In the Forefront of Development: Dr. Mohan Man Sainju

Features Issue 55 Jul, 2010
Text by Ivan Sada

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. - Benjamin Franklin”

Of the seventy-five districts in Nepal, Tansen is the district administration headquarters of Palpa district and is situated halfway between the Indian border to the south, and Pokhara and the Himalaya to the North. Here Mohan Man Sainju was born amidst old artistic Newari houses and cobbled streets that shaped the townscape in the year 1941. At a place once regarded as the second capital of the country, Mohan was raised in a Buddhist school system and he gives credit to that school for his early childhood upbringing in terms of inculcating values, norms and ideas. He entered the Janta Bidhalaya High School in the 4th grade and later received a double promotion to the 6th grade. Mohan considered the double promotion a special achievement and embraced the academic pressure in his youthful stride. After completing his eighth standard, the school again considered him eligible to appear for the board exam and thus, completed his tenth standard from the Uttar Pradesh Education Board in the year 1954/55. During his school days, Mohan remembers two incidents vividly that further developed his eagerness to explore the realm of education. The first was when he was asked to speak at a public forum of adults and trying to communicate to the audience that early childhood and childhood development was critically important because the final citizenry is to be developed during childhood itself. His title of the oration ‘A child is the father of man’ was much acclaimed and for months was quoted and referred to.

The sincere praises were a moral encouragement to the young lad that enabled him to initiate and gather like-minded youths at the age of 13, and form a club called the “Bal Sakha Mandal”. Though a childhood club it was, it geared itself to inculcating values of absenteeism from gambling, drinking alcohol and smoking, and keeping good company to having a good way of life. They even had the understanding with the local police for their support and assistance in circumstances where ill-mannered adults threatened them by blowing the whistle in a peculiar manner. The club also used to conduct adult classes for them that did not have the opportunity of an early education in the evenings. Mohan also had a close encounter with Laxmi Prasad Devkota – the poet, and Khadga Man Singh – the freedom fighter and through these mentioned childhood experiences helped him to aspire for more.

Traveling to the capital city Kathmandu during those days was much more difficult than traveling to India, which is almost a stone's throw away from Palpa. Thus, Mohan journeyed to India to pursue his Intermediate and Bachelors education. After completing his Bachelors from Vanaras i Hindu University, he then realized his lack of knowledge on his motherland. On a lookout for opportunities to come to Nepal and learn more about her, Mohan came to know about the Colombo Plan that the Tribhuvan University had in mind, to bring in first-rate professors from abroad and that they would be conducting post-graduate programs at the university. Deeming the moment right, Mohan came to Kathmandu for his Masters program and pursued it on Economics in 1962, during which time he met his future wife Madhuri, who was also educated in India until her Bachelors and had somehow decided to come to Kathmandu for her Masters. They are blessed with two children who have are adults now. Their son Manish is a jobholder with a BA degree and daughter Meeta is pursuing her doctorate in Social Demography at the Michigan University in the United States. “I finished my Masters in Economics simultaneously with a Bachelor in Law, in a period of three years because one could not have two finals in a year and it had to be done partially” recalls Mohan. As he had topped the list of successful candidates in economics and the fact that there was less competition, he applied for advance studies and was selected for three scholarships at the – London School of Economics, University of Manchester and Fulbright in the United States. During this period the government was reviewing the first 5-year plan and Mohan took an active part in the program, and was noticed by the then secretary of planning – Dr. Bhekh Bahadur Thapa. They came in contact, and Mohan was instigated and encouraged to join the government service to embark on a very important project that Dr. Thapa and the government had in mind. Mohan looked up to Dr. Thapa because he had returned to Nepal without completing his PhD to help his nation on its development. Dr. Thapa convinced me by saying that “I had enough years ahead of me to pursue my PhD and that gathering some concrete experience before my doctorate would indeed be of support and not be of any harm” recollects Mohan.

Mohan shelved his opportunity to go abroad for higher studies and started working for the government. He got into the first pilot project initiated to experiment the land reform program in Nepal in 1963. He was appointed as an officer on special duty, which was the rank of a second-class officer. He started an experimental program in 3 districts of Nepal – Jhapa in the terai, Palpa in the mid-hills and Chitwan in the inner terai. Mohan was expected to experiment the process of land reform implementation and to come up with a proposal to suggest policy makers to what kind of land reform would be suitable in Nepal and on the type of land reform required to address the problem of land and landlessness in Nepal. After a year of experimentation, Mohan was able to submit the proposal to the government, which was accepted eagerly, and for the first time in the history of Nepal, land reform was implemented in 1964. It was an important project because almost every political party talked of it from 1951 but never saw the light of day because the mechanism was never envisioned. Thus in 1964 the Department of Land Reform was established and the program was implemented.

Mohan was given the opportunity to become the first Director of Land Reform and was the youngest at the central level at the age of twenty-three.

The criticism to Mohan, instead of annoyance became matters of inspiration and he took it as a challenge for the younger generation to look up to. With youth as his prerogative, he toiled 18 hours a day to commence the land reform project in 16 districts in the first year, 25 districts the next and the remaining 34 in the third year. Within 3 years the whole of Nepal was covered under the reform program. For the first time in Nepal, 19 (lakh) farmers were visited house-by-house in terms of surveying their socio-economic conditions and their land-holding patterns. Approximately 350 million rupees of debts were relieved because of the land reform at provision. Resources were necessary because in a country like Nepal poverty was rampant, particularly in the rural areas. The program demonstrated to the nation and the outside world that resources can be mobilized at the local level and poverty is not at all to be a constraint for that. Thus, Mohan with his team started a compulsory saving scheme along with the land reform program and with the former, were able to collect resources within Nepal that was equivalent to what the Central Bank of Nepal had in its possession at that period of time. The fact was not a realization to Mohan until a reporter from the New Yorker magazine came to interview him and went to see things for himself, and wrote about it. Though the program was not too much successful in terms of the distribution of land (altogether only 60,000 hectors of land was distributed, not much in terms of the landless population in Nepal), and that the security of the tenants was the main thrust, for Mohan it was a satisfying experience, a job well done.

Mohan was then promoted to become the Chief Director of Land Reform. The designation discontinued as he moved on with his career. Later on, Mohan was appointed as the Acting Joint Sectary in the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Land Reform in 1967. Mohan considers it a ‘kick-up’ rather than a real promotion because in the Nepali social structure, land ownership and aristocracy was prominent and it land reform was not popular among the elites, whether the army, durbar or top officers at Singa Durbar, and that he was becoming effective in the program implementation. Most landed aristocrats were in some form or the other against it and since they could not fire Mohan from the job, they promoted him. After a period, the government took action against number of civil servants and 17 employees were retrenched. They were given the opportunity to retire from service and Mohan was amongst the group, along with Pashupati Shamsher Rana in 1968.

The timing itself was right for Mohan to fulfill his desire to study and thus he applied for the Fulbright Scholarship again. There was no problem because even without prior working experience, Mohan had been selected previously. Now with the accumulated rich experience there was no problem of him being selected and was immediately given an approval. And in 1969, Mohan flew to the United States for his Doctorate program.

Mohan completed his degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1972. His major was in Development and also completed his minor in International Relations. He received an opportunity to work in the United States as a Fulbright Scholar that allowed his visa to be extended and gave him on-the-job training opportunity to work for the Research Triangle Institute as a policy analyst. With his background working in Nepal, the job was not exciting to Dr. Sainju, as he was only to review reports written in the third world countries and make a critique on  them. Though monetarily the job was sound, Dr. Sainju returned to Kathmandu and started working for the Centre for Economic Development and Administration (CEDA), where Pashupati Shamser Rana was the Executive Director and who was after his expertise even at his dissertation stage. Dr. Sainju was appointed as Chief Specialist at CEDA. Later in 1973, Dr. Sainju was appointed as the Rector of Tribhuvan University. “It was an exciting and challenging period for me because Rectors and Vice Chancellors are regarded as scholarly and mature in age but I was not, and that the New Educational Reform Program was coming to the University level. For the first time yearly education evaluation was being converted into a semester system. The whole evaluation system had to be overhauled. It was not an easy task,” explained Dr. Sainju. “Secondly, the challenge was that, we started a very innovative program called the National Development Service – NDS and Dr. Rajendra Rongong was the chief of the program and we worked side by side. This was exciting and challenging because it was related to the whole education system. It was the departure of the annual examination system and that we were in the process of transforming the whole system. On the other hand, the NDS program was the first opportunity for our younger generation, the graduates to get exposed to Nepali rural life, because under this program, each graduate student had to spend one year in a village situation and stay there for a minimum of 10 months doing social work. Two months for orientation and traveling. I remember being ‘Gheraod’ three times by the students, because the program initially was so unpopular.

In 1976, Dr. Sainju was then invited to join and plan the National Planning Commission as a member and was in charge of programs. Those days the planning commissions functions were divided into Program, Evaluation and Monitoring, and Resource Planning. A member, headed by the Vice Chairman, led each division. So while into the programming division, it became an excellent opportunity for Dr. Sainju to educate himself on everything from agriculture, industry, education, health, drinking water, electricity, water-resources etc., because he had to look into the program in a comprehensive manner and it was cross sectorial. Thus he educated himself on the conditions of development in areas of Nepal, problems faced by development projects and potentials of the development issues carried. So until 1982, Dr. Sainju was a member of the planning commission and became the Vice-Chairman in 1983 till 1988. That was the period when he got the opportunity of pursuing the basic needs approach in the planning process. This was a new concept the commission introduced to meet the basic needs of the people: food, clothing, shelter, drinking water, health education and security. It was also a breakthrough in some areas such as the inclusion of women in the planning process.

In 1988, Dr. Sainju was appointed as the Royal Nepal Ambassador to the US and he remembers it as being an exciting period not only because of the opportunity to represent Nepal to the mightiest country, but also because it was the time when the whole world was changing. “The Glasnosts and Perestroika was dismantling the former Soviet Union, the East European countries were all disintegrating, the German unification was taking place and the US was becoming the Unipolar Power in the world. Nepal was also transforming. I had to mobilize the US congress to address human issues due to the trade and transit impasse in 1989, when India blocked all entry points to Nepal and then came the important change in a bigger scale the ‘Jana Andolon’ of Nepal in 1990” recalls Dr. Sainju and he was there until 1991, during the old system, the transitional phase from the old as an output of the movement and the new established system. “Perhaps I was the only spokesperson for all three regimes” he further added.

Dr. Sainju returned to Nepal, in 1991 and decided that it was enough working for the government and  put himself and his time entirely in ‘think-tank’ institutional work because he thought that plurality of ideas was critically important with democracy on the forefront. That meant looking at issues from different angles, undertaking a systematic study of these issues and coming up with conclusions supported by evidences, where thereof with critical values and that the government alone could not do that. Thus, Dr. Sainju was asked to join the Institute for International Development Studies (IIDS) as the Executive Chairman in 1993/1994, an institute that works on policy studies and analysis studies. During his tenure, Dr. Sainju. was able to create an endowment fund for the institute to sustain itself in the long run, because for such an organization, finance is always a critical factor and in the name of finances, a national agenda cannot be achieved following donors and sponsors of the project. He later handed over the leadership to the younger generation.

At present, Dr. Mohan Man Sainju is assigned to the Poverty Alleviation Fund Program (PAFP), since November 2003. The government was looking for someone who could head the organization and provide the dynamism to new ideas of prevention, when poverty was increasingly becoming an important agenda globally, regionally and nationally. The program comes up with innovative tools of implementation, such that it focuses on targeted populations: the dalits, jana-jatis and women who are the focal group of the program. Maximum recourses have directly reached the community and have expanded to 25 districts including the far west, mid-west regions in terms of development and in terms of exclusion problems. Dr. Sainju is engrossed with a 20 years perspective plan the government has adopted, which is targeting 10% level of poverty. That means within 20 years, people living below the poverty line will reach to a 10% level, a goal consistent with the Millennium Development Goals target for 2015. That would mean reaching out to the poorest of the poor who are traditionally and in the past excluded from the development process.

The monographs of Dr. Sainju are Land Reform in Nepal and Economics of Decentralization, where the former deals with a comparative perspective of land reform experience in other countries and the latter with a hypothesis that decentralization is much more economical in terms of development and goods and service delivery.

“Although I’m trained as an economist, I preferred to have my majors in development for my PhD. It was not just economic development. My emphasis was this development definition should incorporate social and political development also, along with eco development. So the process of development has to be political, social and economic. They cannot be in isolation” explained Dr. Mohan Man Sainju. “Real life economics is a much more integrated phenomena rather than isolating it as, political, social and economic. It is an intricate relationship between politics, economics and sociology” he further added to end our discourse.