INCLUSION DEBATE IN NEPAL: LAST COME FIRST SERVE

Last come first serve  
 

MURARI SHARMA

Nepalis are known for repenting in leisure what they decide in haste. So decisions often tend to be flawed and consequences serious. The inclusion policy is a stark example of it. The inclusion debate has been woefully inadequate and measures to promote inclusion seriously flawed. Nepal needs greater clarity and better prioritization to advance inclusion of the seriously disadvantaged. 

The issue of inclusion is as old as human civilization. It began with family and became complex after the relatives of Lucy (the name given to the woman whose remains found in East Africa are deemed the oldest) trekked across the continent in search of a better life, settled around the earth, and diversified with need, climate and distance. Today they carry multiple identities based on faith, origin, country, political and economic ties. This increasing diversity has made inclusion a serious issue. 

Manu, Buddha, Confucius, Christ and Mohammed sought to organize these dispersing people around core religious beliefs. But they ended up contributing to diversity further. Chanakya, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbs, Rousseau, Marx and other philosophers tried to tie people around the state, politics and power. Two mainstream ideologies—democracy and communism— that tried to make the world inclusive in their own vision emerged from their discourses. 

Democracy propagated the gospel of individual freedom, capitalism, free market, profit and competition. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among others, elaborated and enriched these ideas. Competition and free market increased efficiency, promoted growth and created winners and losers. To mitigate the hardship of losers, democracies introduced the idea of welfare state. 

French revolutionaries picked up Plato’s communism, and Marx developed it into a full-fledged philosophy based on community interest, state control, and state planning. Several countries took this road and stagnated economically due to lack of initiative and motivation. Communism too created winners and losers. The losers revolted, and the Berlin Wall and communism collapsed in Europe, ending the Cold War. The remaining communist states revived their moribund economies by injecting elements of capitalism, free market, competition and profit.The current system is seriously flawed. It benefits the privileged among minorities, perpetuates the quota system, and works against merit forever. 

The late Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington had visualized that identity politics and inter-civilization conflict would replace the Cold War. Instead it is identity politics and ethnic conflict that have prospered. 

Evidently, every system produces winners and losers. Florida State University Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericsson has unsurprisingly found in his experiments that consistent hard work brings success. As we know, acculturation, orientation, and state support also contribute to it. But communists and identity politicians singled out the state as their target. Communists organized the poor and sought to dismantle the state controlled by the rich. Now identity politicians are mobilizing disadvantaged minorities and demanding the breakup of the state controlled by the majority. 

Will identity politics endure? If Universalist faiths and communism could not arrest human drive for a better life, thereby leading to dispersal and diversification, the parochial and stagnant identity politics is unlikely to do so either. Human beings will continue looking beyond their turf to secure their self interest and in search of new markets and profit. 

Nonetheless, identity politics is already here, and Nepal will have to learn to live with it. It comes with both positive and negative attributes. On the plus side, it opens a window of opportunity to those who have been deprived of their rights so far. The country stands to benefit from additional energy and talent. On the minus side, identity politics narrows opportunities for those who have worked hard to build an edge in the existing system. 

Historical legacy and demand of time are in conflict here. The legacy is that hill BCNs—Brahmins, Chhetris and Newars—have dominated the Nepali society and government, and other groups have lagged behind. The demand, rightly, is that these groups must share power and privilege with the disadvantaged to maintain peace and accelerate progress. Einstein says there is an opportunity in every difficulty. If handled right, Nepal will have a better future. If not, it might be doomed. 

The inclusion debate has been woefully inadequate and partial; as a result, the measures taken to promote inclusion have been seriously flawed. It is important to see three factors, among many, in proper perspective. First, inclusion must not compromise merit forever. If that happens, Nepal will be left behind; as The New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman says, in a flat world where everyone with a computer and internet connection can compete with everyone else from everywhere. So any compromise must only be temporary.

Second, sectarian noise must be set aside to see a clear picture of representation of various groups in Nepal’s politics and government. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that, in democratic societies, many businessmen, landowners, NGO-wallahs, sportspeople, media and entertainment personalities are more powerful than many politicians and government bureaucrats. We need to look at all of them while drawing the representation picture. 

Let me start with politics and public bureaucracies (administrative, technical, educational, military and police services) based on available information and on my observation. Hill Chhetris—who constitute 16 percent of the population—are overrepresented in the military and police but slightly underrepresented in other services. As Chhetri kings ruled Nepal until monarchy was abolished in 2008, the Chhetris joined the military in large numbers to defend their clan’s rule. Joining the army evolved as their tradition. 

Hill Brahmins—13 percent—are overrepresented in politics, administration, and education but underrepresented in the military. Traditionally priests, teachers, and advisers to kings and princes, the Brahmins formed and joined political parties to dislodge their masters when the opportunity arose. This gave them advantage in politics. Coming from the countryside where they could study arts and humanities, if at all, they joined the administrative service. 

Like the Brahmins, the Newars—5.5 percent—have also been very close to power all along. Traders by tradition, they lived in towns and cities, went to good schools and science colleges and became doctors, engineers and other professionals. Once dominant in all civilian services—when I joined the civil service, more than 50 percent secretaries and senior officials were from this group—the Newars are still overrepresented in them by a huge margin and are fairly represented in politics. 
Hill tribes—28.4 percent—are severely underrepresented in civilian services and in politics and fairly well represented in uniformed services. Impressed by their superior bravery in the Nepal-India war of 1814-16, the British enrolled them in their military under a bilateral agreement. This has elevated economic and social status of thousands of families among hill tribes. Among them, the Gurungs have fared well both in Nepal and in the British army. 

In the plains, the picture is equally skewed. Out of 32 percent national population living there, the privileged BRYKs—Brahmins, Rajputs, Yadavs and Kayasthas—constitute only about 5 percent. But they control politics of the Terai, and their representation in civilian services is more than 8 percent, disproportionately large. This group is also underrepresented in uniformed services. 

Outside politics and government bureaucracies, the Marwaris, Jains, Newars, Kayasthas and Thakalis dominate the business sector and wield power on the strength of their money. Others trail behind them. The BCNs and BRYKs are prominent in landownership, social organizations and the media, all of which are sources of power. Once a Newari preserve, the entertainment and sport sectors have fair presence of all hill groups. 

That leaves the Dalits from the hills and plains and non-BRYK communities from the plains as the most unrepresented or underrepresented groups in all corridors of power. Hill tribes and BRYKs are underrepresented only in some of these corridors. 

Third, it is possible to promote inclusion reasonably quickly by giving priority to these most disadvantaged groups. Prioritization is essential because inclusion requires investment in people, and resources are in short supply. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The triage system, which prioritizes victims in rescue and relief operations based on their seriousness, already offers an excellent framework. In inclusion, this means the unrepresented must get priority over underrepresented, the underrepresented over fairly represented; and so on. 

To execute this system, I support a targeted and temporary quota system, though it is anti-merit, in public services and affirmative action in private employment. As quota benefits only those who get it, broad-based capacity-building measures must accompany it to lift all boats. Such measures should include scholarships, skills development, political participation, etc. for the disadvantaged communities so they can compete on a level playing field and the quota system could be phased out. In this context, I find the current system—mostly blanket reservation without capacity-building efforts—seriously flawed. This benefits the already privileged among the minorities, perpetuates the quota system, and works against merit forever. 

Nepal needs a calm, frank and comprehensive inclusion debate for greater clarity and better prioritization. No community should be left behind; nor could merit and competitiveness be compromised forever if Nepal wants to promote its competitiveness in a globalizing world. Striking a balance is possible with triage. 

murarisharma@gmail.com

 
   
Published on 2011-12-27 01:10:37
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