In the wake of a devastating earthquake, which has hit the country’s infrastructure and economy hard, Nepal’s finance minister Ram Sharan Mahat has probably among the toughest jobs in the region at the moment. He is leading efforts to organise an international donors conference in Kathmandu on June 25th, and is currently in New Delhi to mobilise support. Mahat spoke to HT about the government’s initial response, its current priorities, the recent constitution deal in Nepal and his expectations from India, especially PM Narendra Modi. Excerpts:
Q. A little over six weeks after the quake, how do you look back at rescue and relief efforts in Nepal and what is the current situation?
A. The relief and rescue operations, by and large, went well. It was a successful operation, despite the country’s limited capacity to handle the mammoth task of search, rescue and relief which affected 8 million people in one of the most difficult terrains of the world. No one has died of lack of medical support; no one has died of hunger. People have got relief materials. They may have been insufficient and inadequate in many places, but on the whole, it was successfully handled. There was a risk of epidemics and cholera afterwards, but nothing happened. About 3000 people were airlifted from different corners. Now the real challenge is reconstruction and rebuilding the nation.
Q. There was a perception that the political leadership went missing and government had not planned enough. How would you respond to the criticism that the response was not effective?
A. If the government had not been performing, how would this have been handled? There was a meeting almost every hour every day, issuing orders, dispatching people, asking for international assistance, handling hundreds of missions coming from various parts of the world every day. Government was very much there. The army was deployed, the police was deployed, hundreds of thousands civil servants were deployed. Foreign support was being administered. If the government was not visible, this would not have been possible.
Q. We saw international assistance come in, but was there tension between the government and donors?
A. Small stories are often exaggerated. There was no tension as such. So many things, from so many corners, were coming. It was not uniform. Initially, the government wanted to adopt a one door policy, coordinate the support but that was not possible. Many agencies wanted to do it their own way and so there was confusion, but there wasn’t tension.
Q. How would you assess Indian assistance? There were reports of resentment about the help, how Indian choppers had taken over the airport or the Indian media coverage.
A. PM Modi took a personal interest in the matter. He rushed support in so many ways in Nepal. There is a lot of appreciation for this gesture and people are grateful for this support. When there was a heavy pressure, maybe someone said something. Many stories are exaggerated. These are trivial matters and not important.
Q. What does Nepal want from the international community, especially India?
A. Nepal needs international support for reconstruction and rebuilding. It is a multi-billion dollar operation – we have to rebuild over half a million homes, thousands of government buildings, tens of thousands of schools, revive our economy, tourism, real estate. Practically, every sector needs support. India, being our next door neighbour, has been with us through thick and thin. Naturally, we expect support from India in this hour of need, other neighbours and international agencies. Partnership has been an important aspect in our development journey. We need greater degree of partnership. We are hopeful this will be forthcoming given the support international community has shown to us.
Q. What is the objective of your visit here?
A. The objective of my visit is to first invite Prime Minister Modi to Nepal for the donor meeting. I have got a personal invitation letter from Nepal’s PM to visit the country, address the international audience, and inspire the Nepalese people. We are still in a state of shock and depression. The challenge is to revive the economy, and create more confidence, and we think Mr Modi can do a lot. I am also here at the invitation of the Finance Minister which I had got some time back to discuss bilateral economic issues.
Q. What is the expected outcome from the donors meet?
A. We will be discussing the Post Disaster Needs Assessment Nepal has prepared in cooperation and collaboration with our development partners. We will discuss that, and on the basis of that, we will be seeking international assistance. We expected support and international commitment.
Q. Many feel Nepal government’s delivery mechanisms are weak, there is corruption. How will you assure the international community that the money they give will be well spent?
A. We have been collaborating with international community for a long time, with success. We may have some failures and weaknesses. The task of reconstruction has to be done promptly. Traditional methods may not be sufficient. That is why we may need an extraordinary mechanism, a fast track mechanism. We are thinking of creating a special, empowered authority which can do away with some traditional procedures which delay implementation. This is necessary to expedite reconstruction work.
Q. Nepal has just had a constitution but there are already murmurs of dissent. Do you think the deal will lead to stability or greater turbulence?
A. I think Nepal is on the path of stability. You cannot have 100 percent support on issues like this. On constitutional issues, we have our differences but we have tried to expand the areas of agreement. More than 85 % are on board – you cannot satisfy 100 %. We tried but if it is not possible, we have to agree to disagree. This is an important political milestone and we are on the way of smooth passage of the constitution.
Q. But one of the fundamental tasks of the CA was to demarcate boundaries. This question has been postponed. Hasn’t the political class abdicated its responsibility?
A. Demarcation of the boundaries – you don’t do in the constitution itself. That is something to be done by a technical commission specially created for this purpose. If independent nations come under a federal umbrella through a process of aggregation, then demarcation would be clear. But when you are dividing a country along federal provinces, it cannot be done overnight. Boundaries are not decided in a constitution. That will require homework, preparation and study, and that is the job entrusted to the federal commission.
Q. Will the government change after the constitution?
A. The idea is that after the constitution is promulgated, Nepal will have a national government. And all other major positions will be reviewed.
Q. But will this not distract from task of reconstruction? Nepal’s political history suggests intense competition for positions overshadows governance.
A. It should not. We have wasted enough time in political debate. Instability should be a matter of a past. We should head for stable polity and focus has to be reconstruction and economy.