Published in The Telegraph Nepal ::
Nepal is a polytheist Hindu state. The legitimacy of the Nepalese state, therefore, rests on its embeddedness in society which can “either cede a measure of its autonomy to the state through voluntary consent, or withhold it, thus denying it any sense of legal or moral standing” (Fox, 1995:6). The limits of government are well defined in the Constitution and the fundamental rights acquired by citizens. The government is also subjected to the judicial process, parliamentary review, scrutiny of the press and the public that constitute the civil society. The institutions of representation, such as the parliament, political parties and civil society mediate the activities between the public and the state and help in the democratization of both. In this vein, “we find that the civil society has to contribute even in empowering the state in the interest of social transformation, if by empowerment we can mean building the capacity and legitimacy of the state to address the issues of social concern” (Panday, 1999:131). Recent experience shows that Nepalese civil society confronts a variety of pressures from the citizens to address the complexity of development functions. Many of the formal and informal organizations working in the civic space and exerting pressure for democratization of the political society and the development process can be categorized as such:
Economic Society: Federation of the Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Nepal Chamber of Commerce, Dhikuties, Private Business Houses, Cooperatives, Petty Traders’ Association, Financial Institutions, Nepal-India Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Nepal-German Chamber of Commerce, Nepal-US Chamber of Commerce and Industry,
Consumer and Users Groups, Association of Economic Writers, Association of Bankers, Management Association of Nepal, Hotel Association of Nepal, Nepal Advertisement Agency Association, Nepal Overseas Exporters’ Association, Federation of Nepal, Community Forest Users Group of Nepal, etc
Social and Cultural Associations: Guthi, Mithila Sainaj, Manka Khala, Newa Khala, Nepal Tamang Ghedung, Tharu Welfare Society, Thakali Welfare Committee, Kirant Yakthung Chumlung, Depressed People’s Upliftment Platform, Rodhi among Gurungs,etc.
• Educational and Informational Institutions: Autonomous research institutions and universities, academies, Federation of Nepalese Journalist, Communicator’s Group, Nepal Environmental Journalist Association, Editor’s Guild, Nepal Press Institute, Nepal Institute of Mass Communication, Nepal South Asia Centre, Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies, Center for the Consolidation of Democracy, Institute for Integrated Development Studies, etc
Promotional and Protective Interest Groups: Nepal Trade Union Congress, Democratic Confederation of Nepalese Trade Unions, General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, Student Unions, Nepal Teachers’ Association and organization, Federations of Village Development Committees (VDC), municipality and District Development Committees (DDC), Nepal Bar Association, All Nepal Lawyers’ Association, Nepal
Medical Association, etc
• Relief and Development Associations: NGOs, Self- help Groups, Federation of NGOs, Maiti Nepal, Nepal Red Cross Society, Rotary Club, Lions Club, Anti-T. B. Association, Family Planning Association of Nepal, Netra Jyoti Sangh, etc.
• Advocacy Groups: Nepal Federation of Ethnic Groups and Nationalities, Nepal Dalit Association, Women’s Pressure Group, Indigenous societies, Legal Aid and Consultancy Center, Paribartan Nepal, TEWA, etc.
• Civic Groups: Human Right Organizations (such as, Informal Sector Service, Human Right Organization of Nepal, Amnesty International-Nepal Chapter, INHURED International, Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Center, Kamaya Concerned Group, etc), Election Observation Group, Transparency International, Nepal Law Society, Political Science Association of Nepal, Sociological and Anthropological Association of Nepal, Intellectual Councils, etc.
• Public Trusts: Pashupati Area Development Trusts, King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, Lumbini Development Trust, Madan-Ashrit Memorial Trust, Mana Mohan Memorial Foundation, Ganeshman Foundation, B. P. Koirala Foundation, Tank Prasad Acharya Memorial Trust, etc.
• Private Philanthropic Associations: Bhupal Man Singh Foundation, Buddha-Gandhi Foundation, Madan Puraskar Guthi, etc.
Will this multitude of civil societies help promote context transformation and rectify the great mal-distribution of resources and power in the Nepalese society? Beyond doubt, a polycentric institutional arrangement in service delivery reduces the cost of development and facilitates the logic of social transformation. The transformation of political culture from parochialism to civic virtues, sectarianism to social trust, prejudice to modern rationalism, dependency to self-reliance and individualism to solidarity is a long-term process. Two key indicators of this value transformation are: the level of education in the country and the quality of mass media. Ironically, the access of the majority of people in these two resources is minimal, as functional literacy constitutes just about 20 percent in the country. As a result, the process of democratization has remained short of making any substantial dent in the lives and hopes of Nepalese citizens. The development projects, which serve mainly the interests of a few powerful, are increasingly revealing the illusion that the same will be extended to the powerless people. Nepal has not been able to bring about a production revolution because its intellectual and political class often show contempt for manual work and those who do such work have been effectively excluded from the public realm and subordinated to social hegemony of the holders of power. The discourse of and over civil society, therefore, bears a great significance for the underclass to link their democratic struggle to the means of raising civic consciousness, integrate them to social transformation and improve the quality of their life.
The Nepalese trade unions have been struggling for social rights, such as expanding employment opportunities for workers, establishing dignity in their work, implementation of the labor act, an increase in the amount of minimum wage and developing welfare schemes for everyone including better working conditions. They are involved in training their members on leadership, organization, management, membership drives and are also providing skills for free collective bargaining, co-determination and elimination of child labor practices in the country. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists has been serving as a critical partner of citizens and playing its role of a guardian and watchdog vital to governance. It has been educating, informing, liberating and empowering them from docility, thus giving them voice to be heard and heeded to in public and policy matters.
If media pluralism and press freedom have begun to expose official malfeasance, authoritarianism, corruption and criminalization of politics on the one hand, they themselves have evolved a partisan political culture on the other. Partisan media cease to become a genuine forum of public debate, and become concerned with the pursuit of profit and cultivation of politicians’ images. Meanwhile, less commercialized and relatively independent media portray public life laced through scathing cynicism of a political system which is abound with cronyism and corruption. Moreover, independent media have also been publicly offering alternative perspectives and monitoring the performance of public leaders, exerting democratic pressure and providing institutional oversight to check the cycles of abuse of state power. A free press and a vibrant civil society can serve as a vehicle of freedom so essential for a life worthy of human beings and implement their own code of ethics upon themselves.
Several human rights organizations in Nepal have continued to involve themselves in research, publication, lobbying and organizing activities against the wanton violation of human rights by the political parties, the state machinery and recently even the Maoists. There are some positive features in the Constitution, for example, death penalty has been abolished and a Human Rights and Foreign Affairs Committee has been constituted in the Parliament. Ironically, most of the human rights provisions are non-actionable and non-justiciable and, therefore, the state elites remain less obligatory in the inclusion of those rights into concrete policy, programs and instruments. The laws of the land have not been fully utilized as an instrument of development planning and social change in Nepal. In concrete terms, therefore, there has been inadequate institutionalization of Constitutional and human rights despite the promulgation of Human Rights Commission Act 1995, and the formation of Human Rights Commission in May 2000.
A popular Nepali aphorism, “Law for the Poor, Immunity for the Rich,” reveals that the law and rules have failed to become the impersonal procedures that all citizens at least find acceptable. Those who suffer human rights violations are often the powerless members of society and their last resort to redress the cycles of victimization are human rights organizations. These organizations have been working for the liberation of the kamaiya and bandha (bonded) laborers living in the “exile of human civilization.” The right to life, labor, freedom and self- determination of these labourers is controlled by their masters through a segmental system of exclusion thus depriving them the human capacity to exercise reason in public life.
Similarly, the ways, the custom, laws, authority and power were designed in Nepal to demean the life of the Dalits. Dalit federations and organizations, once oppressed by authoritarian politics, have entered a process of self-organization and have been struggling to overcome the effects of centuries of social and economic neglect and discrimination. Neither have laws been able to change social attitudes, nor has morality been legislated to make law enforceable. They have been seeking equal treatment, abolition of untouchability, clamouring against the violation of their fundamental human rights and seeking to conceptualize the state in the culturally neutral language of space so that democratic processes mediate between the system and the life-world. The most effective civic organizations, such as human rights organizations, bar associations, students unions, teachers unions, trade unions, etc. are effectively organized. They have established local chapters, broadened the base of their organizations, increased the participation of their members and garnered social capital by drawing citizens together in interpersonal relations concerning solution of their problems.
All Nepal Lawyers Association, Nepal Law Society and Nepal Bar Association have been demanding judicial fairness, good ties between the bar and the bench, the rule of law and legal reforms for the consolidation of democracy. Women’s associations have been calling for the breakup of the patriarchal order of life, establishment of inheritance rights and abolition of the deuki pratha (traditional offering of girls to temples). They have been additionally demanding strict curbs on girl trafficking, gender equality and empowerment, and are seeking representation of broad majorities in political power. The demands of associations of sociologists and political scientists include the institutionalization of social justice, good governance and transformation of the society, economy and polity. Private Foundations and Trusts have also proliferated to facilitate this process. However, members of the civil society have been representing sectoral interests. This implies that these civil societies are not propagating a system of education for a shared sense of national identity and the common authority of law. Only the state spells out its claim to represent the entire society by standing above the dominant interest groups.
Can the civil society claim integrity and accountability in the same way as one anticipates from the elected government? Perhaps it is too early to answer the question, as genuine civil society is yet to evolve in Nepal- a civil society that is for, by and of public concerns. Dependent civil societies are not without self-ironies. For example, their dependence on markets, the Northern donors and the government have weakened their capacity to push for a self-generating notion of people’s self-development, retrenched the ability of their leadership to transcend the negative effects of exogenous norms and prevent organizational fragmentation. This frustrates the efficacy of the civil society in delivering common goods and creating social opportunities. Critics of the civil society adduce several weaknesses: over-concentration of civil societies and NGOs in urban areas, extreme politicization along partisan lines, shortage of dedicated volunteers, poor membership base, overlap of activities and senseless competition for clients and patrons. They argue that if the funding dries up, a majority of non- indigenous civil societies would suffocate with the lack of aid oxygen. Resentments against civil societies or NGOs in Nepal have mounted because they lack the attributes of autonomy and voluntary participation and are accountable to none. They have been blamed for indulging themselves in incitements and campaigns without a thought on their effects. Especially, the left political parties have criticized the role of civil societies and NGOs fearing their ability to create a “petty bourgeoisie as neutralizer of people’s war.”