At around 6:30 pm on Tuesday, Bal Krishna dai, the business editor of Nagarik daily, walked into the business bureau of Republica with his usual leisurely gait and informed about a press meet at the Ministry of Finance at 7 pm.
“The finance minister is announcing the budget tonight,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
We had just heard that the draft of the budget ordinance had been handed over to President Ram Baran Yadav. But we had not expected him to endorse it so soon.
Right away, Milan dai, the business editor of Republica, who was editing stories, moved away from his computer and turned toward us. “Let’s go Rupak!”
By 7 pm we were at the hall of the finance ministry where media briefings are usually held.
PHOTO: DIPESH SHRESTHA/REPUBLICA
Then came the worst part about being a journalist in Nepal: waiting for the meeting to begin.
We had been told the briefing would start at seven but we didn’t see any sign of it till 7:30 pm. All the while, sources we contacted kept saying “the President is reading the text and he will sign it any minute.”
As time passed, journalists of other media houses gradually started flowing in. Tea and biscuits were served (courtesy: finance ministry). Yet there was no sign of the press briefing starting, while sources continued saying “the President is reading the text and he will sign it any minute.” For a while, it felt like we were all waiting for Godot.
Then at around 9:05 pm we heard that the President had (finally!) signed the ordinance. At 9:10 pm Rajan Khanal, joint secretary at the ministry, entered the hall and started checking the mikes. The call for press meet was not a hoax, after all.
Finally, at around 9:30 pm Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun, accompanied by high ranking officials and security personnel, walked into the hall beaming his trademark smile. He deserved the smile this time around as getting a final seal on the fiscal policy had become a tough row to hoe.
Since the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly on May 27, Minister Pun has been regularly meeting top opposition leaders to negotiate a budget deal. But the opposition parties continued avoiding him, citing that the fiscal policy contained elements that would promote entitlements and discretionary spending. They seemed to believe that endorsing just about any deal on budget would amount to a huge political concession.
In the end, all that the country got was a budget equivalent to whatever was spent last fiscal year. This means no new spending plans, tax policies or incentives for businesses.
Minister Pun’s frustration on the issue was evident on Tuesday evening as he spent around five minutes hurling accusations of non-cooperation at opposition parties during his almost 14-minute long budget speech. “There have been instances of ruling parties promulgating budget ordinances arbitrarily. But we waited this long to forge a national consensus on the issue,” he said, claiming, “opposition parties tried hard to use budget ordinance as a tool to take over the government.”
The minister’s dissatisfaction over current developments is understandable as he has spent a lot of his time and energy on establishing ‘political consensus’, which he turned into a catchphrase. But prior to making accusations, Minister Pun would perhaps have done well to recollect the Maoist party’s obstruction against introduction of budget ordinance during the rule of CPN-UML a few years ago. And this is where the problem lies in Nepali politics. But this tit-for-tat brand of politics will get us nowhere.
Everyone knows budget is a political document that outlays the government roadmap on steering the country. Yes, they may contain handouts or pet projects, but they also contain plans for development of roads, hydropower plants and other infrastructure projects, that generate hundreds of thousands of jobs. So any delay in endorsement of budget can choke the economy, curtailing capital formation process, making investments unviable and affecting every small business that somehow benefits from the trickle-down effect of government spending. This applies even more in case of a country like Nepal where the government is the biggest spender. Yet except for the last fiscal year, the country has not seen timely promulgation of budget since the 2006 uprising.
As I make these comments you may be wondering where I am coming from. If you have any doubts about my political inclination, you can stop reading here. But I’d make the same comment if any other party was at the helm. All I call for is end of politicization over budget.
Why? Because I doubt political leaders, who ride cars, understand how budget delay can impact people who commute on crammed microbus to office every day. They also don’t understand how suspension of a road project can affect daily wage earners; or problems that a patient in a far-flung area, who depends on state-owned health clinic for free or subsidized medicine, has to face in absence of budget.
These are the leaders who talk big about economic prosperity, job creation and delivering happiness to the people. This time, the selfsame opposition leaders tried to defend their anti-budget move saying that the PM Bhattarai-led caretaker government, left unopposed, would eventually capture the state. This is simply fear-mongering. Those trying to impose autocracy in Nepal are sure to meet the fate of former king Gyanendra. If PM Bhattarai knowingly wants to dig his own grave, I have nothing to say.
But again, the question here is not about who is at the helm. It’s about budget and how people’s interests are tied to it. So in an era where concept of open budget—in which common people are mobilized to frame fiscal policy—is gradually gaining popularity around the word, any delay in promulgation of budget is equivalent to infringing on people’s economic rights.
To end this problem once and for all, the country should come up with a law that makes it mandatory for incumbent governments to come up with a fresh budget at the end of every fiscal year. So long as partisan pride continues to prevent us from embarking on a journey of common economic prosperity, Nepal will continue to remain the sick man of South Asia.