Is it not that social reforms are equally necessary for open and economic policies to flourish? What then are the social agendas for reform? Globally, though, until a few years after the second world war, the emphasis of the economic growth strategies had been more on rebuilding infrastructural facilities providing basic necessities and enabling people to earn their livelihood which had been devastated by the atrocities of the war. Even though politically the world may have been divided into blocs, the then economic reforms were either led by the western concept of market driven policies and programmes or the government-controlled welfare agenda of the left leaning states.
Many of the countries of the third world including Nepal had no choice but to follow suit as either they were beneficiaries of the budgetary financial support or the government in the saddle carried conviction in either of the theories of development circulating globally. Moreover, the end objective of either of the systems was to raise the standard of living of the people, alleviate poverty and ameliorate their wellbeing. Many of these countries had just been freed from colonial rule and now they were on their own without any experience of economic development. Hence, they chose to take the easiest path by treading on either of the above.
Nepal, though, always an independent country as a monarchy for almost 200 years, had no economic agenda of its own. With the downfall of the Rana regime in 1950 the popular political leaders who had all been associated with Indian politics chose to experiment with the concept of a mixed economy as was being done in India. However, this strategy did not strike root as our political system kept on changing. The thrust of any of the above systems of economic growth was upon the material wellbeing of the people because of the type of circumstances back then and therefore, became immediately acceptable and popular. They addressed the issues of survival.
The irony is that what was resorted to back then as an emergency measure has become the norms of development today. Secondly the newly formed governments had the additional responsibility of equity-based development comprising all sections of society, hitherto marginalised, downtrodden and distressed. Though the emerging totally different social and cultural milieu of the newly independent countries demanded an innovative approach, most of them under their own compulsions chose to be more materialistic rather than also inculcating social values in their developmental efforts.
Consequentially, over the years, the people of most of the underdeveloped and developing countries became habituated to measure their development in terms of material consumption, the facilities the government provided to them for free or at subsidised rates. They became totally dependent on government largesse and the political parties took advantage of the people’s weakness by resorting to a façade of popular measures to garner votes for themselves. The people became corrupted by this model of economic development. It benefited only a few but those few drove the others. This corruption in public life emerged because of the absence of social values.
Post 1950, after the end of the Rana regime, till today all political systems of different hues and colours in Nepal have sought to justify and advocate their theories/strategies of economic development for the masses in order to remain in power. It is obvious that these attempts have not succeeded as the last 70 years have witnessed frequent changes not only in government but also the political system from the Rana regime to monarchy to a republic now. In between Nepal underwent civil unrest and experimented with extreme liberalism to government control. Though all these different political systems had one thing in common as their avowed commitment to the people i.e. to raise their standard of living, and give them more purchasing power, their efforts and initiatives have all failed to contain their erosion because the prevailing political systems focused only in one direction, that of the material wellbeing of a few. Those who were marginalised, downtrodden and distressed never achieved access to the economic development efforts of the government. The absence of any social values deprived them of any attention of the concerned political bosses.
What then are the social agendas that should go in parallel with the economic reforms? Who are the marginalised, downtrodden and distressed people? Have all the people irrespective of colour, class, creed and gender equal access to developmental growth and opportunities? Which of the political systems facilitates more access to the deprived class? Will benefits of economic liberalisation percolate to them without the social values? These and many other questions need to be addressed in order to make corrections to our economic policies and programmes for the future.
The young generation today is in a dilemma as to which model to choose that will suit them the best. Any political dispensation to succeed has to target them. The young generation which was born say two decades ago is entering into mainstream society now on its own terms. Globalisation has given them many alternative choices. They have a scientific bent not sentimental, are more rational and ambitious. They do not want to be dependent on their parents for their upbringing and livelihood. Traditional social values and history of the past may be their curiosity but not the bricks and mortar of their growing and grooming. They are maturing as others mature in other countries. The values and style that overwhelmingly are in vogue universally are becoming the trendsetters for the youth today in Nepal also. They are aspirational. They all belong to diverse sections of society and include women also. The recent political changes have awakened them further.
This awakening of the youth has not been based on the initiatives taken by the political parties but instead their consistent and regular exposure to world events and social media have spurred them to shed their nonchalance and become more demanding. With our society still being tribal and not evolved that much into the modern concept of egalitarianism, the youth today is in the initial phases of amassing as much purchasing power as possible for themselves. This defeats distributive justice and starts a combative race.
In this globalised world the values of the past are getting lost not because the younger generation ignore them but because in their upbringing these values have not been inculcated in them neither by their parents nor in the schools. They never had any opportunity or occasion to discuss the utility of these values nor were they exposed to their strengths in their day to day life. Can the new generation afford to lose them? An article in the Economist magazine has pointed out that the blistering pace of change in recent decades in China has kindled an anxiety there that the country is suffering from moral decay and a strong yearning for a revival of ancient values. This anxiety and concern are becoming virally manifest in the Islamic world and very recently in India and other countries as well. The spread of Covid-19, consequences of climate change as observed in more frequent floods, earthquakes, storms, typhoons, diseases, crop failures etc have all demanded of us the necessity of changing our life styles and habits.
On the one hand 70 percent of the total world population of 7 billion barely manages to make both ends meet, the rest consumes, so profusely and conspicuously that the production and supply of goods and services is always imbalanced. In this race of striking a balance, innovative technologies are coming into being the side effects of which tell upon not only the environment but also on the social fabric of countries. The most crucial impact is on the attitudes of the youth who find in this race an opportunity for self–fulfillment at any cost.
Nepali society is also undergoing this phase. The migration of the youth overseas is one glaring example of this attitudinal change. The recent years have seen an accelerating decay all around in terms of widening inequalities, rising corruption in public life, rampant unethical behaviour of the politicians and erosion in the integrity of public institutions.
All these changes seen in all walks of life including families can be attributed to the disproportionate emphasis being given by us on material possession and consumption. The irony is that though as individuals we deprecate it daily, our political representatives, civil society, political parties and all those who matter are least concerned about it. In other countries this angle of growth and consequent decay has started surfacing in their debates, in Nepal, we are totally apathetic about if as if it is a non-issue.
Sukhi Nepali - Samriddha Nepal (Happy Nepali – Affluent Nepal) presupposes that the availability of basic necessities of life and the ability to purchase them will make Nepalis happy is only partially true. From time immemorial our culture has sought happiness in internal peace, harmony and renunciation not only by an individual but the society as a whole. We have always seen materialistic answers to happiness as only a basic means and not an end in itself. This angle of vision needs to be appreciated by today’s youth. For us it is important that the emerging new values as advocated by them fuse with the traditional ones. We also have to appreciate that the new values which are an output of the analytical and scientific environment of this age cannot be set aside as shallow, however, the old traditional values which we have inherited----originated out of faith-----has stood the test of time in keeping the society homogenous and intact for centuries.
In actual life all great initiatives begin with faith. The analytical side definitely has spurred progress but has also triggered an unending race to achieve; whereas the faith has generated values, tempered and disciplined the unhealthy competition. If fusion takes place, it will strengthen one another, and the holder of these fused values will be more holistic. A debate has to start as to what model of development today’s youth prefer, whether it is western and Chinese style, of swiss villas or high-rise buildings or will they be ready to walk, bike or take the mass transit system.
This need for a fusion of beliefs will give direction to today’s social reforms and a focus to include them in our economic developmental programmes in order to redefine happiness of the Nepali people. Even today’s youth, for them to successfully fulfill their ambitions, needs to inculcate in themselves the shared values of collaboration, openness, and fairness. It is observed that without these social values, economic recovery is not only slow but also not sustainable. We have to start incorporating these issues in our economic recovery plans without any delay as without them mere statistical growth may damage the social fabric to such an extent that it becomes irreparable.
A new model that can link today’s young aspirations to traditional values can be the key for the transformation of Nepali society. The new model will have a positive impact on the social fabric as the same will be more inclusive. Economic growth is only a means whereas social cohesion and harmony are the ultimate goals. Globalisation of the world economy has expanded the volume of traded goods and services, the growth rate has almost trebled, but at the same time it has triggered competition in conspicuous consumption which in turn has eroded morality, ethics and values of austerity. Techniques of persuasion are so perfected that the consumers cannot but be manipulated by them. Over the years, imperceptibly, Nepali society has also been reshaping to urbanisation in which migration, social unrest, racism, terrorism are becoming the norms. These maladies are definitely manifestations of dire inequalities that the prevailing models of economic development have bred.
These issues need immediate attention before they erupt. We can do it only by debating nationally whether we need to temper our prevailing growth model by incorporating in its traditional values of savings, frugality, generosity, gratitude, empathy and austerity not only in our personal lives but also in public spending. Judicious spending, fiscal discipline and waste management at the national level give a very positive message to the general masses to follow suit. Today’s model of economic growth does give power to the youth but not self-fulfillment which comes with economic liberty. As a person goes beyond basic needs, he/she starts valuing a life of culture, peace and camaraderie. Self-fulfillment gives him confidence, image and acceptance in society. He gains social capital. Likewise, this is true for Nepal as a nation. In the comity of nations, by leading an alternative model built on a fusion of traditional values with modern tools of economic prosperity, Nepal can build a more harmonious society to which everybody aspires but are at a loss as to how to go about it.
Economic problems will never be solved permanently. What we do will generate new issues and new situations. The global dynamism keeps on adding new aspirations and new demands. The last hundred years have witnessed enormous material progress but that has given birth to an equal scale of dissatisfaction. In the past, society tolerated inequalities as god’s curse upon them but today it is perceived to be manmade.
The root cause is over-aspiration which is aroused and fuelled by new discoveries inventions, innovation, creativity and global exposure through social media. The commercial marketing along with peer impact creates a superfluous demand. This phenomenon of conspicuous demand trigged by a market expands greed and tension perennially. The irony is that we all welcome it. But in the long run if we have to be really happy, this skewed push has to be tempered and slowed down.
Who will do it? The private sector will not do it as the consumption led society is grist to private mills. It is the state which has to come forward. In order to do that the state has to redefine happiness and depend less on revenues by imports. The budgetary allocation needs to be looked into in terms of not only economic growth but enhancing the quality of life. Corruption in public expenditure has to be drastically controlled so that the same investment can give better results. Selection of projects, qualitative implementation of them in time will lessen the burden on exchequers. Civil society also has to participate as watch dogs and trustees in good management of the public money. Social values, if part of our developmental process, will definitely assist the state to be more accountable to its citizens by enhancing productivity of the limited resources.
Social values are endless. One value leads to another. We need to inculcate in people those values which will make them better citizens who care and share with their fellow beings. Today’s statistical development aims at an individual’s initiatives and motivates individuals to access the limited resources for themselves only leaving others far behind. Winning is the goal as it brings glory, acceptance and opulence. This has to change by bringing in attitudinal changes in all of us.
Inclusive developmental efforts do not deny or ignore the primary objective of attaining a basic standard of living including health and education but simultaneously emphasises on evolving an individual’s sense of compassion, companionship and collaboration in uplifting other wellbeing areas also. This approach is neither automatic nor inherent. It is upon the state to awaken it among its citizens.
Nepal is in a position to lead because we have always believed in “Dharma, Aarth, Kama and Moksha” where “Dharma” i.e. living by righteousness, doing “what as you would be done by has preceded “Aartha” i.e. material wellbeing. This approach will have the family as the starting point. The school will be the nursery. Governance at all three levels will by persuasion, legislation and compulsory execution, implement certain civic behaviours till they become social habits. Incorporating social values in our growth agenda will bring back merit, viability, frugality, austerity and waste management in the planning process which will make our capital investment more productive and we shall be able to achieve more with scarce limited resources.
Our constitution has also visualised through its basic and guiding principles the social values that the state is obliged to usher in among us. Rights and duties of citizens define their obligation to each other. It is upon state that each and every citizen irrespective of caste, creed, colour and gender has an equal opportunity and access to state programmes and practices. These are the basic foundations of our constitution because we believe that the end objective of the state is to facilitate the richness of its citizen’s living standard not only in terms of material prosperity but primarily in terms of social affluence.
It is unfortunate that post promulgation of the constitution neither the political parties nor the state ever felt the need to discuss how to bring about a holistic egregious change in society which will fulfill the dream of the constitution of a welfare state comprising social values with material prosperity. The continuation of the same old strategies and programmes with ever increasing emphasis on populism, may have given some political mileage but no paradigm shift in favour of the masses. Maybe this can partially be attributed to our compulsory dependence on donor-driven financial resources.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also given a message that perhaps man-kind has to change its style of living which mainly consists of consumption. Imagine what will happen if 7 billion people of the world can afford to consume what half a billion people consume today. It is high time that Nepal takes a critical view of its economic growth-plan and tailors it to suit a new generation and the available resources. At the same time Nepal also has to take the lead in making changes in the aspirations of the new generation, their values and choices so that they no longer ape others, but rather, build their own perceptions of true happiness which will be a balanced combination of material possession and social capital.
Individual initiative has to be blended with collective goals so that it is less of a rat-race and more of co-operation. Cultural values and social virtues if emphasised will not only improve quality governance through civic engagements but also reshape economic policies. In the words of Francis Fukuyama “patron client relationship” of the past two centuries has hindered development of cultural and social habits of “lifting together” as a community and habituated us to a culture of “somebody else doing it for us”. The recent political change augurs well as slowly and steadily overall attitudinal change is happening. Mafia clientelism and corruption have sprung up because of stress on statistical growth without the disciplining forces of civil virtues. These shortcomings have started surfacing which definitely is a ray of hope. However, we have to be cautious that though we are modernising, without ever evolving social and cultural values we may not develop in the truest sense.
(Agrawal is Chairman of Nimbus Group.)