Gateway to Nepali Politics and Civil Society
Human Rights
Civic Education
Caste & Ethnicity
Conflict Resolution

Search Site

Back to FES Nepal


By Dev Raj Dahal


As Nepal enters the 21st Century, it will face enormous, pressing and complex problems in the decades inmediately ahead. The triumph of a form of people's power in Nepal defines the captivating vision the people seek. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990 makes it abundantly clear that the state shall protect "life, liberty and property of people," render social justice and maintain internal cohesion. Based on the consolidation of historical and cultural identities as well as creative action of people, the Constitution envisions a path for the state to carry out its long-term goals. It also seeks ways to balance memory with a growing desire to look forward through available opportunities to inspire development and change. Looking at current political trends, one can guess that the next century will be very eventful for Nepal, as political discourse will be pivoted between the citizens who aspire for more democracy and those who fear its consequences. As people reclaim their sovereignty, they are reclaiming their right to self-governance, asserting for greater autonomy, justice and universal rights. In contrast, the country's leadership now appears torn between keeping old style politics of patronage and embracing civic and voluntary groups and institutions that were constituted by and are accountable to sovereign people. The latter process entails sweeping structural reforms in the nation's political, economic and social systems. One plausible scenario for the future is that whatever form of government may in fact be in Nepal, each will call itself democratic.

The optimist's scenario is that the global and national democratizing trend has generated enough political consciousness for a new generation of people to set aside the old mind-set, invent their own karma and look for a better life and liberty. Instant communication through phone, fax and e-mail has created a bedrock of cooperation and solidarity with the people of the world.
This new found freedom has offered a multitude of synergy in the ideas, organizations and activities. Yet, people are calling on their leaders to free from the shackles of poverty of the pervasive kind. Nepalese civil society appears to be mobilizing optimism, furnishing the image of a democratic polity in the nation. But the leadership's interest in these issues has been less elemental which makes it hard to persuade them to take positive action, as they still feel themselves to be rulers of a sovereign people. lf civil society succeeds in eroding their resistance and make them accept the problem as momentous, the challenge for the future, that now looms large as stupendous, might be overcome. Governance works best when those at the helm of public affairs stop assuming that they know the best. They rather listen to the people, talk, discuss and seek mutually acceptable solutions.

The pessimist's scenario shows the country approaching a new century with a political economy that cannot take the people where they prefer to go. The leadership's political culture has debunked a pattern that underlies the past: sheer jockeying for power and pelf rather than committing towards good governance-undertaking an effort to raise awareness about the future and mobilizing-material and technical assistance and funds for national development. All important decisions are taken by core elites, whether they are elected or not. They seem cohesive enough in controlling the society by maintaining the status quo and assuming a hereditary succession of leadership. History, of course, is littered with boundless hypocrisies in the statement of leaders who are loudly proclaiming, progressive values while pursuing conservatism, personal gratification and unaccountable political activism. Speculation is rife among party gerentocrats on their worries about what the new generation would do in the future. Their worry springs more from the fear of losing power to the new generation rather than of the future of democracy itself.

Nation-building projects are plagued by violent conflicts, governmental instability, political factionalism, rampant rent-seeking, and economic burdens. The burden of public debt is meanwhile exceeding the carrying capacity of the economy. Massive scales of poverty, inequality and existential risks are leading the majority of citizens towards an unpredictable future-a future that is being undermined by the spate of massive capital flight and brain drain to wealthier countries when the wealth and skills are so desperately needed at home. This has left the nation's folk culture awfully stuck in archaic customs, primitive mind-set, with all the fatalism, mindless hedonism and superstitions that go with it. If the embryo of the future of Nepal is embedded in the present realities, the society is doomed to continue waiting for a comprehensive fundamental change.

Prompt changes in public policy are needed to minimize the piling of past challenges and to cope with new ones, before they become unmanageable. Otherwise, within a few years, the nation will repent over the lost opportunities because serious problems will just get worse, not better. If the public demand for quality of life remains unmet, and if decisions are postponed, the problems will deteriorate and choices for effective action will be drastically reduced. These are unfortunate ways of hurtling forward to a new century. As the clock keeps ticking, policymaking communities of the country increasingly ask: How one can strengthen the government's capability for long-term planning and analysis so that ordinary people gain enough confidence that things will get better under the political dispensation they set up? This paper has three objectives: first, to define good governance; second, situate this definition in the Nepalese context; and finally furnish a conclusion. One caveat: every trajectory to the future will, however, remain imperfect because of the inability of social scientists to precisely estimate the shape of uncertain things to come, fathom the decisiveness of isolated random events and calculate entire variables that shape the governing process. This article, therefore, neither purports systematiclly to predict, nor prescribe a course of action. It is just an examination of the state of governance in Nepal.


Good governance is a process of executing a coherent governing plan for the nation based on the interests and priorities of people. It purports to create a just society based on the principles of human essence, such as inclusiveness, liberty, equality and cooperation. For the realization of the vision of good governance, national leadership has a threefold task of diagnosing the national situation, drafting a legitimate course of action intended to resolve or ease the pressing structural problems and mobilizing popular support in the pursuit of national objectives. Those in office, especially the elected ones, must represent the concerns, values and needs of the people and empower them through the realization of their basic rights, including the right to development and self-determination, by developing for them a proper access to markets, assets, goods and services and institutions. In the post-modern society, citizens' ability to satisfy their universal human needs and articulate to those in power lies in a transparent communication process. This process needs to provide them proper access to the institutions of governance, the media and expert policy dialogues that affect their lives. This is the way sovereign citizens can make the governing power accountable. Good governance equally needs self-discipline and integrity of those in power, the corporate sector and civil society.

The belief that every citizen is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs is the heart of good governance. The mechanisms through which power flows to the people are either representation or devolution-the opposite of centralization of power and decision-making. One positive aspect of today's politics is the ability of the leaders to provide public rationale for every action of government. This makes it desirable that there is a correct disposition of civil society-state market relations. The system of checks and balances and separation of power among different branches of government help erode the base of organized interest-based politics and prevent any monopolization of power and wealth. The other positive aspect is in sustaining human relationships - dialogues, engagement and compromise-thus revealing the mutuality of interests and a shared vision on how the society is legitimately regulated and governed. Still, another is the provision of the right to information as a core of the governing process. Nepalese leaders, however, have yet to recast their souls, regarding the empowerment of women, Dalits and marginalized sections of the society and estahlish a culture of acute realization that would ensure their quest for social justice and legitimately build the institutions of justice as open and accessible to all the people. This means that the power elite has to forgo its potential of personal ego display and taIk more to these people, thus refraining from exploiting the political space for personal profit.

Good governance thrives on a rediscovery of common grounds on which the elite -political leaders, bureaucracy, business persons and ordinary citizens agree on the core public issues and shape their course of action. In a polyglot population, the architecture of good governance rests on the sound legitimacy of governors which is possible only in a climate where there is broad representation of social interests and where a heritage of pride in social pluralism combines with an honor for culture, family, education and statecraft A greater degree of fairness during election and a broad-based representation of diverse sections of people establish the legitimacy of leaders to be able to provide a kind of order in the system. Yet, a system can only become stable if the society becomes wealthy enough to overcome the tumult arising out of various political convictions. Modernization also requires a reform in the entrenched work ethics that deprecates manual labor. Such ethics comes from a feudal tenure system that fosters share tenancy and exploits the peasants and workers thus preventing the transformation of a largely agrarian society into a prosperous one.

There is a growing web of power woven by the domination of core (centrality of Kathmandu) social (caste system), economic (feudalism), political (patron-client network), cultural (paternalism), psychological (sense of deprivation and powerlessness among underclass) and gender (patriarch form of society) factors of monopoly. These factors of monopoly are the real barriers to people's participation. They act as a brake on the devolution of power and responsibility, no matter how good the legal provisions are for the Village Development Committees, municipalities and District Development Committees -the core of local governance in Nepal. Therefore, a good governance strategy requires a transformation of the context in Nepal. The transformation should lead to another context through social movements which only a vibrant civil society, NGOs and people's own initiatives can trigger. Good governance assumes that the leadership must become a nationwide symbol of conscience and bear concern for the poor and the powerless.

To theorize the actual relationship between structure and instrument in this case, we need to analyze the mechanisms that have produced these motivations. Mission driven leaderships presume to act in a pro-active manner, develop strategic plans from the bottom-up and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire governing units. The character of leadership in the society has become important, a character which makes the government honest, competent and representative. Nepalese citizens need someone they can look up to for moral and spiritual support, a role model to be followed to nourish the cognitive development of their children.


Governance of Nepal consists of three broad vectors - the state, the market and all the intermediary institutions between the family and the state, what is called the civil society, each with a different direction. Good governance requires a sound management of these three actors of governance and development, through policy coherence, policy concertation, social embeddedness and interest in public welfare The relations of the civil society with the state may have democratizing effects on the broader political scene while its relations with the market can provide critical information that is useful in policy making, execution and review.

The Role of State

Does the Nepali state articulate the public life of society? Or is it separated from the society at large, thereby constituting what Gunnar Myrdal calls the 'soft-state' syndrome where powerful persons have a tendency to disobey the laws of the land? Whatever its nature, the successive governments of Nepal have succeeded in turning the rich into the powerful and the country and its people increasingly poor and powerless. The governance logic of the Nepali state has remained patrimonial for long, serving the dominant interest groups of the society, especially the aristocracy and bureaucracy, rather than of the peasants and workers. Political institutions of the state used to define a framework within which politics of decision-making, rationality and exchange took place.

Until 1950, the status of the people was defined according to different categories of land grants given to them through which control was exercised from the commanding heights of the political economy on land, labor and capital. What seemed the primacy of state planning -centralization, rationalization and nationalization- until 1990 is now being labeled as government meddling. The state has earned a bad name in the neo-liberal discourse of post-1991 governments, political parties and intellectuals. The effects of liberalization and globalization have weakened the capacity of the state in managing its autonomy against social classes and castes. There is a perceived erosion of sovereignty against other states, the base of nationalism, and the integration of citizens into the polity. As a result, major social tasks have become less elemental.

Institutional modernization in Nepal cannot simply be a matter of utopian revolutionary change, but a matter of setting a positive direction to the change already underway and which is apparent in local dynamics at the sub-cultural level. The dynamics was triggered by the formation of associations, societies and federations. Consequently, different sections of the society have been looking for their social roots, the roots of community. If not managed well, this could prove to be divisive. A governance grounded in normative values, criteria and social needs can overcome the amazing recrudescence of primordial aspirations at the fault lines and resort to modernity - reason, science and wisdom.

Only such an approach can cope with the emergence of a permanent underclass, Dalits, the poor and the marginalized and build their access to the institutional resources of the state. Obsessed with macro-politics (free market, executive, parliament, judiciary, political parties, interest groups, etc), the government seems to have ignored micro-processes (family, ethnic people, social values, gender, religion, culture, etc) which are the actual shapers of the social capital for development. As a result, movements for equality of these units have become obvious in public life. Their demands for quality of policy-making have become the wellspring of minority politics evoking their basic constitutional and human rights.

Micro-processes can serve as the lifeblood of politics if properly managed, otherwise, weirder aspects of human life serve as the fault lines promoting a desire to play on the national weakness and social dis-integration. Institutions of governance must try to constantly mediate between the state and the citizens as a transmission belt to prevent alienation (politcal alienation of the Maoists, ethnic alienation of the people of Mongolian recial origin, social alienation of untouchables, Dalits and disabled, regional alienation of the people of the Terai origin and cultural alienation of non-Hindus owing to the Hindu character of the state), rebellion and resignation of people from politics leading them to harbour anti-politics sentiments. These microprocesses existed before, rather than after, the creation of the state and the market and, therefore, continue to influence the development paradigm as historical agents. This means there are better lessons of history to be learned to evolve the society cohesively and use its synergy for development. An agonizing question is: how can the demands for justice of these alienated groups be reconciled with a policy of rapprochement? An effort towards rapprochement without justice simply cannot endure.

The tenacity of the leadership in defying the. political odds and tensions arising from this is crucial to ensure the correct functioning of each branch of governance including the bureaucracy. Nepal as a whole has more than its fair share of problems: Maosit insurgency, Bhutanese refugees, poverty, tribalism, partisan and weak administration, shortage of skills, low saving rates, large physical distances, poor infrastructure, weak entrepreneurial tradition, etc. The conscious or unconscious attempts of the leaders to avoid facing these issues cast a grave doubt on the country's readiness to meet the economic challenges for the 21st century. There is a huge unmet demand for good education, especially civic education, the purposes of which are to help men and women equip themselves for life in the public realm, help them think of public good and overcome the popular cynicism about the conditions of remoteness of the existing institutional arrangements of governance. At present, the discourses on democracy have been clouded by utilitarian motives of political parties and personalities evoking a sort of zero-sum game. If all the parties seek a position of tolerance, the no-win game can become a win-win one.

More than a decade of parliamentary politics has shown itself to be a symbol of collective failure of the elected representatives. They appear ignorant of the impact of what they have done to the nation and the future. A polity, no matter how democratic its constitution is, cannot operate if each political party wants to come to power and no one is interested in playing the role of the opposition. The anti-defection act failed to discipline the elected representatives. The absence of party acts, ensuring their transparency and accountability in finance and operations continue to erode public faith in the governing process. Calls for the democratization of the party structure will surely mount in the future. Their financial transparency and generational representation are bound to attract more attention. The extraordinary web of influence of parties in every aspect of public life is bound to unravel and their control and authority slip away as the democratization process gives the people a chance to break the monopoly of a few classes.

An inclination to shape every social controversy in terms of clash of rights (prescriptive tradition versus social justice, men versus women, trade union versus management, press union versus establishment. etc) prevents the discovery of a common ground and a sense of obligation embedded in the native tradition of drama- a tradition based not on the calculation of rational choice, but on sincere and impartial execution of institutional duties by the holders of power. Yet, when political struggles are ideologized, it is rationalized by their adherents even if it disregards the complexity of the relationship between popular opinion and democratic theory.

The weight of the media and public opinion has steadily weakened the image of the parliament as a maker of sound public policies. Major political parties have become more and more obsessed with the race for power and less and less concerned about the reform of political processes. The successive governments too lacked effective governance-formulating public policies and properly executing them. lf these failings had always been present contributing to low economic growth, then it needs no explanation why they provoked serious economic jitters, tyranny of the majority and, consequently, impediments to good governance. lt is that kind of uncertainty that the Maoists and conservatives are seizing upon, and in the process, moving quickly into the scene.

Anticipating fear and uncertainty, the poorest of the poor are looking for a kind of economic emancipation. While the romance of politics is that leaders sell day dreams of emancipation to the electorates majority of whom are illiterate. They will continue to sell, so long as people have full faith in them and participate in their appeal and activities. The idea that decisions are better when more people are involved in a decision needs encouragement of a wider participation of people in public institutions. Social integration and nation-building in Nepal require a cultural component capable of responding to the demands of the society's diverse groups. This helps the ways of conceptualizing self, group and national identity to be idealized properly.

Democracy is the equilibrium of the branches of power, their legitimacy, transparency, accountability and sustainability. People in the political community must consider that their system is fair and just. And, their competition for power for public office is a legitimate rule of the game. One fundamental prerequisite, however is this: political community building projects must precede multi-party competition. The doubts cast on the impartiality of the judicial system and the culture of impunity with which it treats the criminal and corrupt elite have left many Nepalese wondering whether they will have a sense of justice in the future. In several cases, it failed to hold the executive and the legislature accountable for their misdeeds. For, an unpunished crime tears at human civility. There are heinous crimes so black that they do not admit human forgiveness. The death penalty has been abolished from the Nepalese constitution, but more citizens are killed these days than at any other time in history. There are institutions that are supposed to test the accountability of political leaders, such as voters, the civil society, media, the parliamentary Public Account Committee (PAC), the Auditor-General, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), etc but all suffer from a sense of grasp and efficacy.

The authority of the prime minister inevitably suffered due to the political activism of the judiciary, which was instrumental in ushering in the political instability of today. It is no good to clock politics in the sanctity of a judicial decision and subordinate political imperatives to legal perspectives. And the results are here, for everyone to see. A new equilibrium requires a balance between individual and community assuming a reinvention of politics for intergenerational justice. Good governance combines economic growth with social concerns. As the neo-liberal economic reform agenda has fallen from grace, it has reinforced the belief of many that unconditional acceptance of the free market ideology has served the interests of only a powerful few and that the market operates more under the virtues of efficiency and competitiveness than the democratic principle of equality. The "soft power" of dreams, popular culture, compassion, craving for youth and modernity therefore must be balanced with the "hard power " of security, economy and politics. Two broad processes - expansion of the money economy and the growing privatization of the schooling health and communiation system-underway in Nepal are eroding the existing notion of self-reliance as well as its culture based on pastoral and peasant lives.

There are plenty of positive signs, however. The post- 1990 public life has provided a second time for the Nepalese people to feel free enough to discuss political affairs openly. The new freedom, however, is also pregnant with danger because of fault line actors seething with discontent and seeking to trespass the constitutional bounds. If citizens' display of confidence to influence the government declines, if they discover that their right to equality is far removed from distributive justice and, consequently, their apathy to moderate politicians increases, it will surely affect the legitimacy of democratic institutions terribly in the future.

The Role of Market

The economy is the foundation on which social life is organized. But the belief that market can effectively distribute income and address the problem of scarcity of goods and resources have been dis-proven in Nepal. Market can aggregate information. But free markets cannot work in Nepal owing to its segmental nature, the absence of a proper legal framework, competitive regimes, strong anti-corruption measures and a framework of transparency. The motivation of the market economy has remained simply to maximize returns on investments rather than social accountability. By avoiding any consideration of the constitutional context, within which welfare economic policies have to operate, the post-1991 governments forged a capital-centered, uniform, structural adjustment over the immensely diversified economies and societies whose impacts have yet to be assessed properly. When the deregulation destroyed all the barriers between strong neighborhood economies and the country's own weak economy, a new form of status quo and exploitation began. Economic deregulation subjected all small scale and cottage industries of Nepal to an international competition. The national economy was incapable of withstanding and, consequently, destroyed the public policy making power of the Nepalese government and the sovereignty of the people to choose economic policies they consider beneficial.

From the very beginning, the economic policy of the nation has been at the heart of conflict between people and the government. The privatization and liberalization process emerged as a cornerstone of its economic development strategy which, many believe, is a result of the connivance of politicians, bureaucracy, and business groups who regard the process of capital formation as the prime movers of economic growth and who treat the nation and people as mere commodities. It is a dangerous exercising tearing the Nepalese society limb after limb in order to achieve economic growth. No one knows where this neo-liberal revolution of the Nepalese government will take the Nepalese people. The legacies of past reform failures continue to influence the dynamics of present reforms.

As a private sector, the activities of the business community are influenced by the market and prices and, therefore, it is concentrated in those areas where infrastructure is better developed, economic growth is de-linked from the lives of the poor and can exercise a free choice for wealth accumulation, not distribution. Development is about more than free rnarkets for the private sector and reduced role of public institutions, including the state and civil society. It is also about the integrity and accountability of the corporate sector of governance. People are not merely' consumers of goods and services, they are citizens having the constitutional right to work and development. As the state's economy is sinking deeply, owing to the effects of wrong policy prescription, the majority of people are denied their fundamental rights and access to economic equality, making the politics of law and order thoroughly dysfunctional. Millions of unemployed rural youths clog the cities and yet millions more have fled abroad in search of jobs and livelihoods.

The theory of the economic model of adjustment, which gives preference to economic reforms over democratization, has apparently only tinkered with the Nepalese mal-development syndrome. Governments of multiple hues and coalitions took the side of predatory capital and displayed weaknesses in mediating the needs of the people with the demands of local and global capital. The recent exhibition by the business community has done nothing wonderful to correct the policy mistakes, although it was foisted as a "social summit" on an all too innocent people. In no way, the summit was either 'social' or a 'summit' to spark a change in the minds and hearts of the business community and government officials. As a result, the willingness to pay tax, abide by the laws of the land and contribute to the quality of life of people still remains remote. With the ideology of liberalization, the business community of Nepal has developed an economic identity of a class marked by a self-consciousness of being distinguished from the majority of ordinary citizens.

On the debit side of the market economy's ledger, every year the education, income and expectation gaps between the rich and the poor continue to widen. These gaps are bound to weaken the willingness of both sides to cooperate for development. A similar gap is expected to widen between the state and non-state actors, as the government is now trying to control NGOs and civil society in the name of transparency and accountability of funds. lt has not reflected on the effects of its own wrong policy prescriptions. The gap is vast between urban and rural areas and among the development regions, whether measured by education, economic output or other indicators of modernization causing crisis in the living conditions of the majority of people. This poses a long-term threat to integration and social stability. There is a strategic imperative in rectifying such regional imbalances. Any process of real economic development entails a change of the social context of development.

Urban citizens enjoy better access to job opportunities, public services and a number of other services provided by the market. The economic life of the nation, the Tarai, is independently articulating through India. How can the resulting disparities aggravated by economic liberalization and globalization be mitigated? Economic policies cannot be regarded as non-political and non-ideological because these policies are crucial to the nature and distribution of power in society. Social policies cannot be de-coupled from political ones, as the latter are designed to address social ills. In Nepal, as the market invades public life, capitalization and monetization of the society is weakening the autonomy of political and social spheres hitting hard the weaker sections.

The market is ferociously appropriating the rural surplus of resources and facilities to the urban areas and among certain categories of persons. The rural poor are thus marginalized, unable to articulate. The closure of many factories has stirred up nationalist sentiments among many Nepalis who fear that the government is selling their property at a cheap price. The fear of many middle and lower middle class families of losing their homes, jobs and business is likeiy to provoke nationalist and radical reactions in the future. If economic policy is not constituted on the basis of co-determination, redistribution of wealth, social regulation and control, the unmet needs of the majority will serve as a cause for popular resentment and, consequently, the delegitimization of the regime.

A rising budget deficit and inflation just add fuel to the flames. The elite continues to consume what the nation does not produce, leaving the successive generations to inherit an increasing debt burden and massive poverty. The persistence of Nepal's deep-rooted poverty casts a grave doubt on the country's readiness to meet the economic challenges of the 2lst Century. To be sure, economic development requires a competitive, transparent and innovative business which can muster the confidence of people- citizens, workers and consumers- for a social vision where the priority of social justice over individual economic advancement becomes a norm. Good governance requires disciplined market forces that defends the capacity of the people to shape their economic institutions in accordance with their vision, mission, priority and participation. Thus will they be able to treat the causality, accumulation, continuity, intensity, complexity and directionality of poverty.

A variant of the construction of a stakeholder economy in which shareholders' interest is balanced by the rights of the community, the workforce and the consumers provides an ideological motive for a development strategy. The benefits of the past and now market-friendly interventions did not trickle-down to the poor people thus giving way to a self-governing polity and participatory development guided by laws and socially accepted codes of behavior.

The Role of Civil Society

In Nepal, where both the political and economic societies have a common utilitarian motive of maximizing power and wealth, the non-profit sectors- a world of the poor and the powerless are being ignored. It is here that the civil society that can create a public space for the poor people's participation and collective action. Nearly all parts of Nepal suffer from a slow growth of vibrant civil society that is capable of initiating public discourse on policy issues and mediating among the state, the market and the international regime. How will the present state of civil society evolve into the future? On the basis of trends already underway, five critical factors that support the proliferation of civil society can be found in Nepal.

First, the historical legacy of Nepalese voluntary, self-help and charity sectors will give continuity to civic institutions and activities. Second, the tendencies of all mainstream political parties and their leaders' faith in privatization and economic liberalization will render a minimalist role for the state and will inspire citizens, consumers and workers to band together in search of common goods. Third, the civil society sector continues to grow, side by side, with the state and private sectors, offering a new channel to introduce social responsibility and democratic approach. It would be a symbol of change for creating a modern, democratic and just country where the rich and powerful were no longer above the law. The more the dominant institutions of governance are removed from the needs and concerns of people, the better scope there will be for voluntary associations and civil society. Fourth, by linking up to the global associational revolution for democratic transformation, civil society will provide an impetus for a number of local initiatives and creativity where local NGOs and people's organizations at the grassroots level will become their partners in interacting, monitoring and influencing public policies on governance. And finally, donors' shifting patterns of aid from the state to increasing the capacity of NGOs and civil society in charting the future of their societies add further strength to these intermediary bodies.

Today's civil society may be seen as a reconnaissance of shifting paradigms of governance and development for the future- a shift from competitiveness and individualism to the core values of inclusion, justice and solidarity. The future politics of civil society will aim to grasp the local people's point of view, their conception of life and help them realize their vision of the world, a vision grounded in the aspiration of multi-hued and kaleidoscopically diverse people of several racial and geographical origins. The Nepalese society will also enter a new phase of evolution, with decentralized units of self-governance. Something surprising is bound to happen as people assert their sovereign power smashing the shackles of bad legacy of the power elite and the undemocratic social control mechanisnm. This will offer an impetus for grassroots consultation on policy discussion countering a culture of vengeance, partisanship and a wholesale abandonment of democratic principles by those in power. And, the increasing centralization of governance draws the conclusion that the struggle for human rights remains very much unfinished.


Historical development in Nepal hightights the importance of facilitating new civic knowledge and skills. The emergence of the concept of civil society is historically linked with the rise of the notion of public space, a space rationally governed by the interest of the public. Later, it assumed a character of critical discourse, thus linking context to rational knowledge and knowledge to politics.

Guthis, temples, monastries and cultural associations were independent of the dominant institutions of society, both the state and the market, since the Vedic Age, the age of knowledge and enlightenment, where people freely shared their feelings and entered into cooperative schemes. The evolution of the notions of dharma (institutional duties and role), shastras (moral and religious treatises) and sashtrartha (philosophical discourses) were expected to mold the mind and character of the people and the rulers. Such interactions mediated their interests for public welfare. Nepalese religious codes, however, are based more on duties and obligations, than fundamental rights. The edifice of caste and the spiritual universe of Nepal, the Nepal Mandala, has been built around these conceptions.

The organisation of civil society along modern lines began with the Arya Samaj. Arya Samaj was founded by Madhav Raj Joshi in 1909 to awaken the Nepalese from blind faith, prejudice and conservative thinking as well as to abolish child marriage, promote widow marriage and initiate social reforms. He was imprisoned by the then Rana rulers. In 1918, Tulsi Mehar, Amar Raj and Bakpati Raj vainly tried to revive this body but could not. On the initiative of Siddhi Charan Shrestha, a Malami Guthi was instituted for social and civic activities that too suffered from the Ranas' iron hands.

In 1920 Subba Krishna Lal Adhikari wrote Makaiko Kheti (Farming of Maize) which sarcastically depicted the Rana policy of sycophancy toward Britishers ruling the Indian subcontinent, and enslavement of native people, including the conditions of peasants and workers of Nepal. He was also imprisoned for nine years. In 1937, Nagarik Adhikar Samiti (Committee on Citizens Rights) was constituted under the leadership of Sukra Raj Shastri with Kedar Man Byathit, Ganga Lal Shrestha, etc as members. Its objectives were to stimulate public consciousness through the interpretation of Hindu religious treatises, civic education, discourses and action and, consequently, lift the veil of the oppressive silence in the nation. When Sukra Raj was explaining the lesson of classical treatise, Bhagbad Geeta, at Indrachowk, in Kathmandu, he too was arrested and later hanged. Yet, one of the questions then in currency was the relationship of the public to legitimized knowledge and knowledge to-politics.

Anti-Rana flags were fluttered by the students of Sanskrit schools of Kathmandu. The chief proponents of this, Jayatu Sanskritam movement, were Sribhadra Sharma, Kashi Nath Gautam, Kamal Raj Regmi, Rajeshwor Devkota, Gokarna Shastri, etc. They wanted to modernize the syllabus of Sanskrit teaching by including history, politics, geography and other contemporary subjects and broadening the scope of learning. Likewise, in 1947 a workers' strike occurred in Biratnagar with professional demands. Many literary societies were formed at home and abroad to prepare the citizens for social mobilization and collective action. They were looking at freedom from the standpaint of not only intellectual reason but also the social and political conditions of discussion that would allow the citizens to shed their privatized identities and engage themselves, as citizens, in a movement of politics and public interest. Reflecting the lessons of the Asian resurgence movement in general and the Indian independence movement in particular, newer demands for greater political freedom brought the downfall of the Rana regime and opened a space for party politics in the fifties.

The concerted public relations campaigns promoting nationalism revived authoritarianism in the sixties. The Panchayat which lasted for 30 years postulated the patrimonial leadership of the monarch until the restoration of multi-party politics in 1990. The autonomy of civil society, such as trade unions, human rights organizations, student unions, teacher's associations women's groups, environmental advocates, professional organizations, etc., is essential for breaking the monopoly of power and wealth and enforcing a pluralist sense of justice. In spite of the actors of civil society described above, the state-civil society discourse has been poorly institutionalized, the long-term consequences of which remain profoundly uncertain. Most civic organizations have been hampered by shortage of funds, information, perspectives and personnel. The problems emerging in the discourse of civil society now are:

  • High level of population growth (3.41 percent) and low level of development will likely spark a struggle for resources, especially for food security and livelihoods. This will be coupled by a demand for ecologically and culturally sustainable development. The doubling of population within three decades is a trend that would reach Nepal's population to above 40 million by the year 2020 from its current 23 million. The capacity of modern technology to reduce jobs would add a vast pool of jobless workforce which is already 2.7 million strong. Unless there is paradigm shift from consumption and revenue-based models of development to a production based one, one where the workers and peasants have the capacity and skills to compete on the market mediating with the demands of the globalization process, the potential for unrest in both the rural areas and cities remains high.
  • The rate of increase in poverty shows stable characteristics, which will persist over a period of time. If the goals of poverty al1eviation remain unmet, the country may have to face social and political struggle of firebrand activists for rights and justice leading to a crisis of gevernability. The current trends of graft, criminalization and a culture of impunity for the entire political class add further weight to the likelihood.
  • Massive concentration of rural population in urban areas, nearly 40 percent by 2010, suggests that there will be a familiar ring: dislocation of social peace and stability and the rise of social evils. Unless maturity of the civil society helps the state become able to maintain social cohesion, mediation and peace, good governance is less likely to emerge.


How can the national integrity system of governance be built? The obvious answer is: by promoting economic and political transparency and accountability of the leaders and office holders. Ironically, however, Nepal does not have a better-than-average economic transparency. One of the rationales for the subordination of civil servants to periodically elected political executive is that the latter would make the former accountable for their actions as a duty-their responsiveness to the electorates. The right to vote enables the citizens to make government responsive to their needs and aspirations. While the right to information granted by the Constitution also makes civil servants transparent and accountable, the accountability standards in Nepal are, however, lower than in any other countries of South Asia. This has encouraged corrupt practices and often collusion among civil servants, politicians and business persons, adding negative contributions to economic development and political stability. Political leaders dominate the issues having a greater content of political judgment rather than expertise. The government's anti-corruption institutions, though highly publicized, have little effect because of the involvement of the whole of the political class, judiciary, law-making and law-executing agencies in their alleged involvement in graft and corruption.

The 2lst century will require a new ethics of responsibility to the natural world and future generation to go with human rights and democracy. Meeting the basic needs of half of its population who languish below poverty line requires an atmosphere capable of attracting foreign investment and employment generating activities. Similarly, in combating corruption, the problem of the gap between accusation and proof must be addressed. The CIAA is accused of laying out those cases which have conflict-laden facts and, therefore, has undermined the merit of the cases. Important testimony has been tainted in the past by mishandling of the cases. Inability of anti-corruption agencies to crack down is causing cold feet among investers. New cases of corruption are becoming more evident and huge. More important-new dimensiens are being added to existing corruption: corruption that requires international cooperation, corruption that requires bilateral efforts, corruption that emerges out of vicious cycles of causation within the country and lack of enforcement mechanisms of anti-corruption laws. All the accountability institutions, such as the Auditor-General's office, Public Account Committee, CIAA and Special Police Department need to be strengthened to bolster the national integrity system in fighting corruption and criminalization of the governance process.

The lack of national consensus within the government on how to respond to the viciousness of corruption has meant that corrupt persons are allowed to go their own way without impunity. As a result of governrnent indecision, there is a widespread impression among the corrupt and criminals that further corruption will be tolerated by the regime. An increase in the extent of cronyism is the big factor behind the roling failures of the political class that has lost touch with the needs and feelings of ordinary people. lt has failed to provide hope and a sense of inclusiveness that they long for in a competitive market environment. Not surprisingly, these features will certainly evoke grounds for pessimism in the future. Governance should, therefore, be normatively redesigned to serve the needs of diversified and articulate citizens as well as to legislate an equity between the generations.


Each government has lost many opportunities, created and added its own costs to exploit them in the future, left the preblems to fester and undermined the rights of future citizens. The above analysis is not cynicisrn about the state of governance in Nepal but a realistic anticipation of the problems to be confronted in the Future. Nepal needs to improve its micro-economic foundations for a long-term management of macro-economic and rnacro-political processes. For that, good governance is not only important as a rneans to realize the basic rights of the majority of the peeple but also to set a context for the state to become a repository of collective strength of its citizens. This will help promote the provisions of essential services whereby people can develop their full potential for eventual empowerment. Realizing the goal of human rights for all requires a develepment synergy of all the actors-the state, the market, the private sector, NGOs, civil society and the international regime. A broad-based consesus among them on the national agenda is vital where civil society can enrich policy dialogues on poverty, women empowerment, Dalits and marginalised people, disabled, environmental degradation, corruption, debt, and management of external dependence, etc. The role of the state to support public power very much depends on how much it is enmeshed in the society and how far it is helping to manage the contradictions of the existing social and economic order. An overarching vision of transformation helps issue a pious endorsement of development. Good Governance in the context of Nepal postualtes the realization of a vision underlined in the constitution, a vision grounded in the protection of "life, liberty and property " of people, where development of each person would be linked to the harmonious development of the society. Direct participation of the citizens at all the levels of decision-making that affects them enforces the ethical basis of good governance. Only good governance can be a lever for Nepal's development and democracy for the next century.

Source: South Asia Partnership, Governance in the Doldrums: Who really govern Nepal? Kathmandu: 2000

Copyright©2001. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Nepal Office
The information on this site is subject to a
disclaimer and copyright notice.