Revisiting Nepal’s inclusion policy

This article was originally published in www.nepallivetoday.com on December 27, 2023 by Ashansa Mulmi. Ms. Mulmi ​​is a research intern at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization. Author can be reached at [email protected]

In the aftermath of the tumultuous ‘People’s War’, the fervor of historically marginalized communities led to a pivotal moment in 2006 when the interim constitution introduced the reservation policy. Through an amendment to the 1993 Civil Service Act in 2007 forty five percent of all seats in public services was allocated to candidates from disadvantaged groups, paving not just a system for inclusive governance but also marking a major turning point for historically marginalized communities. Further changes were also made to ensure participation within the political sphere.

One cannot deny that the policy of inclusion resulted from years of exclusion. At least some level of recognition to transform the bureaucracy into a more inclusive one was present when changes were initiated. Yet, over the past 15 years the journey towards social inclusion remains riddled with challenges. Our own pursuit to narrow the gap between demographics and representation has revealed profound complexities.

A quick glance of the numbers presents a system where rules have not been implemented and imbalances continue to manifest. Khas-Arya individuals currently occupy 88 percent of positions in the political sphere despite constituting only 31.2 percent of the total population; while Muslims and Dalits with their respective share of 4.4 percent and 12.6 percent of the population only occupy 0.6 percent and 2.5 percent of the positions. Similar situation exists within the political realm. Needless to say, a close look at reservation policies and its own shortcomings are required for any imagination of inclusion. After all, dominance in the state bureaucracy goes beyond mere representation. It is intricately tied to who controls state resources and benefits, and shapes social, political, and economic processes.

Discourse about the social policy often follows heavy criticisms. The criticisms frame reservations as inherently discriminatory and further the meritocracy argument in so far as selection procedures are concerned. The argument posits that reserved positions lead qualified candidates to be sidelined, making room for less competent individuals from marginalized communities. The merit argument often forgets about the historical cleavages. Indeed merit is a standard a nation should strive for but it would only work if all members of the state started off from the same position. Our own historical cleavages attest to the unequal footing citizens stand on. It is also worth noting that reservation policies in the past favored exclusion over inclusion. One need not look any further than the policies adopted by the Ranas through the Muluki Ain–reservation of certain bureaucratic positions to upper caste Hindus. While one cannot imagine state-sanctioned exclusion in today’s day and age, our history is one of state sanctioned exclusion and the solution we have adopted today is merely a correctional measure that should be judged in the broader context.

While the scores that one receives are often used to undermine the policy of inclusion, critics seem to easily disregard the language barrier that acts as a significant barrier even with inclusive policies. Nepali is the predominant language used in administering the civil service exams. This poses a substantial challenge for individuals in a nation with more than 120 distinct languages. In retrospect, it becomes apparent that marginalized communities have faced setbacks since their schooling years. Reports indicate that a key reason for school dropouts among the Janajati and Tarai communities is a curriculum that doesn’t reflect Nepal’s richly diverse ethno-linguistic population. The lack of proficiency in Nepali becomes a significant barrier for marginalized groups, hindering their access to quality education and active participation in both local and national governance. These barriers render governance inaccessible to these communities, revealing a disconnect between policy intention and actual effects.

An important aspect of this setback is that language fluency tends to favor certain candidates while putting those from other communities at a disadvantage. The issue of language has led to a de-facto reservation policy, one that benefits from the state’s use of the language and favors that have historically been placed at the top of the bureaucracy.

Seen from this vantage point, the merit argument is both limited and flawed. Exam scores do reflect the capabilities of an individual, yet they are also designed to showcase the capabilities of a certain class of individuals–those that use the Nepali language on a daily basis.

If reservation policies were to be examined from the lens of active participation, a clear logical conclusion is difficult to reach. While thousands have entered the civil service through quotas, questions arise whether the quota system has achieved its inclusivity and active participation goal. For instance, although the participation of women has increased, their representation gets narrower in executive levels of decision-making, indicating that systemic barriers may hinder their advancement. Despite more than a decade of implementation and increased participation, it has been found that women continue to face gender and caste-based discrimination within their political parties, even if they have close political ties. This dichotomy elucidates the limitations of the reservation system: On the one hand, women are encouraged to participate, while on the other, they are subjected to a discriminatory environment, limiting their advancement.

Yes, Nepal needs to work on inclusion but any imagination of inclusion sans participation in the state’s apparatus is flawed.

Similarly research conducted on Dalit civil servants finds that those who entered through the reservation system feel isolated and perceived as incapable and untrustworthy. The form of discrimination has shifted from untouchability to restricting them from getting various opportunities, benefits and guidance. The quota policy does not address other forms of structural discrimination nor has it led to the marginalized community reaching positions of power at least ones where they can make policy decisions.

But if we were to strive for bold and sweeping overnight reforms none of the state’s policies have worked. By that argument almost all of the state’s policies need reimagination. At least one effect of the reservation policy has been some increased participation. Yes, Nepal needs to work on inclusion but any imagination of inclusion sans participation in the state’s apparatus is flawed. When citizens begin on an unequal footing some level of intervention will be required, some form of anti-discriminatory practice will be required. The solution is not abolishing reservation policies but recognizing that reservation policies themselves are made by those that belong to the privileged class. That such policies do not address the de-facto exclusion is a certainty we need to work to counter.