“Political Economy of Social Change and Development in Nepal” by Jeevan R Sharma

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Nepal has undergone immense social change since 1951 and the end of the Rana dynasty. It has been transformed from a feudal autocratic monarchy to a federal republican democracy. Its politics, society and economy have been irrevocably changed by coups, civil war and political movements. So vast and far reaching are these changes that Jeevan R Sharma dubs them Nepal’s “great transformation”. Political Economy of Social Change and Development in Nepal is an attempt to provide a concise overview of these changes, and the effects they have had on Nepal’s politics, society and economy. At just 208 pages, this is a good one-volume primer for those seeking to understand Nepal’s great transformation as well as it’s idiosyncrasies, faults and discontents.

This “great transformation” has been remarkable in its size and speed. Nepal is no longer an isolated Himalayan kingdom but is now firmly connected  to international markets, with a stock market and international trade and a diverse civil society. Villages have changed from their traditional role as centre of the community  to places to be left behind, as people move to the cities to make a living and secure their future. The figures behind the great transformation are staggering. Sharma quotes figures stating in 1951 just 2% of the population could read and life expectancy on average was a mere 28 years. By 2018 literacy had shot up to 92% of under 24 year olds and life expectancy was now an average of 70 years. Much of this change has been spearhead by international development projects which have been so prevalent that it “is virtually impossible to find any feature of life and livelihoods in rural Nepal that is not touched by ideas and materials of development.” It is no surprise to hear that the number of NGOs has, for better or worse, shot up from 193 in 1990 to 33,000 in 2006.

Yet despite on paper such dramatic change, things haven’t always been smooth. Sharma argues that “these social transformations have not been linear from unfreedom to freedom or subject to citizens, but are characterized by fault lines and new forms of precariousness”. Mass inequality remains. While Kathmandu is a booming metropolis, Nepal’s rural poor struggles to eke out a living. Land, caste and social inequalities, while weaker, still prevail and the globalization of labor which has helped fund the transformation Nepal’s economy has done so primarily on the backs of exploited Nepali migrant labor sending remittance from building sites in the Middle East. It is not surprising therefore that there exists a discomfort felt throughout Nepali society that such change hasn’t gone far enough or reached expectations, or in Sharma’s words, a  “disjuncture between the promises of development, expressed as policies and programmes, and the reality of poor outcomes had been a major issue of concern for social scientists and policymakers.”

 

Political Economy of Social Change and Development in Nepal, Jeevan R Sharma (Bloomsbury, September 2021)
Political Economy of Social Change and Development in Nepal, Jeevan R Sharma (Bloomsbury, September 2021)

The book is arranged around four major themes. Nepal’s shift from a hierarchical society to one based around an understanding of citizenship and human rights; the impact of global mobility of labor, the increasing mobility of rural Nepal allowing movement from countryside to city; and finally the impacts and consequences of internationally funded  development projects. While all four of these have been previously discussed at length by other authors in other books, Sharma argues there has been little attempt to provide a historic understanding of the myriad of ways such changes had affected Nepal society, politics and economy. His aim is to “offer a more integrative, synoptic and interdisciplinary account of these change and paradoxes as a whole, under a single framework of ‘great transformation”. The result is a highly readable overview of how Nepal’s political, economic and social landscapes have changed in the seven decades since the fall of the Ranas. It also provides a comprehensive overview of major contributions to the academic literature and the theoretical concepts surrounding Nepal’s development. Here Sharma provides a critique of certain previous outdated academic discussions of Nepal, whilst providing his own contributions that goes beyond “the sedentary, immobile, fatalist, and romanticised narrative of Nepal that has remained dominant in the orientalist scholarship on the country.”

While the book focuses on academic themes, its audience need not be limited to academics. This accessibility is helped by the writing while there is a remarkable amount of information in every sentence, yet the prose remains easy to read and doesn’t get bogged down in detail. While for academics it provides a useful contribution to the literature and theoretical conceptions of Nepal’s development, for everyone else it is a highly useful summary of Nepal’s transformation into a modern nation state.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.