Sunday, April 13, 2014

Future Percept III

The past is so imposing that we have established history as a formal discipline in our schools and colleges. But future—the all-important path ahead—is not even a part of our curricula. On a personal level, wishful predictions, based often on palmistry or horoscopes, continue to intoxicate many people.

We are constantly in search of a semblance of predictability in our life. And we squabble endlessly over how we have been eluded by bikash, the collective advancement of our society.

Unlike the fancied future, predictions based on reason and data tell a more variegated story of our days ahead. In this last piece in the series (“Future Percept”, February 12 and “Future Percept II”, February 26), I present three scenarios for Nepal in 2050.

The federal republican constitution was written more than 30 years ago. A Himalayan utopia remains a fantasy.

More than half the world’s population of 9.7 billion lives in Asia, and 36 million in Nepal, with a fast ageing demography. Urban population has tripled from 17 percent in 2011. Rampant unemployment and lack of opportunities in the rural areas have forced many people to cities with chaotic slums. Depletion of water, energy and food shortage have become acute.

Unchecked capitalism has led to extreme economic disparities; a handful of corporations and businesses own almost all the wealth. A few more dollar billionaires have made entry into the Forbes list only to earn resentments from indignant population. Remittance economy has all but collapsed. The growth-driven consumerist culture has become unsustainable. Demonstrations against corporate greed and government inefficiency have become routine.

Mother Nature has spoken up. Atmospheric temperatures have risen by as much as 7 percent in the past four decades and carbon emissions pose serious risk to environment and health. The once-expanding community forests are fast disappearing. Over 70 percent of what used to be the Himalayan glaciers in 2011 have vanished. Massive floods and avalanches have turned millions of people into climate refugees. A cabinet meeting near Mt Everest has become an annual ritual.

Conflicts over resources and crisis in global leadership have led to new trade barriers, protectionism, and aggressive nationalism. New media technologies have advanced at an accelerating rate, but elaborate systems of control and surveillance have ghettoized the cyberspace, turning it into a sounding board of jingoism.

Politics has become messier than during the turmoil at the turn of the century. Foreign interventions, corporate control of government, continued stagnation and recession, religious fundamentalism, ethnic friction, and cessation movements in some states have given rise to a dictator, dwarfing any authoritarian control ever witnessed in Nepal’s history.

Middle of the road 
Nepal continues with its characteristic small, incremental movements, punctuated by stagnations. Population growth rate is actually lower than in some other Asian or African countries. The traditionally vibrant private sector and civil society, in spite of continued government inefficiency, have been able to make some headway in exploring and adopting green energy solutions, preserving the environment, and promoting local entrepreneurship. Small hydropower projects dot the countryside, helping alleviate some of the power crisis. The collapse of remittance economy has forced many people to take to local entrepreneurship.

The majority of people live in poorly managed townships with limited amenities. Yet, increased investments by China and India in the manufacturing and service industries lure wage earners to the cities. Unable to attain fast growth and struggling to catch up with the “Asian Century”, Nepal is stuck in the middle income trap.

However, foreign outsourcing and investments have become a game changer. Strikes have been made illegal and Nepali workers have learned that agitation is not worth the loss of stable wages they earn.

Increasingly, farmers have adopted alternative and commercialized agriculture based on sustainable value chains. Cooperative initiatives and increased ownership of local resources have helped make gains in mitigating climate change and conserving the environment.

Business networks extend mostly to China-India, the Growth Triangle BIMSTEC and the scattered diasporas. Tourism has nurtured a cosmopolitan culture. The government initiative to lease mountains for climbing, though criticized initially on grounds of environmental costs, has lured some international companies, and consequently more high-end tourists.

People have begun to realize that federalism and republicanism are merely organizing principles, commemorated annually. Democratic culture and the rule of law are hard to attain. As usual, election cycles, with decreasing ballot counts, have become a ritual, and governments keep changing. In the name of pragmatism and to win over opponents, politicians have abandoned ideologies and taken to deal-making.

The republican constitution offered Nepal a clear roadmap to work for progress. Constitutional amendments have made street protests obsolete. Somehow an attitudinal democratic cultural shift has occurred, reaffirming the notion that Nepalis are essentially friendly and agreeable people.

Nepal’s population of 36 million in 2050 is way below that of Bangladesh (194 million), about the same size as Nepal in area but has over half its land as arable. Due to climatic change favorable to unfarmed mountain areas, Nepal has added large swaths of arable lands in the north. Alternative and commercialized farming have also become suitable in many mountain regions traditionally considered useless.

Improved agriculture, local entrepreneurship, massive growth in service industries like tourism, banking, education and IT as well as increased foreign investments in manufacturing coupled with a flurry of activities in resource extractions (hydropower, alternative energy, minerals, etc) have fuelled rapid economic growth. Although still far behind China or India, Nepal’s GDP per capita (PPP) has increased phenomenally. Reforms in governance, transparency and accountability have produced good results. Because politicians and bureaucrats are paid handsomely for their jobs they rarely tolerate corruption and financial malpractices.

A generation of highly educated, young Nepalis (many graduated from reputable foreign universities) forms the bulk of the workforce. Nobody is illiterate and there is scarcely anyone without skills or jobs. The government has a robust social security program and an unemployment allowance for those left behind or for the jobless few.

Half the population lives in urban areas, and most of the cities are planned and built in the mid-hills in response to reverse migration due to harsh climate conditions in the plains. Developers follow construction codes and intelligent designs. The capital city has been relocated to Jhapa, close to the Growth Triangle BIMSTEC and the five international borders. Dramatic improvement in the highways, railroads and airways have transformed Nepal beyond recognition. No more potholes on streets or runways.

Fortunately, climate change is not as widespread as feared. Conservation initiatives, often led by locals and cooperatives, have greatly helped mitigate threats. In fact, Nepal has emerged as a model in responding to climate change. Nepal’s scientists are making full use of new technologies, for example, genetic engineering to revive extinct species and vertical farming for a steady supply of foods.

Nepali government is also sympathetic to climate change victims elsewhere. For example, Prime Minister John Bahadur Buda recently proposed that Nepal exchange a portion of Darchula (2,322 sq km) with the Maldives archipelago (300 sq m), already sinking due to the rising sea level. Many Nepalis have welcomed the offer saying that finally we are going to have an island of our own, though not for too long!

Except for some tensions, especially between the US-EU alliance and the Asia-Pacific Union, the world is at peace, and globalization continues apace. Relentless global protests by the group “99%” had led to far-reaching reforms of the United Nations, including abolition of veto powers of a select few members. The UN is now tasked with devising a means to effectively address economic disparities. With economic growth and good governance, Nepal’s stature has risen in the international community. The big brother attitudes of our large neighbors have become more subtle.

The genies 
These scenarios do not account for the unseen genies such as natural calamities economic depression, and foreign or alien invasion. Because humans have free will, they can manipulate time and space. It is even harder to predict political anomalies (Maoism, for example, in our past) for the obvious reason that politics today, more than ever, has degenerated into a game of self-interest.

We have heard of the trumpets of the “end of ideology”. They point to a massive erosion of moral commitment to a system of political belief that is all-inclusive and capable of transforming the whole way of life, whether it is socialism, communism or capitalism. The growth-based progress cannot sustain indefinitely and will certainly stumble somewhere along the way.

Published in Republica, 12 April, 2014