture is pushed in many places. For instance in chapter six, ‘Writing the Constitution’, he writes, “The transition to Nepal’s federalism….it is best with challenges that call for due care, hard work, perseverance and work culture and mindset different from the past.”  In his final chapter, he talks about productivity and work culture, an issue that does not really feature in discourses in Nepal. He explains why Nepal’s Total Factor Productivity (TFT) is the lowest in South Asia and what the linkages are with our culture. He argues that, “an important factor affecting productivity in Nepali is the high degree of politicization in society, as a large section of the population gets involved directly or indirectly in the activities of political parties, their affiliates, and interest groups.”

For me, on a personal level, it was great to learn about an excuse so as to tell people why I don’t want to join politics. From this book, I learned that while you may have good perspectives, analysis, data, and prescriptions, it is very difficult to change things even when you are in the most powerful position in the government. Perhaps, this book also reflects on the unfinished tasks of Dr Mahat and the things he would have liked to do, if he had been granted a free hand. 

Sujeev Shakya is the author of Unleashing Nepal and his forthcoming book is Unleashing The Vajra – Nepal’s journey between India and China

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