Implementation of the Liberal Reform Programme | Daily News

Implementation of the Liberal Reform Programme

All the signs are that the 2015 liberal political programme that was spearheaded by a broad coalition of social and political forces cutting across various divisions in society is disintegrating fast and the aspirations of a large majority of people in the country will remain unfulfilled or worse.

The newly elected government could not get its act together and embark upon a clear and coordinated programme of economic, political and social renewal due to both economic challenges arising from accumulated debts and political disunity within. Misdirected populist measures like salary hikes for government servants, sudden removal of chemical fertiliser subsidy without giving the farmers a viable alternative, wasting money on useless projects under the guidance of close political associates rather than genuine experts, continued foreign borrowings for unnecessary projects like express ways, etc. made the economic situation worse.

Another major reason for the emergence of the volatile political situation is the regrouping of interest groups and ideological forces opposed to political and social reforms both within and outside the government.

As for interest groups opposed to reforms, it is necessary to recognise the fact that the elaborate patron-client political system that existed prior to 2015 created a massive political constituency cutting across different strata and segments of society that remained loyal to the regime either due to ideological inclinations or naked self interest or both. With such an elaborate political network, the then leaders did not feel the need to introduce progressive reforms in any sector. To give a few examples: state institutions were not revamped to serve the public or address issues that came under their purview but were politicised to accommodate political supporters and diverse interest groups. This was done even within the university system to a considerable extent. Public resources were used to build up the patron client network rather than to cater to the needs of the people on an equitable basis. Even law enforcement agencies were micromanaged to serve sectarian interests rather than to enforce the law and deliver justice to citizens on the basis of the equality principle.

New approach to governance

Corruption of unprecedented scale was allowed to spread across society at all levels so that some people in the political network could amass wealth. The resulting sense of injustice, immorality and insecurity felt by an increasing proportion of the population belonging to all communities prepared the ground for the emergence of the broad coalition against the previous regime mentioned above. The need of the hour was to adopt a new approach to governance based on widely accepted principles of good governance and modern social values of equality of opportunity, justice and tolerance of diversity.

Yet, the developments over the last three years has demonstrated clearly that the new regime has largely failed to live up to public expectations and frustrated many people who were committed to the liberal democratic project. Even though the persisting issues such as growing income inequality, rural urban disparities, tensions between ethnic groups and rapid increase in private consumption, often at the expense of public consumption necessitated the new regime to go beyond liberalism and embrace social democratic policies, the balance sheet over the last three years shows that adequate measures were not taken to drive the country forward in the above direction. While one of the biggest issues during the last regime was the blatant politicisation of almost all public institutions, under the new regime also, many top appointments to important institutions were made on the basis of political and personal loyalties.

A reliable and credible system to identify, scrutinise and appoint competent persons to head important state institutions should have been put in place at the beginning. As a result, some institutions have already been ruined.

Many examples can be given to illustrate the main point mentioned above, namely, the new government perpetuated many poor governance practices that the people rejected at the last presidential election.

Anti-Muslim attacks

As is well known, minority communities contributed a great deal to the electoral triumph of the present regime in 2015. Yet, the leaders of the government failed to reassure and protect them when ultra nationalists in the south threatened Muslim communities in several parts of the country with violence. Members of the Muslim community felt that the State failed to take firm and quick measures to prevent or contain anti-Muslim attacks and swiftly enforce the law against the perpetrators.

The biggest blow to the credibility of the present government was the much talked about Central Bank bond scam. This needs no discussion here except to say that it provided a convenient cover for the members of the previous government to hide behind and take public attention away from many corruption allegations against several leading opposition personalities.

Reeling under heavy fiscal pressure arising out of accumulated domestic and foreign debts, largely inherited from the previous regime, government has not been able to make significant social investments in critically important sectors such as education, health, public transport and science and technology, all of which are very important not only to provide sustainable relief to low income groups, improve the life chances of restless youth, facilitate the transition from labour intensive to technology intensive development and create a conducive environment for private investment. Yet, the fallout from the bond scam, persisting political instability and uncertainty and the growing disunity among the members of the regime prevented any major inflow of foreign investment. Meanwhile, increasing economic and social pressure encouraged large numbers of skilled and unskilled workers to look for work outside the country, making already serious labour market situation worse.

Educated unemployed

As is well known, the country had a distinct advantage with respect to availability and affordability of labour in the late 1970's making the country attractive to foreign investors but this situation changed rapidly over the last few decades making labour a real issue for local enterprises as well as foreign investors.

Yet, Human Resources development has received scant attention from the relevant Ministries and institutions. This is in spite of the fact that there is a Human Resource Development Council in the country maintained at public expense. The lack of adequate investments in the education sector over the years resulted in a gradual decline in the quality of both general and higher education and the products of public education system became increasingly unemployable in a competitive private sector environment.

The issue remained largely concealed due to both overseas migration of labour and the mass absorption of most of the educated unemployed into the state sector. Yet, the persisting unrest among unemployed graduates has shown clearly that the failure of successive governments to address the problems in the public education system has not only hampered economic and social development but also led to unrest among youth, at times resulting in violent anti-State youth uprisings in the country. What is also noteworthy is that the declining quality of public education has also adversely affected the quality of teachers, politicians, professionals and public servants with serious implications. There is more than enough evidence to support the last assertion.

It is against the above background that the successive governments have failed to bring about the necessary institutional and policy improvements to address the growing problems in the country. For instance, governments in recent years have done almost nothing to revamp the agricultural and industrial sectors when the open economic policies exposed them to international competition. Similarly, when the products of the public education system could not fit into the private sector due to lack of skills, little was done to equip them with the skills in demand. Moreover, expanding private transport, private education, and private health services attracted more and more consumers, but nothing much was done to maintain publicly provided services to reduce economic pressure on households, forcing the latter to earn more money in whatever way possible. This has significantly contributed to the spread of petty and not so petty corruption in the country.

So far in the present article, I have made an effort to provide the background to the social and political issues that have emerged in the country over the last several decades, in particular, over the last few years. The only way to resolve these issues is to strengthen the institutional fabric of the State, adopt evidence based rational policies in diverse sectors and develop and implement diverse interventions. This is exactly what was expected from the regime that came into power in 2015. But, today, we have a full blown economic, social and political crisis in the country, largely due to the inability of the regime to take the measures mentioned above on a priority basis in a coordinated.

The reasons for this situation are many but the resulting public disillusionment and frustrations can only lead to a much worse situation in the country in the near future because people can hardly think of a better political alternative. This is the dilemma that the citizens in this country are faced with today. So, it is absolutely necessary to mobilise the institutional and other resources at our disposal to come up with an urgent plan of action to deal with the situation. While the state institutions need to be activated to carry out their statutory mandates effectively, those institutions that deal with pressing problems of the ordinary people need to be prioritised. The other priorities of the country are well known and there is no need to repeat here? 

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