In the past four weeks, the Government of Nepal (GoN) has taken a slew of sweeping measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19. While some of these measures – suspension of travel, curtailment of social interaction, escalation of Continue reading
Originally published in Prespectives, The Himalayan Times on May 10,2015.
School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations, to a large extent, are as important an identity stamp as anything else in Nepal. We group ourselves with strangers on the first meet by asking when they passed their SLCs. We don’t really ask for the other person’s age anymore; we infer it according to when they sat for their board examinations. We all have chances at five destinies; distinction, the first, second or third division or well, a non-destiny. In 2014, it was reported that only 28.19 percent students from public schools passed the SLC examinations compared to 93.12 percent students from private institutions. What causes or is causing this massive divide between the two?
Legalized private schooling entered Nepal only very recently; it was only after the third amendment of the Education Act in 1980 that private schools were allowed to operate in the country. Previously, in 1971, the state had nationalized all existing private schools and introduced standardized curriculums and operations. Inability to meet demands for a growing need of education from the public then caused the state to give in to private education as a supply alternative. Private schools are generally seen as a preferred substitute to public schools even now, a comparison based primarily on board examinations’ results, but that which connects and addresses numerous other sub-problems. A World Bank Report on Education in 2011 identifies a number of these sub-problems. These are inclusive but not limited to: high politicization of the teaching force, frequent transfer and changes of District Education Officers that cause changes in education rules and regulations, formerly nationalized schools, after 1971, have lost community ownership to a large extent and are seen as government ‘owned’ schools and a highly centralized education system structuration among others.
It is interesting to note that public schools in Nepal, more or less, go by the book and have comparatively airier and studier infrastructure than their private counterparts. It should also be noted that private school teachers are ‘less trained’ than their public counterparts (84.1% fully trained public school teachers, as opposed to 75.1% fully trained private school teachers in the Central region, Nepal Education Figure, 2014). They also provide free education up to grade 10 since 2000. Why then are people and more interestingly, the poor, also choosing private education over public education? What does a market-led education system provide that a state-controlled system does not?
Accountability. Both parents and teachers are accountable to each other because of a direct exchange of money for the service. The teacher’s length of duration of stay at the institution and pay is dependent on his/her performance and rate of absenteeism. An absence of a direct fee paying environment in public school causes parents to think that their obligation to educate their child ends with enrollment alone. Parents are more likely to be actively interested in the performance of their child and the teachers of the institution because they are spending hard earned cash for the service, thus willingly follow-up with their child on day-today school activities. Conversely, public school teachers are paid by the state regardless of their physical presence in the school and usually choose to turn up sporadically. He/she has little or no fear of being fired due to absenteeism as public schools operate from seemingly perpetual funds. A private school teacher is hence more likely to teach well because he/she is under constant watch by parents and the management alike. For a non-quality teacher shall mean dissatisfied parents and eventually, pulling the child out of the school in question.
On a similar line of questioning, does a larger classroom translate into better education? Surely no parent in their right minds would send their child to a less-spacious private classroom. But they do. Larger classrooms mean more number of pupils in the same class, thus more students that a teacher has to look after. Private schools have smaller student-teacher ratios, perhaps because of smaller classrooms, but because of which the teacher can better keep an eye on all children and also engage them well in academic interaction. Aggressive politicization of education has ultimately led to an erosion of public school infrastructures, where school appointments are nepotistic as opposed to meritocratic. Parents look thus, to be choosing accountable institutions with possibly fewer amenities than be handing over their children to the unaccountable, physically larger public institutions.
The process for registering a private school is wrought with bureaucratic hurdles and rent-seeking behavior on part of school inspectors and officials. A number of provisions such as having to seek letters of approval from similar schools beg revision. No school will want to invite and ‘approve’ competition while this is exactly what public schools lack. When a private school application is rejected, there are no formal reasons given for the decision thus the prospective school-head is unaware of what he/she is to do differently next year when re-applying. The District Education Office also takes 3 months to give its decision when it comes to private school registration which is decided on the basis of a 2-3 hour visit by a school inspector during the said duration after a lengthy procedure of stipulated documents procurement and submission. It is understood that private schools too need to follow basic guidelines when it comes to infrastructure upholding, but as previously stated, sturdy infrastructure does not always lead to quality education. Accountability on part of the teacher and parents does, which private schools are impressively better at providing in Nepal.
Nilkantha Upreti, the Chief Election Commissioner, very truly pointed out recently that local bodies are the foundations of democracy. Technically, Nepal is a democracy; but we need to hold local-level elections to translate democracy into a reality that common people can relate to. What we have at present is a democracy that is quite far from this ‘reality that common men can relate to.’ The current system has created a disconnect between the people and the politicians. The people-politician link is missing; the tax-benefit link is missing; the democracy-development link is missing!
Why this has happened in present-day Nepal is not too difficult to fathom if we take some time to delve into what politics is about. Politics, from the perspective of individual politicians, never has to be about delivering; a politician just has to be good at selling promises. After all, how many votes a politician garners is a good measure of how successful an individual is, as a politician. And what earns them votes? Promises, not deliveries!
Cases to validate this belief are aplenty in contemporary Nepalese politics. All major parties promised to deliver the constitution within a year. They also promised to end load-shedding within two to three years, and three to five years, in Kathmandu and Nepal, respectively. The biggest party in the current government even promised to hold the local-level elections within the first six months of its coming to power. Oh, them promises sans delivery!
What is even more menacing in a democracy like the one that prevails in Nepal – the one without a people-politician link – is the potential it has to create a vicious cycle of ill-informed promises. Will you vote for a politician that now comes to you and says, “Forget about ending load shedding in Nepal in 3 years, that’s impossible! Let’s be realistic and try to create an enabling environment for hydropower developers so that we can hopefully end load-shedding in the next 10 years?” For a commoner who is not very well-informed about how an economy really functions, it is still very tempting to vote for the same old politician who promises to end the problem in 3 years, or who lures him into dreams of a handsome minimum wage, or who assures him a fat agriculture subsidy. And here is where the menacing power comes to life: the new guy will not make ‘deliverable’ or ‘economically sound’ promises as long as his competitors are making such palatable promises. Going against this popular practice puts him at a great political risk. The most probable scenario, if he defies the popular practice is that he fails to garner sufficient votes and becomes a political failure.
All of this has been made possible in contemporary Nepalese political economy because of the fact that we have not had a local-level election in over fifteen years now. The lawmakers we elected through the two constituent assembly elections are not representing the people to solve the day-to-day life problems of common men. Their mandate is to deliver the elusive constitution. Drafting the constitution is their job and problems like there being no course books in local public schools, locals’ taxes not being put to use to maintaining the dilapidated roads in the local levels despite there being three separate taxes for this very purpose (viz. vehicle tax, road construction and rehabilitation duty, and road maintenance and improvement duty), maintaining law and order, and resolving conflicts in the local levels “can wait!” F.A. Hayek sums up meticulously in his theory of ‘spontaneous order’ that even if the planners (the lawmakers in this case) wanted to solve these problems, the very fact that these people do not have knowledge of the ‘circumstances of time and place’ in the grassroots level renders them unable to solving the day-to-day problems of the common men. There is no institution in place that can link the people to their “supposed” representatives so that they can voice their problems and have something done about them. There is democracy, but the people are being left out of the political economic equation.
Coming back to the point that the Chief Election Commissioner was trying to make, it is the local elections that will link the people with their elected representatives. Local elections will foster accountability from the local authorities. It is not rocket science to understand that the mayor of a municipality is in a much better position to understand the problems the locals of his/her municipality are facing, and do something about it, than the lawmakers in the central government.
Local level elections will make sure that there is a link between people and politics, and between taxes paid and benefits received, by offering a check-and-balance mechanism. With the elected representative living right amongst them, it empowers the citizens to seek accountability and answerability from their representatives. The moment a mayor starts showing signs of shying away from his responsibilities, the locals can either vote him out and replace him with a more capable representative, or they can abandon the municipality altogether and go reside in some other municipality that has a better track record. Competition (thus arisen), just like in the realm of economics, can work in politics as well. It is this through this virtue of competition that local-level elections can create a link between democracy and development.
This article was originally published in Perspectives, The Himalayan Times, April 12, 2015, under the title “Linking Democracy with Development”. Click here for the original version.
Over five decades ago Milton Friedman proposed an alternative to improve public education with school vouchers – separating government financing of education from government administration of schools. Friedman argued, “parents at all income levels would have the freedom to choose the schools their children attend.”
Here at top 5 reason why
1. Making teachers and principles of government schools more responsible and accountable to the parents
2. Giving poor parents a choice on which school to send their kids for education
3. Decreasing inequality in the education by improving the performance of government run schools
4. Promoting entrepreneurship in educational system so that there is more innovation and decrease in cost
5. Empowering the students of government run schools to make the system more accountable and responsible
Read more HERE
Cases of people not receiving proper attention when they visit government offices are common among a lot of Nepalese. These experience range from being lost in the maze of cryptic compliances to losing all hope of getting the job done. As a researcher, I end up talking to a lot of members from the bureaucracy (on the phone or face-to-face) to gather information. Based on five different conversations I had with bureaucrats over the past couple of months, I am able to draw some common answers you will be given when you happen to cross paths with it. These answers might help you better prepare to deal with Nepalese bureaucracy next time you need to get something done out of their offices.
1. There is more information out there. But it is not with me, right now.
Bureaucrats seem to be often lost about their role in the bigger picture, except for some vague statements about their contribution to building the nation.
A conversation with an official at Trasport Management Office, Ekantakuna:
Me: I have been trying to develop a process map for acquisition of green number plate (tourist vehicle) licenses. I have checked the Citizens’ Charter posted on the walls of your office premises. They seem to be a decade old. I’ve been told that procedures have changed. Could you…
Him: It has only been three months since I was transferred to this department. I don’t know the complete procedure as of yet. I am not sure about the exact steps.
Me: Is there anyone who you know I can talk to for this?
Him: Why don’t you check the official website and dig into related Acts and Regulations………..
2. It is not in the policy.
A conversation with an official at Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), a Public Enterprise
Me: Ma’am, we are doing a research on the petroleum supply and the trade policy of NOC. I will need the agreement that NOC has entered into with Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. (IOC). How can I access the document?
Her: I don’t think there is a policy of availing the agreement between NOC and IOC to the ‘public’. These could be confidential agreements and not everybody can access these…
Me: But NOC is a public enterprise. How can NOC hide its operations from the public?
Her: There is no such policy of giving you the agreement.
3. The ball must be in somebody else’s court.
A telephone conversation with an official at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport
Me: Sir, I am currently doing a research on banning of taxi registration in Bagmati Zone, Nepal. I have learned that the Ministry signed an agreement with the Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs in 2006 whereby it is agreed that one needs to take the permission of the federation to operate a transport enterprise in Bagmati. Could you give me the document?
Him: I’m sorry to inform you that we don’t have it.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: There used to be this Ministry of Labor and Transport in the past. Now we are a separate ministry and while in the process of resettlement, some papers might have got here and there. So we might not have the document you are looking for.
Me: How do I get the document then?
Him: I suggest you call the Department of Transport Management. They should have the paper.
4. The person you are looking for is out of station. Please try again later.
A telephone conversation with an official at the Department of Transport Management (August, 2014)
Me: Sir, I have learned that the Ministry has entered into an agreement with the federation … Can you give me the document?
Him: All gazetted officers are in India to attend some program and will be back in September only. All we are left here are a few non-gazetted officers and we do not have access to the kind of document you are referring to. You should call back in September.
5. The ball must be in somebody else’s court…again!
A telephone conversation with a Division head (supposed) at the Ministry of Transport
Me: hello! Is this Mr. XYZ?
Me: Namaskar Sir! My name is Akash and I am calling from Samriddhi Foundation. We are currently doing a research on …
Him: Oh wait, who did you say you wanted to talk to?
Me: Mr. XYZ!
Him: Oh, that’s not me. He is in India and will be flying back only today. Try again after a few days.
My experience in short: In the end, bureaucracy is never really about the delivery of service. It is about compliance. Furthermore, these characteristics of Nepalese bureaucracy compel one to think – is it just about creating jobs and fulfilling the posts?
With regards to the ‘Right to Information,’ the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 reads, “Every citizen shall have the right to demand or receive information on any matter of his or her interest or of public interest.”
So the law respects the fact that as a citizen of the country, you and I have the right to acquire information on anything that directly or indirectly affects us. But does writing something in the constitution guarantee that the thing actually gets translated into practice? Here is an example of how the reality makes fun of the law.
I am currently doing a research on the banning of new taxi registration in Bagmati Zone (in 2000) and its effects on consumers. This is where it all begins.
After talking to a few people that have major stakes in the transportation industry (people like the taxi entrepreneurs, consumer rights advocate, bureaucrats and taxi drivers), I learned that in the year 2007, the Ministry of Transport and Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs made a deal whereby it was agreed that,
1. No public vehicles would be allowed to ply the roads of Bagmati without prior consent of the federation
2. Transport fares would be revised following every revision in the petroleum product prices
3. At the end of every fiscal year, the transportation fares would be revised
(for the time being, we will not delve into the gravity of this agreement. If it is true, then this is a government backed cartel and it has huge implications in the consumers. But we will leave it at that for now)
Now, until I see the agreement for myself, I cannot rely on something that someone says and use it on my research, right? And so begins my endeavor to get my hands on the agreement. And the joke begins to unfold.
My first instinct then was to call the Ministry of Transport. So I dialed 197, the Nepal-telecom authorized and largest inquiry service provider of Nepal, to get the phone number of the Ministry. I was told, the number was 01 4211920. I go on and dial the number. They tell me it is Ministry of Labour instead. Here is what must have happened. Previously, there used to be a single ministry by the name Ministry of Labour and Transport and now, these are separate ministries. And I asked myself, shouldn’t the inquiry service have updated their database? Or rather, shouldn’t the ministry have notified the telecom itself?
So I went back to my computer and googled it out. I call up the right ministry this time, and talk about the agreement. They tell me, ‘there used to be this labor and transport ministry and now we are a separate ministry and while in the process of resettlement, some papers might have gotten here and there… so we might not have the document you are looking for. I suggest you call the department of transport management. They should have the paper…’ Again, not what I had expected to hear, but I was not very surprised that they said what they said.
Then I ring the Department of Transport Management. They tell me, ‘All gazetted officers are in India to attend some program and will be back in September only. All we are left here are a few non-gazetted officers and we do not have access to the kind of documents you are referring to. You should call back in September (after September 1).’ Now this took me by some surprise and I was beginning to get furious at these bureaucrats. I wanted some information and the constitution guarantees that I be given the information. But none of it was any help to me.
Then I thought of approaching it from the other end. I called one of these people from Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs. Again, I am told that these guys have their plenum and it will keep them busy for some time. Once again, I am told to call back sometime in September.
It is a shame that all these institutions put together cannot guide us to a single agreement that defines how we commute to our work places. Maybe the bureaucrats are not accountable enough to people. Maybe the document holds the key to unraveling a big fraud committed by the government with the federation as an accomplice and thus it is being kept from the public’s reach. Maybe, the bureaucrats are extremely busy to respond to a public’s inquiry. I will leave it at that and let the readers judge it for themselves.
However, this is not the only case where a public cannot find the right information when it asks for one to the bureaucracy or the government. Go to transport management office and ask for the process of acquiring a green number plate. Go to Nepal Oil Corporation and Ministry of Commerce and Supplies and ask for the documentation done when they decide to hike petroleum prices in Nepal. Go to the municipality, the Department of Commerce, Department of Cottage and Small Industry and the Inland Revenue Department and ask for the process of registering a Kirana Pasal (mom-and-pop store.) Nowhere will you get the complete information from a single resource person. The Citizen Charters (nagarik badapatra) will be a decade old and officers won’t value your time and effort one bit. And there goes your right to information!