Old battle lines are being drawn afresh and one gets a sense of the Nepali clock having turned back two decades to the early 1990s. The same set of leaders who failed the 1990 constitution and its democratic polity (and also failed the 2008 dispensation with the ignominious demise of CA-I in May 2012) are now squabbling about how to raise another edifice on the flawed foundation of the 12-point Delhi deal of November 2005. While Nepali civil society and the Indo-Western diplomatic community mistakenly believe that these failed leaders have learnt their lessons, will exhibit wiser behaviour and take Project Democracy forward, early indications are to the contrary.
The first hint came in late February when Koirala, digressing from the context of a lawyers’ gathering in his home constituency in Nepalganj, accused those protesting Girija Koirala’s Tanakpur agreement with India in 1991 as misguided. It enraged the Left as well as non-Left nationalist forces, and subsequently it turned out that it was Sushil Koirala who is still haunted by the Tanakpur ghost and has learned nothing from the vibrant debates of the 1990s about the nature of water and the controversies that surround its development. An even less forgivable indication followed a week later when the leading lights of the Bretton Woods institutions “contemplating close to 3000 MW of development with a large part of this capacity to be used to spur power trading and regional cooperation” organized a “national debate … designed to remove some wrong perceptions in the minds of stakeholders and spur them to overcome these obstacles” (offensively patronizing quotes from the invitation, the so-called debate to have been moderated by a media star from Al Jazeera).
Quick on the heels of these bursts of water engagements by the political and economic powers-that-be, a leading corporate national daily (with suspicious Mughlani influence) opened a media jihad against the activist infidels, the non-believers in that path to development and economic nirvana. It brought out headlines and editorials praising electricity exporting developers as saviours of New Nepal (but who incidentally cornered licenses violating Nepal’s constitutional provisions and by-passing parliamentary oversight) and damning those who argue that Nepal herself needs the electricity from these very-cheap-to-develop hydropower sites to overcome her own current crippling load-shedding. O tempora! O mores!
Debates can happen only between contending views, not among like-thinking cheerleaders; but there is no indication that the preaching Brettonites or the amnesic Kangressis, let alone being able to understand what critical views are saying about alternative development pathways, are even be aware that such views exist in strong measure in Nepal, and if they are aware, to be willing to engage with them. Activists opposed the World Bank-led Arun-3 not so much for environmental or social reasons (there was very little of that) but for bad economics: the premier international development bank was proposing to develop it at $5400 per kW when the going market rate then was only a fifth of that. (The Mughlani developer who currently holds the license plans to develop it for export at about $1000/kW, proving the activists against the then Arun-3 right!) The Tanakpur-Mahakali controversy was about the violation of the provision of Article 126 of the 1990 constitution that required parliamentary approval, by a simple majority if it was of a simple nature but by a two-thirds majority if it was deemed to have “wide-ranging, serious and long-term” implications. The failure of the three parliaments under the 1990 dispensation (and the supreme court of Nepal that gave a half-baked judgement on it) lay in their passing the Mahakali Treaty by brute majoritarianism without first providing that critical definition. The net result is impasse of the last seventeen years.
The problem with the licenses for Upper Karnali and Arun-3 given to Mughlani developers for export rather than for Nepali consumption – many suspect it was again given through brute majoritarianism by the Girija-Prachanda combo as a quid pro quo for Muglani support to the Maoist-Seven Party Alliance in their agitation to side line the monarchy – lies in bypassing parliamentary vote and Article 126 (subsequently Article 156 in the interim constitution). It is about sub-optimal development of the sites, about low-priced export rather than meeting Nepal’s crippling shortage, about ignoring upstream-downstream linkages in Nepal’s economy, about the failure to even put these issues on the public agenda for debate in a country that is in a constitution-less interregnum. It is also about losing both water rights to one’s resources as well as the possibility to undertake independent development options in the basin of concern. In the case of Upper Karnali, for instance, the illegitimate MoU by the post-2006 Loktantrick dispensation with the Mughlani exporter stipulates that Nepalis of Western Nepal will need to get the approval of the Mughlani developer (not the government of Nepal!!) before withdrawing water from the river upstream for their development activities such as irrigation.
The people of West Nepal are naturally upset; and the local leaders across the political spectrum have begun to feel the heat; but it is the Dash Maoists who have been the first to politically cash in on this anger. In a public meeting organized in Kathmandu on 29th March, they managed to rope in fellow travellers from the UML (Bhim Rawal) and the Cash Maoists (Leela Mani Pokhrel) to share the dais and similar sentiments with the Dashist supremo, Mohan Vaidya. The logic put forth to oppose the illegitimate arrangements of handing over prime national sites for export was impeccable: if unopposed, it was going to lead Nepal down a very sad neo-colonial path of peripheralized development. The anger was searing among the stakeholders against what was termed “lampasarbadis” (“those politicians genuflecting shamelessly before the Mughlani Sahu”).
Nepali Kangress central leadership seems blissfully ignorant and near brain-dead on this issue, while the parties to the right of the center, although aware of the dangers, do not seem willing to provoke upon themselves Mughlani wrath at worst or even its simple disfavour. The reason seems to be Mahatonomics, the political-economic philosophy since Girija Koirala’s first post-Panchayat government of the early 1990s that can be named after its leading light. It mouths “BP’s democratic socialism” but pursues unbridled privatization. It is absolutely blind to the immense strategic benefits of water to the economy other than hydropower for export. It worships the failed Washington Consensus of the 1990s and believes in being obedient to its diktats. And worst of all it thinks any opposition to its neo-colonial political economy can be made to disappear, not with dialogue and engagement, but by bad-mouthing and name-calling (“bikash birodhi”). The Brettonites of course are delighted with such a cheer-leader and are ever ready to open the loan-strings (and transboundary consensus-building meetings galore) to goad the Mahatonomists on.
It did not work in the past, and there is no reason to believe it will now, especially when the glitter of Washington Consensus in development philosophy, and the neo-colonial push to “integrate” Nepal’s fragile economy with the Mughlani plains, have begun to lose their shine. Another Mahakali impasse, another failed development decade, another generation to live with missed development opportunities – all these stare Nepalis in the face. The only silver lining in all this is the collapse of the export-oriented, Australian SMEC-led West Seti, which is now going to be built (hopefully) with Chinese technology for Nepalis and to ameliorate Nepal’s load shedding. West Seti still has problems of resettlement, harnessing its multipurpose benefits etc. but those are issues that can be solved by Nepalis, if only they have vibrant local governments and a national parliament that is capable of seeing national interests above those of the MPs and their parties.