Friday, May 23, 2008

Heady Times in Nepal

It has been a month since the election results for the constituent assembly in Nepal had trickled in. Despite having a time-table for the convening of the constituent assembly and for the smooth adoption of a republican constitution, there have been several bottlenecks that have been created by the mainstream political parties in Nepal. Most of these bottlenecks have to do with the government formation post the polls.

Before the CA elections, the seven party alliance had an agreement that whatever might be the outcome of the polls, the government post the elections, would still be formed by consensus and coalition, i.e. by retaining the existing alliance. But the unexpected victory of the Nepali Maoists has made the other main parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United-Marxist Leninist) -UML to change tack and come up with new formulations for sharing power. From amending the interim constitution to enable a provision for removing the prime minister through simple majority in case of a no confidence motion (the current constitution provides for a 2/3rds conditionality), to arguing for a retention of the executive posts by the major parties as they stand today, the opposition parties have thrown up newer demands to scuttle the smooth Maoist takeover of executive power. Day in and day out, the other parties have articulated newer demands and taken up hostile positions against the Maoists on government formation by flatly refusing to join the government sometime or demanding implementation of their conditions to do so, the other.

What has motivated these parties to go about this new song and dance attitude? Is it plain bitterness and angst at the unexpected loss to the Maoists, part of which was possible because of the Maoist reliance on their “efficient” mass organisations, such as the Young Communist League (YCL)? Or is it a game orchestrated by international players in Nepal who want to prevent the radicalisation of Nepal's political economy owing to Maoist control over the constitution building process? This writer feels that it is a combination of all these factors.

It is necessary to understand the composition, organisation and support base of each of the political parties to find out the reasons for their recent behaviour. The Nepali Congress is an umbrella organisation of various power centers, owing allegiance to different pressure groups both national and international. It's younger crop of leaders are staunchly republican and liberal democratic having fought the monarchy during the emergency to yield to a return back to parliamentarian democracy. Its older crop includes leaders of different factions, the conservative Koirala clan, which includes the prime minister GP Koirala and his daughter Sujata, and Sushil Koirala, and other important faction being that of Sher Bahadur Deuba (who merged his Nepali Congress faction back to the party prior to the elections). The Koirala clan (the most powerful of the factions) is almost the first family of “democratic Nepal” having produced a series of politicians who have dominated the Nepali Congress party. The Deuba faction on the other hand draws support from American backing, it is alleged, and was one of the biggest backers of the anti-Maoist fight using the Nepali Army with help from international backers (read Americans in particular) in the early 2000s. GP Koirala was responsible for the rapprochement between the major parties in Nepal including the Maoists against the monarchy.

In the recent elections however, both Sujata Koirala (who pushed for a constitutional monarchy) and Sushil Koirala lost, while Deuba was able to win both his contested seats. The Deuba faction and other leaders in the Nepali Congress have orchestrated the demand for the Nepali Congress to come out of government, while the Koirala faction prefers to stay in government, afraid that the Maoists will use power to further entrench their support base in Nepal.

For the UML, though, the matter of continuing in government and in the peace process is of a matter of the survival of the UML identity itself. The Maoists have been tapping into the UML support base as well as their cadre base, by virtue of their more militant, organised and radical communist philosophy and stances. The UML, on on the other hand, has become less of a radical force, having been muddled in reformism. Most of the UML senior leadership and cadre have over time, become part of NGO networks, losing their militant edge as communists. The UML suffered the biggest defeat in the recent CA elections and the general secretary of the party, Madhav Kumar Nepal was trounced badly at the hustings at the hands of unfancied Maoist candidates. The continued poaching of UML cadre into the Maoist party has become a threat to the very identity of the UML as a left force in the country. No wonder, this party has thought it necessary to keep its oppositional character against the Maoists intact and hence a majority of the UML leadership and central committee members found it necessary to stay out of government. The UML had also burnt its hands by refusing a left coalition with the Maoists (when the Maoists approached them before elections) with some conservative elements in the party opposing any form of tie-up. All such conservative voices such as K.P. Oli have bitten the dust in the hustings too. The future indeed looks very bleak for the UML.

The shifting of goalposts by these two major parties has also got to be explained by the role of international actors in the Nepali polity. The US has always had an influence on both the royalty and factions of the Nepali Congress in particular during the phase of war against the Maoists. There is still no recognition of the Maoist victory (who continue to be technically branded as terrorists by the US state department) and history suggests that the inordinate influence of the Americans in Nepali internal affairs is driving the unreasonable positions of the mainstream political actors too, as Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu newspaper alluded to recently. The Indian government which has the highest leverage over the Nepali internal political process, has still privileged the continuance of the eight party alliance and transition to a republic, but many sources within Nepal have told this author that the Madhesi identity movement which undercut Maoist gains was fomented by covert Indian help, afraid as the Indians are of Maoist supremacy in the Nepali political processes. As for China, the Tibetan cause within Nepal and the American role in it, has made it important for the country to start using its soft power within Nepal too, an influence which was lacking erstwhile.

A heady mix of international intervention through overt and covert means and internal political factors among mainstream parties are therefore in play to muddle the mandate in Nepal for a smooth transition to a new republic based on a consensual welfare based and radical constitution written by a popularly elected constituent assembly. Thus far, the premier victors of the electoral process, the Maoists have renewed their commitment to a consensual approach by willing to work not just with the aforementioned parties,but also the Madhesi parties as they steer the constitutional process forward. There seems to be no dissension within Maoist ranks in this regard. The Maoists suggest that the posturing by the UML and the NC are merely for bargaining over important executive posts.

But if any sabotage of the mandate occurs in the short term, through the heady mix elaborated above, it is possible for sections within the Maoists to want to change strategy and adopt an ultra-left posture which could involve a return to the insurrectionist phase. The mandate for the Maoists was also a vote for peace and stability and such a culmination of events would be tragic for the Nepali people. In the interests of the Nepali people and their future as the citizens of an upcoming sovereign republic, it is necessary for the mainstream political parties to come out off narrow political considerations and malignant international influences, to respect the mandate of the people and forge the path for the building of a new Nepali republican constitution that provides representation for hitherto marginalised groups and steer the political economy away from debilitating poverty and toward self sufficiency.

Article written for The Post

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fuel for Thought

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Biofuels have their advantages but as the world is learning to its cost that it comes with a burden of its own.

The ongoing energy consumption glut and the simultaneous pressure on depleting fossil fuels in the world have resulted in the coming to the fore of developing energy resources from new sources. Biofuels, the most well known example, are predominantly used as fuel for automotive transportation.

Following the example of Brazil, which has utilised extracted fuel (ethanol) from sugar cane grown in large-scale farms, many developed nations (and developing ones) arepromoting the growth of crops such as corn, sugar cane, beet, maize and jatropha (for biodiesel extraction) to manufacture biofuel. The reason for the new embrace of biofuels is, of course, the rising cost of crude oil and the need to promote energy independence. It is also being promoted on the somewhat dubious promise of reducing emission of greenhouse gases.

Within a couple of years of the global rush to promote biofuels new questions are being asked about the claimed benefits of these fuels and serious negative impacts are coming to light. One of the claimed advantages of biofuels over fossil fuels is that they do not contribute to global warming because of lower carbon emissions. However, considering that quite a large amount of new land needed to grow crops generating biofuels is being obtained by clearing forests, there is likely to be a net negative greenhouse impact in generating and using biofuels. The other major problem that is now becoming apparent in the large-scale production of biofuels is the fallout of the cultivation of crops for fuel rather than food. With the provision of substantial subsidies in the US for production of ethanol, large areas are now being used to grow corn for fuel rather than for food. This phenomenon of diversion of land to grow biofuel generating crops is one of the important reasons for the current surge in global food prices and shortages across the world.

The situation is so dire that the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon recently called for the review of biofuel use policy and urged caution in transfer of land to grow these crops. Researchers, however, argue that second generation biofuels, which extract energy from biomass such as biodegradable waste and are more “climate friendly”, mitigate the limitations of the first generation biofuels that are generated from crops. But research in manufacture of second generation biofuels is still going on and large-scale production has not yet come to fruition.

In India, there are strong economic disadvantages of an ethanol-based biofuel generation scheme. This is because of the fact that sugar cane (from which ethanol is extracted through fermentation) that is produced in the country is adequate, other than in the occasional year, only to meet domestic demand and growing more cane only means the diversion of more scarce water resources for use in cultivation of this water-intensive crop. Hence replication of the Brazilian model of biofuel generation in the country must be ruled out.

It is in this regard that the focus of the biofuel policy in India has been towards utilising an “oil bearing” plant, jatropha carcus, for oil extraction, processing and eventual blending with diesel. The advantage of this plant lies in the fact that it can be grown on cultivable wasteland and requires very little fertiliser and other inputs as normally required in agriculture. The use of jatropha as the primary plant for fuel generation thus obviates the need to transfer crop land for this use. Yet state regulation must ensure that crop switching from food crops to the “fuel crop” does not take place because of the commercial benefits of growing jatropha.

The focus on jatropha was fleshed out in a Planning Commission committee report in 2003 that laid emphasis on utilising large hectares of wasteland in the country to grow jatropha trees. The entire supply chain of jatropha production, oil extraction and transesterification (conversion to biodiesel for ultimate blending with standard diesel), is expected to be an employment generating exercise. Cooperative farming, decentralised extraction units and large-scale processing plants can be used for the creation of an employment-intensive jatropha to biodiesel supply chain.

Challenges still remain in deciding the price band of seeds that will provide a reasonable return to the farmer and yet ensure that the eventual price of the blended fuel product would be economical and comparable to existing diesel prices. Different states in India have already embarked upon drawing up a framework to develop the biodiesel industry. From contract farming to joint ventures, various ways of encouraging jatropha production and biodiesel use are being encouraged.

The biofuel experience thus far indicates that its use poses many challenges. The use of such fuel through reliance on second generation biofuels, and wasteland grown plants such as jatropha with regulation of land use and selection can certainly help reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Yet even such adjustments may not be able to serve a preponderant consumerist economy that increasingly depends on personal transport, which can only keep guzzling natural resources of all kinds.