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Minendra Rijal: Failure to take action only perpetuates the problem of brain drain

Minendra Rijal: Failure to take action only perpetuates the problem of brain drain

Minendra Rijal is a member of the Central Working Committee of Nepali Congress. He has so far held three ministerial portfolios, the last being the Ministry of Defense in 2021. A doctorate in Operations Research from the New York University, he is also a seasoned academician. He is the chairperson of Apex College since 2000 and has taught at New York University, Kathmandu University, Tribhuvan University and Lancaster University. Rijal has 43 years of experience in research, teaching and consulting and has worked with government, universities, non-profit organizations, private sector organizations and international institutions. Ken Subedi converses with Rijal on the current issues of brain drain, economic prospects, politics, books and popular culture.

How do you analyze the current brain drain, especially our young people going abroad to pursue higher studies?  

A considerable number of Nepali people are migrating abroad, not solely for education but for employment opportunities as well. When we examine these issues together, we fail to grasp the underlying reasons driving this trend. The primary factor behind the significant migration abroad is our failure to generate an adequate number of jobs within the country. Despite the economy’s sustained growth over the past 33 years, with a real growth rate of about 4.5 percent, translating to a real per capita income growth of 2.6 percent, we have not seen a proportional increase in job opportunities. Despite discussions spanning nearly three decades on fostering an economy capable of creating at least 500,000 new jobs annually, we consistently fall short of this goal.

This dearth of job opportunities acts as a push factor, compelling individuals to seek employment elsewhere. For young men and women, the inability to secure a job leaves them with scant means of sustenance. Career progression and financial independence are paramount. Even if monetary support is extended to unemployed individuals, it cannot replace the dignity and self-respect derived from meaningful employment.

The second pull factor is the perception that better job prospects await overseas, aided by technological advancements. Many believe that lucrative opportunities abound abroad. Unfortunately, this optimism often leads individuals to accept precarious employment conditions, jeopardizing their well-being without fully comprehending the consequences. For instance, some Nepali youth travel to Russia to fight against Ukraine, while others go to Ukraine to fight against Russia, unknowingly endangering their lives in conflict zones.

I have personally encountered individuals in Europe who have paid substantial sums to brokers in Nepal, only to be transported to various European countries before reaching their final destination for employment. Many endure grueling journeys lasting several weeks to secure a job, often walking for days or weeks on treacherous trails without proper sustenance. Similar situations arise with individuals attempting to enter the US illegally through the Mexican border after paying hefty sums to brokers.

You mean the people taking the route of Panama, Guatemala, etc. to enter the US?

Yes. They do not initially travel directly to Mexico. Instead, they typically have to journey to various locations in South America and Latin America, as you mentioned. From there, they transit through multiple countries before eventually reaching Mexico and crossing its border to reach America. The amount of money they pay for this journey is staggering, beyond what most of us can comprehend. I've heard that there are organized groups facilitating this migration, selling false hopes to Nepali individuals. These brokers profit immensely from the situation, yet our system fails to hold them accountable for their inhumane actions.

Can you share some more insights about the factors pushing people to leave the country? Let’s consider the young population.

There are two types of people leaving the country. Some students aim to study abroad, seeking student visas. However, they often face prolonged periods in their academic programs and struggle to secure proper employment eligibility papers after graduation, resulting in accepting odd jobs and surviving on minimal income. On the other hand, there are students who have scholarships or can afford to support themselves and graduate from colleges and universities abroad. But many others typically do not make it to prestigious institutions and may receive an education inferior to that available in Nepal. Despite this, they opt to study abroad due to the perceived easier job prospects upon graduation.

Another contributing factor to this trend is widespread frustration, stemming from dissatisfaction with current circumstances. Many individuals have already emigrated, been working abroad and sending remittances back home. The regular receipt of remittances significantly impacts living standards, affording some families the ability to provide higher-quality food, access healthcare, enroll their children in private schools, dine out, and purchase scooters. Observing these improvements in the lives of others abroad creates pressure within families and on young individuals to seek opportunities elsewhere, believing that leaving the country will lead to better prospects for the entire family.

Addressing these challenges is complex, and there are no easy solutions. However, I believe that progress begins with small steps in the right direction. By taking proactive measures, we can work towards resolving these issues. Failure to take action only perpetuates the problem, exacerbating its complexities.

Can you shed some light on the current economic growth prospects and gaps? What are the sources of our economic sustainability?

I have already highlighted that our economy grew by 4.6 percent, with per capita income increasing by 2.6 percent in real terms over the past 33 years. Our revenue has soared by 100-fold in nominal terms and more than 10-fold in real terms during this period. Notably, there have been significant achievements in physical and social infrastructure, allowing us to provide more social services than we previously deemed possible. Our life expectancy has also risen by 17 years in the last three decades, a remarkable accomplishment deserving of pride.

Life expectancy is a particularly meaningful statistic to me, as it reflects our progress across economic, social, and political realms. While some of these achievements are attributable to government initiatives, many have occurred despite governmental limitations.

For every 100 rupees worth of goods and services produced domestically, an additional 25 rupees come in the form of remittances. This influx of remittances has spurred significant demand for domestic consumption. However, regrettably, we have struggled to meet this demand domestically. Consequently, we rely not only on imports of industrial intermediate goods and petroleum products but also on substantial imports of cereals, vegetables, fruits, fish, and meat.

Our government revenue is heavily reliant on indirect taxes like VAT and customs duties. Customs revenue from imports has become vital to meeting our rapidly growing recurrent expenditure bill. This reliance has trapped us in a vicious cycle where more young Nepalis seek employment abroad, their families receive remittances to finance consumption, this consumption drives increased imports, the government collects substantial customs revenue on these imports to cover its expenditures, and no party has an incentive to break this cycle.

Breaking this vicious circle requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders involved.

Do you see any chance of this situation improving in the future?

People often discuss challenges stemming from our geopolitical situation, but I believe it presents a unique opportunity for development if we approach it wisely and effectively. Our longstanding and close relationship with India is noteworthy; our borders are open, our cultures are similar, and our economies are closely intertwined, with India being our largest source of imports and foreign aid provider. Additionally, our ties with China have historically been strong and mutually beneficial, contributing significantly to our economic growth. As China emerges as the second-largest economy globally and India progresses towards becoming the third-largest, they represent vast market opportunities and potential sources of foreign investment for us.

To capitalize on these opportunities, we must consolidate our efforts and learn from the experiences of India and China. Our geographical proximity to India is particularly significant, and their commitment to importing 10,000 megawatts of electricity from us over the next decade is a promising development in our bilateral relations. Moreover, both our neighbors can significantly boost our tourism sector, and with proper development of our agriculture, they could serve as lucrative markets for our produce. It is imperative that we leverage these relationships and opportunities to propel our development forward.

What prospects do you see from tourism?

When assessing the tourism sector, Nepal’s enduring natural beauty ensures significant potential for improvement. Recent trends show a positive trajectory, with October recording the highest influx of tourists in Nepal’s history, followed by similarly promising figures in November. This trend is encouraging and should serve as a catalyst for further enhancement.

Several factors have contributed to this positive trend. The expansion of quality hotels and infrastructure, advancements in trekking facilities and adventure tourism, and the continued appeal of religious pilgrimages have all played a role in attracting visitors.

Further improvements in infrastructure will undoubtedly elevate our tourism sector to new heights. However, achieving this requires effective governance. Only with good governance can we implement the necessary infrastructure improvements to fully realize the potential of tourism. It is important to recognize that good governance is not only crucial for tourism but also for overall development. I should also mention that, despite periods of instability and frequent changes in government, progress has been made, underscoring our resilience and ability to overcome challenges.

How have the political upheavals in the country affected the vicious circle of the brain drain, remittance-based economy? Do you think the current electoral system and parliamentary system are pushing factors for unstable space for investment and economic activities?

We have successfully transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy and from violent conflict to peace. It has been eight years since the promulgation of our new constitution, which institutionalized a federal democratic republican system of governance with inclusivity in public life. We have held two general elections encompassing federal, provincial, and local levels. However, despite these advancements, we still lack a clear path toward achieving a stable government.

In the past two general elections since 2017, political parties have shifted alliances, yet they continue to contest elections as part of one coalition or another. Consequently, elections are no longer fought on ideological platforms or developmental agendas but rather as strategic partnerships for political convenience. This transactional nature of politics has fostered complacency towards public concerns and increased corruption.

The prevailing uncertainty undermines governance, fuels corruption, and contributes to the exodus of young people seeking better opportunities abroad. To break this cycle, political reform is imperative, with electoral system improvements being a crucial starting point. Parties should be incentivized to cultivate their own support bases rather than relying solely on alliances.

Failure to address these issues will only exacerbate our challenges and hinder progress.

Can you share with us your passion for teaching?

I am not new to academia; however, I am not fully immersed back into academia as I am still active in politics. Nevertheless, I do have some extra time, and I choose to utilize it by teaching—a passion of mine that brings me immense joy. Even when I am tired and exhausted, stepping into the classroom rejuvenates me. Unlike many other politicians, teaching is not just a sporadic activity for me; it is a consistent part of my life. I have had the privilege of teaching at various esteemed institutions such as Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu University, New York University, and Lanchester University, among others. Additionally, with a group of dynamic individuals, we founded Apex College in 2000  and taught there until I fully immersed myself in politics following King Gyanendra’s takeover. Despite my busy schedule, my passion for teaching has always remained strong. Even after retiring from politics, I envision myself continuing to teach.

Teaching allows me to make a meaningful impact, and I firmly believe that I can impart valuable knowledge and insights to my students based on my experiences and exposures. I am motivated by the prospect of contributing to the development of Nepal’s future leaders. Therefore, I see no reason to withhold my expertise and guidance from the young minds who hold the key to Nepal's future.

You are one of the most well-read politicians in Nepal. What is your favorite genre to read and do you have any plans to write a book? A memoir perhaps?

I am not yet certain about my writing aspirations. While I have a desire to write, I am unsure about the direction it will take. It may take me another year to determine what exactly I want to focus on. I have ruled out writing my personal memoir because I don’t believe my life experiences are particularly fascinating or of interest to others. However, I am keen on writing about topics related to the political landscape, economy, and business enterprise of Nepal.

I envision writing more than one book, with one of them potentially exploring these themes through novels. Fiction provides me with the freedom to delve into topics that may not be suitable for non-fiction writing. I would particularly like to mention Joe Klein’s novel “Primary Colors,” which was first published anonymously. I liked the freedom he enjoyed writing about Bill Clinton’s campaign in it without being constrained by real-life events.

Over the past two years, I have been an avid reader, perhaps as much as anybody else in Nepal. I read a wide range of literature, particularly focusing on politics, philosophy, political economy, artificial intelligence, and even revisiting classics like the Mahabharata. While I have read the Mahabharata before, I am currently engaged in re-reading it, particularly exploring Bibek Debroy’s authoritative 10-volume version. This allows me to deepen my understanding and reflect on its timeless themes and lessons.

Besides books, how often do you indulge in other new forms of popular media? And where do you see yourself in the next few years?

It’s not just books I engage with; I also immerse myself in various other forms of media. I watch YouTube videos, listen to lectures, and delve into thought-provoking podcasts. Additionally, I value high-quality documentaries, such as those by Deutsche Welle and PBS, and I enjoy listening to NPR and The Economist podcasts. These platforms offer profound insights into societal issues and their implications.

Over the past two years, I’ve had ample opportunities to reflect on my past, present, and future aspirations. While my passion for teaching and involvement in politics and policy-making remain steadfast, I find myself uncertain about the direction my path will take. Denied the chance to serve in parliament, I feel compelled to explore alternatives. I recognize that politics alone cannot occupy me full-time. Given the significant influence of political parties in Nepal's political landscape, establishing a strong presence within a party could potentially pave the way back to parliament.

As for my future, it is unclear where I will ultimately end up. One thing I can say with honesty, clarity, and fervor is that I will continue teaching even after my political career concludes. However, the timing of my departure from politics remains uncertain.