Feb 26, 2012

Fatalism and free markets


Surath Giri

A lot of things happened since Dor Bahadur Bista published his magnum opus Fatalism and Development in 1991 explaining how fatalism prevalent in the Nepal, especially among the elite of the country has suffocated development and modernisation of the country. Two decades have passed, a civil war has been fought, monarchy abolished and political paradigm has shifted to accommodate the views of ethnic groups who were earlier unheard. Yet the ghost of fatalism has not left us alone. Modernization and development remain as elusive to Nepal as ever. A casual observation indicates political development post 2006 to be a perfect antidote to fatalism as more and more groups come forward with demands for equal recognition. How-ever, a deeper analysis could point us towards the fact that what we are seeing is just the transformation not the elimination of fatalistic attitudes and beliefs. 

Caste politics has entered the mainstream in disguise and even the castes identified by Bista as enterprising and hard-working are now embroiled in caste politics which discourages hard work and reasserts fatalism. A person’s rewards are not based on what he or she can offer as an individual but to what ethnicity or political party one’s affiliated with. 

The greatest irony is that the hard-working and enterprising segment of the population from all ethnic-ities, still remain marginalised and unappreciated. Their hard work and energy that was constrained in the past by the narrow boundaries of caste system still remains constrained today by their lack of political power. 

This new fatalism is discouraging the productive segment of the population from what they are doing and enticing them to follow the fatalist segment of the population. The chakari system has evolved to accommodate bureaucracy among the rulers. Common citizens trying get things done in any government office are quite aware of this new chakari system which involves pleasing peons to haakims through monetary gifts popularly known as ‘chiya kharcha’. One has to either please them or forgo one’s work.

Added to the new breed of fatalism is the chanda system. Every productive citizen nowadays, sooner or later, find himself or herself doing chakari and paying homage to hoodlums and thugs. The chanda system has become so prevalent that it has now become a part of our fate. The deities of chanda unless pleased by a portion of our income, can wreak havoc on our karma and even threaten our existence.

Individualism, individual ambitions, rewards based on merit and achievements rather than caste or political connections are some of the traits Nepal is in need of for achieving development and modernisation. And these are not the very things that is achievable by government actions but by free interactions of free and equal individuals in the society. Free markets, the system that rewards people based on voluntary transactions and the value they create in society rather than by political decrees might be the answer to fatalism that’s ever so prevalent in Nepali society. Although the expression ‘money does not have colour’ is usually used to connote market with acts of selfishness, profit-mongering and other evils, the very fact that money does not have colour or race or political ideology makes free market system favourable to the enterprising and productive people of all races, gender and walks of life. Value creation, mutual benefit and peaceful exchange are the only things that are upheld. It is evident from the fact that, today even a poor person from a marginalised community and deprived of political powers and connections gets treated as equally as a rich Brahmin by a telecommunications company or a noodle company or any other seller and buyers for that matter. Expanding this trend to every other sector of our lives is what Nepal really needs.

Post 1990 that saw a limited move towards a free market system that shed light on the ability of free markets to promote entrepreneurship, innovation and hard work. Businesses started by people from even marginalised ethnic backgrounds have flourished. Enterprising people from various ethnic backgrounds including the marginalised communities have been able to break free of the shackles of ignorance and poverty through widespread educational opportunities. Their merit and hard work is awarded by foreign employment opportunities although the elite group is bent on making it hard for them to do so citing reasons of national pride and national images. The increased and quality educational opportunities have more to do with the mushrooming private sector (including community schools) than the public education system that ensures equally bad education to everyone. The younger generation that has acquired modern education is getting less prone to the effects of fatalism.

The way Nepali society is abandoning social evils such as caste discrimination and narrow-mindedness has less to do with government actions than evolution of the society through increased economic and social activities. Increased exposure to foreign culture and systems has been instrumental in transforming Nepali society albeit slowly.

Despite all these changes, fatalism, which is now being promoted full-fledgedly by the current political discourse and political parties, has not lost its stronghold. Fatalism based on caste system is giving way for fatalism based on politics and ethnicity, which is a sad turn of events for the aspiring millions of Nepalis. Adopting and nurturing a free market system would be a better antidote for fatalism.

(Published in The Himalayan Times of February 26, 2012)