Striking a Balance

By Sarita Sapkota and Abyaya Neopane

This article was originally published in The Himalayan Times on 13 September 2015.

Many dailies across the country published articles on the total number of bandhs in Nepal between April 2010 and April 2015, which stood at a whooping 1,047 days. What were these 1,047 days after all? They were certainly a reflection of limited opportunities to participate in the country’s politics and be heard. In this regard they were an outcome of sluggish institutionalisation of democracy. However, what has now become alarming is that the effect has started perpetuating the cause, further slowing down political processes and thwarting our opportunity to find peaceful solutions through democratic institutions. In the meantime, it is causing the immediate threat of depriving a large number of people of their livelihood opportunities.

Will we build a prosperous Nepal by working just two months a year?

If we take the total days in five years, it comes to 1,825 days. When we deduct 52 Saturdays, take 37 official public holidays per year on an average and number of bandhs in the past five years, which is 1047, we would have 333 days left as proper working days in five years. This means only approximately two months per year! Add ‘chiya’ breaks, scrolling one’s ‘Facebook newsfeeds’, Tweets, Youtube, Whatsapp and power naps, and of course, 30 days of annual leave, we had less than a month dedicated to productive work on an average in the past five years. What will happen to the big dreams of eradicating poverty and turning Nepal into Switzerland in x number of years?

Do we compensate the meagre work hours with productivity?

According to the World Bank, the annual GDP of Nepal in 2014 year was USD 19.6 billion. If we are able to generate USD 19.6 billion GDP in this limited window of productive time, had we worked four months a year, we could have doubled our GDP as well. Despite all markets, offices and industries being closed during bandhs, we managed to get a figure of USD 19.6 billion. If we managed to sustain a whole year by two month’s work, our productivity must be exemplary. May be our work culture is not unproductive after all. But empirically it shows otherwise. Labour productivity in Nepal is low, it ranked lowest in South Asia in 2010.

If not productivity, are we a group of very wise consumers then?

If it is not the productivity argument, to explain our sustainability despite the general shutdowns, we could look from a consumption perspective. Is it because we have stable priorities, and know when and what to buy that we have sustained so far? Do we have the answer to all the questions economists spend years researching consumer preference, behaviour and utility? We do not. Even if we were the wisest bunch of consumers, it is hard to think that two months of work can sustain us for a whole year.

Is it the remittance then?

So what could it be? Could this be due to the influx of remittance from abroad, which has added for financial sustenance both for individuals and the government? According to the World Bank, remittance received as a percentage of GDP stood at 29 per cent in 2013. It seems that with the current rate of general shutdowns and dwindling productivity, had it not been for remittance, Nepal would have plunged further down into poverty. When people in the country cannot work due to the bandhs, they are forced to send an active member of their families to work abroad. Secondly, the prevalence of bandhs is a reflection of weak enforcement of rule of law and property rights. Therefore, these general shutdowns have become a prime factor in pushing us into the vicious circle of poverty and weakening the economy.

If not now, when?

With the alarming rate of 209 days of bandhs per year, it is astonishing how our economy breathes. Nothing adds up. Neither labour productivity justifies our performance, nor do the consuming habits reflect our sustenance. A portion of viable reason attributes to remittance, yet its channelisation does not. One reason why the bandh toll reached 1047 in the past five years is the apparent success rate of this protest method. But how long will we allow the interest of one organised group to succeed at the cost of an unorganised and peace-loving majority?

It has been estimated that one-day of bandh brings loss of about Rs 1.8 billion which means in the past five years, these general shutdowns have robbed people off of 1,884 billion rupees. This is alarming for a nation where people are leaving in hordes looking for economic opportunities in other parts of the world. Will a ‘new’ federal Nepal be able to set a stage for institutionalising political processes and democracy in such a way that being heard does not necessarily mean pushing fellow citizens towards a more impoverished life and robbing them of their fundamental rights?

Sarita Sapkota is Communication and Development Coordinator at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation.

Abyaya Neopane is Research Intern at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation.