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THE FORMIDABLE STRATEGIST – Bishnu Rimal

Against the backdrop of instability in the ruling party, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli-led government stands at critical crossroads which will define whether his regime continues or not. Coalition and collaboration in politics and governance have always been mired in power play and vested interests. It is not surprising then that the current government may not complete its term despite having had a clear majority during the general elections. Controversies abound and even the Supreme Court is drawn into the drama that has been unfolding over the past months. The people’s mandate in the electoral process now seems to be just a formality as the country watches political events unfold.

We cannot forget that we are in the midst of a global health pandemic that is claiming lives and showing no signs of abating completely. As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, we are also in the midst of an economic downturn unlike anything that has occurred before. What are the government’s priorities at this time? What does the current political instability tell us about our leaders?

What are the implications of the political scenario on the economy? Who is answerable to the public? And what exactly has the PM Oli-led government achieved in his term?

The Chief Advisor to PM KP Sharma Oli, Bishnu Rimal is ostensibly the mind behind some of the PM’s major political decisions. Rimal entered into politics through the student movement in 1979 and joined the then underground Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist). Rimal is also the current patron of the trade union confederation having provided leadership to the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) as its founding Secretary General. Rimal has had a long and interesting career in the politics, actively involved in the CPN UML for over 35 years. A civil engineer by profession, he is soft spoken with a steely resolve, someone who chooses not to shine the light on himself, but a clear political strategist.

We asked Rimal for answers. While we didn’t get answers to some key issues, we do get perspective of where the leading government stands on the upcoming budget, bureaucracy and the big ticket infrastructure projects.

Excerpts of a conversation with Business 360:

Two major communist parties of the country have formed the government to work as per the joint manifesto issued in the 2017 elections. The root of dissatisfaction is reportedly PM Oli-led government’s disorientation from the manifesto and an authoritarian style of running the government. How do you view these allegations?

The government works as per its policies and programs tabled in the parliament every year and the fiscal budget is framed based on that. The policies and programs are aligned with the election manifesto. What we are doing now is fully aligned with the joint manifesto that was issued in 2017 general election. We should understand that the government functions based on the major guiding principles of periodic plans (National Plan), manifesto of the ruling party that are aligned through policies and programs of the government, and required resources to execute the plan allocated through the fiscal budget. Manifesto of the party, policies and programs and fiscal budget are aligned to each other. We have published a booklet titled ‘The Beginning of Prosperity’ after completion of first two years of incumbent government led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. If you see it, you will understand that the targets of the government were carried from the manifesto. It has also presented the action matrix regarding the execution of policies and programs along with the expenses and allocation of resources in each program. The government is determined to work as per its vision; there is no truth behind the allegations that the government is derailed from its commitment to Nepali people.

The Prime Minister had set a vision at the onset of his office titled: ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’. How do you assess progress in line with the slogan?

We had to begin working from scratch when the Prime Minister assumed office and he had the herculean task of executing fiscal federalism. The country had entered into the federal set up and election was carried out accordingly, however all the structures had to be equipped with legal frameworks, resources and other things to bring them into full-fledged function. When we had given the slogan ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’, it was more a vision at that time in absence of mechanisms that could execute it. We had yet to embark on a new administrative system under federalism, there was confusion and debate on various issues of power decentralisation and delegation, overlaps between federal and subnational governments, we had to finalise at least one Bill every five days to develop the legal infrastructures first. We introduced 16 laws to be executed around the 32 fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution by September 19, 2018 within a defined deadline.

After assuming office, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had said that the first year would be the base year for all those arrangements, the second year would lay the foundations of prosperity, and the third year would accelerate prosperity.

Legal infrastructures were developed. We have made adjustment of more than 55,000 civil servants as per the federal setup, carried out trainings for them, provincial assembly was formed through election of 2017 but the physical infrastructure like assembly building, government buildings, vehicles, quarters were sorely lacking at the provincial level. Everything related to the execution of federalism including fiscal federalism was successfully completed within a year. I have no reference of any country in the world executing an entire federal setup including fiscal federalism within a year.

We had announced accelerating prosperity after the second year of the government running. At a time when we were set to expedite project executions, service delivery, bring in investments, we started facing internal conflict within the ruling party. Additionally the Covid 19 pandemic was rapidly spreading across the globe and posed a big threat to us as well.

We should not be disappointed by the achievements of this government. I can give examples with evidences of so much that has been achieved. Around 2,700 km of blacktopped roads have been constructed in the last three years. Large numbers of motorable bridges, suspension bridges have been made. Citing an example of the global indices, Nepal has performed well. We can see Nepal’s rank in the World Happiness Index, the Human Development Index, Doing Business Index among others. We are the second country in South Asia to roll out the vaccination program against Covid 19. We have launched immunisation campaign within one and a half months after its first global launch. Nepal ranked in the top 10 countries in terms of inoculation when compared to size of population. These are strong evidences to our claim and commitment of working to attain the vision of prosperity and happiness for our people.

Recently, the Melamchi Water Supply Project which was long awaited dream of Kathmandu valley denizens has been completed. Will this set a precedence to expedite other large scale infrastructure projects?

The government has geared up to complete the big-ticket projects under construction. The policies and programs for fiscal 2021-22 will also give high priority to complete large-scale projects. Many of the critics question ‘what are the new projects of this government’. We have the vision of linking Nepal with modern railway from the northern and southern part with both neighbours, India and China. We have prioritised strategic and critical infrastructure looking into the long term future of the country like inland waterways, electricity transmission lines among others. We have intervened in the structural impediments of project execution.

If we look into the past, the governments then were competing to award contracts without clearance of project sites, land compensation and other necessary ground work that used to delay project construction. The rampant resource allocation without project preparedness – detailed project report (DPR), site clearance, formation of special purpose entity to execution – was a major barrier.
I would like to cite the example of Melamchi Water Supply Project, where the previous contractor had fled when the tunnel of the project was near completion. Despite this unexpected situation, we brought another contractor through the bidding process without disturbing the ongoing works. Likewise, we are able to construct the much talked about Motihari-Amlekhganj petroleum pipeline that has substantially reduced the cost of transportation of fuel (two billion rupees per annum), mitigated other risks as well reduced traffic congestion at the Birgunj checkpoint because of fuel tankers. Almost every government in the last two decades were talking about installing pipeline to import fuel from India, however the project is now completed in 17 months since we commenced work. This pipeline project was jointly initiated by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. Integrated Check Post (ICP) Biratnagar came into operation and construction works of ICP in Nepalgunj has already begun. Similarly, we are trying our best for power commissioning from Upper Tamakoshi (456 MW) by mid May. Other big-ticket projects like Gautam Buddha International Airport, Pokhara Regional International Airport will be accomplished timely. If you see, the pace of reconstruction works, our heritage sites are rising from the rubble, Ranipokhari reconstruction has been completed, Dharahara reconstruction will be completed shortly. Another major pride project initiated by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is the Sunkoshi-Marin diversion, this includes diverting the water of Sunkoshi river to Bagmati through Marin Khola for irrigating the terai plains of Eastern Nepal along with construction of irrigation canals. This is multipurpose project with plans to generate electricity along with irrigation. Apart from this, the country has started tunnel road projects; construction of Nagdhunga-Naubise tunnel has gathered pace, we are going to construct other tunnel projects as well namely Syafrubesi-Betrabati tunnel road, Tokha-Chhahare, Siddhababa-Dovan and others. For the timely and successful completion of such development projects, the government needs qualified human resource.

We often hear from the public sphere that bureaucracy must be improved to deliver. To make than happen, they need proper trainings and skills on the job. We have Administrative Staff College to conduct training of civil servants, we have felt the dire need of such staff colleges for civil servants allied with technical jobs. The government is going to hire more than a thousand engineers. People may ask about the long-term liability of hiring more staffs, we were having similar number of technical human resource when the size of fiscal budget was just one trillion rupees, it has expanded over the years to almost 1.6 trillion rupees. Similarly, the size of economy is also expanded to almost four trillion rupees, we will be a five trillion rupee economy in the next few years, that’s why we should invest in human resource to achieve our long-term goals.

What is your observation of the country’s bureaucracy?

We can debate on the competency of the bureaucracy. We might even say that our bureaucracy is not at par to perform and deliver efficiently. These fingers are also pointed at political leadership. But had previous governments invested in bureaucracy envisioning the needs of 10-15 years ahead in time, would we need to point fingers at all? That’s why we are going to invest in human resource and the results will be seen after 5-10 years. The incumbent Secretaries of the Nepal government came from an investment made 14-15 years back. If we don’t invest in sectors like politics, technology, security or bureaucracy, we won’t have control over the results in 10-15 years. We have to equip them with the skills and opportunities first. Despite that if they do not perform, then we must adopt ‘carrot and stick’ policy.

While taking an example of big-ticket projects, there is no problem of red tapeism but all we hear about is ill-practices and corruption from service delivery agencies. To stop the rampant bribery and malparctices, we came up with various digital interventions. We have rolled out the Vehicle and Consignment Tracking System (VCTS) that has controlled the ill-practice of issuing fake VAT bills, similarly minimised the hassles of cross-checking at the road or entry points of major cities by the Revenue Investigation Offices. We can now track all the vehicles through an application.
Some of the national pride projects are in execution from years, we are monitoring them from the action room established in the Prime Minister’s Office. Even during travel restrictions and lockdowns imposed last year, consultants of big-ticket projects monitored and provided instruction to contractors from that facility.

It is not mandatory to monitor physically by ministers or other authorities with long queues of vehicles at project sites, we can use available platforms by leveraging technology, encouraging workers and contractors, and enhancing the capacity of executing and implementing agencies.

The Prime Minister is considered tech-savvy and he has laid emphasis on digitalising government services to the best extent possible for effective and hassle-free service delivery. The government has also launched the Digital Nepal framework to digitalize services under eight verticals. However, there have not been many tangible changes?

That is not true. If you go to avail services at the land registration office you can see the transformation. It does not require you to go through the manual system. It is certain that when technology becomes disruptive to the old style of work, some jobs will become redundant but we have adjusted that unemployed human resource to other sectors. The land registration offices had bad reputation due to bribery. Customer should not have to interact with the staff of the land registration office; they can now avail service through digital platforms. Along with digital mapping of land, we have also started digital soil testing facility. We are going to develop a similar digital system in transport offices too. People can renew their bill book, licenses and permits through digital platforms. Some of the local government offices have started online billing system and delivering services through digital platforms.

The government has also digitalised the monitoring mechanism of its policies and programs. We have developed indicators such as completed, in progress, stalled, etc. Each ministry reports everyday to the monitoring portal of the Prime Minister’s Office.

‘Hello Sarkar’ platform has also been revamped. We’ve launched the Nagarik App, people are not required to carry documents to avail services like citizenship certificate or academic certificates among others.

What about the National ID card?

National ID card distribution is underway. I think we will be able to create 12 million National ID cards within a year. National ID card can be used as a barcode. However people are habituated to hold on to a physical card which is why the government has plans to distribute the cards within a year. The National ID card is also integrated with the passport. People, who are in foreign employment can avail passport (if their passport is expired) from their working destination, they can avail work permit from their working destination as well. They don’t need to travel all the way to Nepal from their working destination to avail the aforesaid passport and work permit services. We have inducted our own software at the immigration, Nepal Port. It is developed by our own engineers and it is cost effective too. We were facing pressure from foreign institutions to purchase their software but we trust our engineers. They have also developed a more secured system and we can track tourist entry into Nepal once a person is registered in the immigration system.

How do you rate the government response to Covid 19 which has been heavily criticised as weak and ineffective by the opposition and general public?

The government’s response towards Covid 19 pandemic was timely and effective. The Prime Minister himself had talked with head of nations and heads of governments of Nepali migrant worker destinations to keep them safe and provide needful support. Nepali missions were mobilised to help migrant Nepalis. We all know that in a pandemic, it was not possible to bring around four million Nepali migrant workers from their working destinations. Leaders of the ruling party even tried to overshadow the government initiative through propaganda. However, the government has done its duty taking full responsibility of its citizens and also of foreigners stranded in Nepal.

If you see the death toll, it is low. In total of 279,388 infections, the death toll is 3,038. We have been trying our best to minimise loss of lives, that’s why we have rolled out vaccination immediately after a month and half of its global launch. We have introduced insurance scheme to minimise risk. We are again threatened by a new variant of Covid 19 and we’ve started needful monitoring, taking measures of health safety protocols, and making people returning from India aware that they need to abide with health safety protocols.

The Prime Minister’s advice to take hot water or milk with turmeric powder was mocked. Youth movement titled ‘Enough Is Enough’ were protesting with the demand of 100% PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests but later they understood that one time PCR test of all people is not a solution. Repeated tests can be required. When they understood, they settled and abided with health safety protocols. I would not like to condemn their movement; I don’t know if it was spontaneous or they were provoked from somewhere. But they withdrewn protests when they learnt the nitty-gritties of controlling the pandemic.

MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) feel lack of support from the government. Likewise, daily wage labour have slammed the government for being apathetic towards their condition. Your comments.

The government has given emphasis on creating and retaining jobs through early recovery of pandemic hit MSMEs. The Nepal Rastra Bank has brought 200 billion rupee package and lowered the threshold of refinancing specifically targeted to MSMEs. Understanding the requirement of working capital by MSMEs and the hard hit tourism and hospitality sector, this scheme was introduced. Likewise, loan rescheduling and restructuring facility was given in the mid-term of fiscal 2020-21 and has been extended to the end of this fiscal. Concerned entities will intervene and facilitate if any MSME has grievances or they are unable to avail subsidised credit for their operation.

Preparatory work for fiscal budget 2021-22 is underway. The PM recently announced raising the social security allowance of senior citizens, widows, disabled and marginalized community. The expense in social security scheme is around Rs 91 billion in this fiscal. How does the government plan to manage resources to raise the allowance for almost two million people?

We have enrolled contributory social security scheme for working age population and that is the right way. The working age population will receive pensions when they enter into their old-age. Active age population of current time will not need social security allowance. Similarly, health insurance scheme is being expanded to all districts and modern health facilities are also being developed by the government for providing needful treatment in their locality rather than making hospitals of urban areas crowded with huge inflow of patients. The state should protect the senior citizens and minor (children) population. We should not consider these expenses to be a liability. The social security allowance for the elderly was launched by the first Communist Prime Minister, erstwhile chair of the CPN UML late Manmohan Adhikari some 26 years back with monthly allowance of Rs 100 and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has raised it to Rs 3,000 per month or Rs 100 per day. Such protection will expand life expectancy and strengthen vulnerable groups economically so that every citizen can spend their old age gracefully. The liability on social security scheme will gradually come down once the contributory social security scheme is executed in a full fledged manner.

What is the theme of the flagship programs for the next fiscal budget?

The major focus of the government is to complete the projects that have remained incomplete since long if this government gets a chance to complete its tenure, and hold the general election completing five-years tenure for the first time in our history of multiparty democracy. If this government has to discontinue, we have laid the path for the successor government.
Our first priority will be completing long-run projects, secondly, we will invest in human resource that is required to execute and implement flagship projects initiated by our government. And, the third priority is integrated development of agriculture, service and industry for economic development and job creation.

You have underlined the probability of discontinuation of this government before completing its five year term. Do you see the prospect of formation of new government because other political forces represented in the parliament have insufficient numbers of parliamentarians to claim majority in a bid to topple this government? Or, is there prospect to go for early elections under the leadership of PM Oli?

There are three prospects that can avoid early election. First is other political forces except CPN UML have to form the government. If not, some of the political forces have to support the CPN UML led government when Maoists withdraw their support. Third condition is if the other political forces except CPN UML do not form the government after Maoist support withdrawal or if any other political force is unwilling to support government for majority, it is certain that this government will announce general elections. I think CPN (Maoist Centre) will withdraw support from the government. We have heard that other political forces – Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre and Janata Samajbadi Party are discussing forming a coalition. However, it is still not clear that they will reach consensus or not.

Maoists Centre will be answerable to the people in the next election because they had contested general election of 2017 with a joint manifesto and yet they discontinued their support to this government mid-way. Despite the obstruction created by them, we have been able to deliver a lot. If the government had not encountered this political crisis, a lot more would have been done. Recently, we have announced construction of 2,100 km strategic road network in 165 electoral constituencies at a total cost of Rs 57 billion. Prior to that, we have started implementation of road construction to link 210 municipalities and rural municipalities with highways. We are expediting the vision of a self-reliant economy partnering with the private sector, i.e., Make in Nepal.

Before Covid 19, we had inaugurated a vaccine production factory adopting cutting edge technology. Likewise, detailed project report (DPR) is being prepared for cross-border railway connectivity. We have already entered into the process to award bid for the East-West electric railway. To shorten the land route with our northern neighbour China, DPR of Betrabati-Syafrubesi tunnel road is being carried out. When the Tokha-Chhahare tunnel road will be completed, we can travel to Nuwakot capital, Bidur within half an hour from Kathmandu. Similarly, Kimathanka road (Koshi corridor) has achieved substantive progress, Kali Gandaki corridor is almost completed and Karnali corridor has also gathered pace. These corridors are strategic roads to connect our northern and southern neighbours. Why we need to expedite these corridors is because we must reap benefits from the rapid growth of India and China as they are the major players of the global economy. Nepal should not remain a consumer of the goods/services produced in India and China, that is why we are developing these infrastructures to enhance production and trade. We are on the road to supply 24/7 reliable electricity and we will have excess electricity after completion of 456 MW Upper Tamakoshi Hydel Project. We have also envisioned executing transmission highway along with cross border electricity trading infrastructure through grant aid from Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). We will have excess energy from this wet season if we do not face hurdles to execute the cross-border trade infrastructure and transmission highway, and we would be able to sell our electricity to Bangladesh. Along with electricity export plan, we are also rolling out plans to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel (mainly LPG in the first phase) and encourage people to use electricity for cooking and other daily activities. To encourage them, we could trim tariffs on electric appliances. In the longer term, we will promote electric vehicle to promote use of clean and green energy which is critical from the perspective of environmental conservation through reducing green house gases.

Regarding MCC, the erstwhile ruling NCP leaders had opposed this, people had taken to the streets, the PM and those favouring MCC were called anti-national. What are your thoughts?

They were fearful of the accelerated development work because the Prime Minister is gaining popularity with the completion of projects and expanded access in government services with quality. There is no rationale behind opposing MCC’s aid to Nepal for execution of two critical projects designed by Nepal based on its priority. I would like to cite the example of Melamchi, political parties are fighting to take credit for it. No matter whichever Prime Minister had envisioned this or who has completed it, finally it is the Nepali people who are benefited from this. We don’t need to fight for credit. Today, we are in position to encourage people to use water as much as they can like electricity because we are able to deliver it. As per my understanding, agreement with MCC is more flexible compared to other development projects like Melamchi. MCC is going to provide us grant aid to execute transmission highway with cross-border power trade infrastructure. Melamchi is constructed availing loan from multilateral development partners. Whatever conditions we have accepted to avail loan, there are no such conditions while availing the grant aid.
The agreements of MCC has already been made public with Nepali translation so that people can understand the reality. Even educated and academic people said that the US military will come to Nepal and camp along the transmission line’s right of way; such baseless and provocative propaganda was designed and disseminated by anti-development forces or by those who don’t want the country to progress. I am also amazed to see those people participating to make a mess of politics and development. People can easily access the MCC agreement and read it for themselves before making an opinion on the basis of hearsay.

Intraparty conflict is seen as a major barrier for governments, no matter they are Communist, Congress or others. Is it lack of maturity, self interest, or differences between the haves and have-nots while running a government?

It depends on the leadership. If all the ruling party leaders gave priority to the nation and people, it would be different. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is the main man for the alliance of the Communist party; the election was contested under his leadership. I don’t mean that the other leaders have not played a role in the victory of the Communist party; they have played an equally important role but CPN UML Chair KP Sharma Oli was presented as the future Prime Minister. KP Sharma Oli played an instrumental role for the grand victory of the left-democratic alliance. When PM Oli took the helm, we immediately worked for the unification of party to avoid any instability. PM Oli took oath on February 15, 2018 but the coalition partner Maoists Centre had not sent any Minister to the Cabinet and only two Ministers from CPN UML were remaining till February 26. Minister for Home Affairs (Maoist Centre) and Finance Minister (CPN UML) were added to the Cabinet. It took over a month until March 16 to appoint all the ministers. In between that time, the Maoist Centre had looked into the option of forming government by making coalition with other political forces despite the fact that the Communist parties had contested the election under joint manifesto. Against this backdrop, both parties were unified in a rush on May 17, 2018. For stability, Prime Minister Oli had expressed commitment with the Maoist Centre Chairperson Pushpa Kamal Dahal to hold a general convention of the Unified Party from April 7-12, 2021 and that he will not contest for the Chairmanship of the Unified Party. PM Oli had also ensured Pushpa Kamal Dahal that he will be the face of the next election as the next Prime Minister, and that commitment was given in writing.

We have learned that the mandate given by the people for stability is not easy to retain due to such conflicts, and managing conflict is not easy due to impatience of ruling party leaders. And yet it is an established fact that stability is a critical factor for expediting development works, bringing in investment, delivering quality service and expanding access for the overall progress of the country.

Ujeena Rana is an academic and writer. She has worked in media for more than a decade. She enjoys walking, wondering, creating, listening to podcasts and singing lullabies to her toddler. She devours national and international news on a daily basis like a hungry person devours everything on the plate.

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