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Home Life Style Society The Jagir Culture in Nepali Organization

The Jagir Culture in Nepali Organization

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"The following article was written 22 years ago. The author believes that the underlying patterns he asserts are still alive today, with the additional patterns of corrupt practices of the multi-party political system. The current leadership believe they are not accountable to anyone, that they are above the law of the land,
and in essence believe they are the new feudal masters.
So, it is not enough just to rebuild houses, schools, and roads. We have to transform the underlying patterns of feudal management and leadership behavior and ways of thinking. Of course it is easier said than done. Will the big donors and agencies admit that they dont know how to help with such a transformation, nor that they have the guts to do so. Neither will wishful thinking, complaining, or pretending these patterns dont really exist help.


Over the last 30 years, Nepal received billions of dollars in aid and loans, employed thousands of foreign experts, and the best and most educated minds in the country. Yet, in the assessment of many Nepalese and Westerners, Nepali state organizations and institutions are very ineffective, unproductive, impervious to improvements, autocratic, rigid and unresponsive to customer needs and satisfaction.

Slowly, a consensus is emerging that the way Nepal is managing her organizations must improve dramatically. There seems to be very little understanding, however, of what it actually takes to develop and manage high performing organization in Nepal. Nor has there been a real commitment of resources and energy to this process. At best what I see is a focus on treating the parts rather than the whole, with ineffective programs and interventions.

While recent measures to reduce the size of the bureaucracy are a step in the right direction, this alone will not suffice. Reduction without reorganization and re-education may actually harm the organizational culture, morale and effectiveness. Economic liberalization wick not succeed if there isn't a fundamental change in the way the bureaucrats and government employees think, behave and manage Nepali organizations.


A term often heard is "institutional strengthening." What is really being strengthened? –Is it the existing organizational culture, values and processes that has led to current state of breakdowns? Or what? In my view, this is an inaccurate and misleading metaphor. No, what is required, I believe, is organizational "transformation".

In order to develop Nepali organizations to meet present and future challenges; in order to build organizations that are far more productive, innovative, responsive to customers, clients and the people; and geared to serve the needs of our people, deliver quality products and services, and that respect and develop its employees…. the top leadership of this country must commit to a long term process of " transformation" that addresses the following:

1. The culture, values, mindset that shape the thinking and actions of these working in organization.

2.  The internal operating systems, structures, work processes, technology, strategy and rewards.

3.  The way individuals and teams learn, develop, skills and capabilities.

4.  The quality of leadership required for the challenges and opportunities of the coming years.

Given the historical roots and the existing organizational culture, my contentions is that Nepali state organizations will crush and grind down even the most educated professional to become ineffective, unaccountable, corrupt, and unproductive. The result is the malaise we see in almost every organization.

To quote Margaret Mead " Inevitably, the culture within which one lives shapes and limits our imaginations, and by permitting us to do, think and feel in certain ways, makes it increasingly unlikely or impossible that we should do or think or fell in ways that are contradictory or tangential to it."

People adapt to the predominant culture. Instead of trying to change people and fix them, it would be more effective to focus on the culture in which they work. How and where do we begin in addressing the fundamental question of transforming organizational culture?


To begin to understand and penetrate the nature of the culture, values, mind sets and ethos of our organizations and the causes of its unworkabilty, one must examine both its historical roots and the way people think and work in the bureaucracy and other state organizations today.

The term organizational culture denotes beliefs, traditions, practices and behavior that are the unspoken background, the context within which people perceive the world (such as their clients, employees, leaders, quality, service etc.); think, act and work together. In other words, it is the paradigm which shapes the pattern of basic assumptions and values that are evident in the norms of behavior and expectations about what is legitimate, desirable ways of thinking and behaving.

The current predominant culture in the bureaucracy was inherited from the 16th & 17 century Moghul regims. Other secondary forces are the conservative Hindu, Vedic, Sanskrit culture, and more recently, the West, through its education and development agencies and process. The metaphor I propose for the Rana autocratic regime, and further solidified and perpetuated by the Panchayat system.

My observation is that the key features of this historical JAGIR organizational culture are still accepted and practiced today in the largest organizational network in Nepal - our bureaucracy, state enterprises and political organizations.

In the historical system, the ruler appointed loyal subordinates as jagirdars feudal lords over a jagir (fiefdom). The two primary responsibilities of the jagirdar were to contribute to the army during times of war (loyalty or mero manche, my vassal), and to make an annual contribution to the central treasury. Beyond these two duties, he was the absolute rule over his jagir (fiefdom), the judge, the taxman, and the administrator.

An examination of the present day Jagir Culture in Nepal will reveal that after 1950, the various ministries, departments and state corporations became the new jagirs. Once foreign aid and grants grew, aid projects were treated as one of the most lucrative jagirs.

In the JAGIR culture, productivity, efficiency, quality of product/service, innovation, creativity, merit and hard work were not rewarded, but were suppressed. These principles, concepts and practices of management could be said to be alien to predominant JAGIR CULTURE, and hence are resisted by our bureaucrats and politicians. In essence, it is a feudal culture.

The following key metaphors (most of which are Urdu words from the 17th century Moghul system) that are in common everyday use reveal the nature of the culture in our organizations.

Jagir, Jatirdar, sarkar (the king's administration), hakim (boss, chief) huzoor, chakari, adesh (order, command), hokum, binti patra, shifaris (approval and endorsement), afno manche, mathi, thulo manche, bholi, tippani, kalam ghumaunu.

Donors and aid agencies have failed to address the need to change the Jagir Culture - which is the biggest obstacle to more effective aid utilization. At the same time, the work of actually transforming these organizations is the responsibility of us, Nepalese.


The following axion sums up the Jagir Culture:

"A government employee (jagirdar) is not a public servant, the public serves him."

Through the following management matrix, I will show how the Jagir Culture has shaped the thinking, behavior, traditions and practices of Nepali bureaucrats. Many of these traditions and practices (or its modified version) can be traced back to the Shah and Rana days.


The civil service exams that determine eligibility does not distinguish between an education in say TU or Harvard University. The entrance examinations suited for graduates with degrees in Sanskrit or Nepali language. Under current practices, HMG cannot employ people from outside the civil service _ even where their experience could benefit the country.

Many Nepalese will agree that personal connections are the key to being recruited into the HMG ranks. Then, there is further selection into key ministries, for which a "premium" is required.

Ministries, such as finance (customs, excise, sales and income tax dept), Commerce (import section), Forests commanded a higher premium. Even the police had its own set of premiums for such assignments. More often than not, ministers and top bureaucrats got around the legel ceiling on hiring by creating thousands of temporary positions, some of which were only recently eliminated. Some of these temporary positions have been in existence for 10 years or longer. In Nepal, a minister or a top bureaucrat would lose face if he were unable to extend such favors or exercise such discretionary hiring.

In many cases, politicians, politicians used this loophole to hire their political supporters or family members (which could number hundreds). Many expatriate project manager have to deal with phone calls and not too subtle demands from bureaucrats to hire mero manche in the projects in the projects regardless of competence or experience.


Any time, a new minister was appointed, or a new secretary or even a new department chief (DG), one could expect transfers. Such transfers were made without any transparent criteria or an open review within the ministry/department. It was the sole prerogative of the man in charge, and an exercise in show of absolute power.

Of course, if you had the right connections, you could influence such transfers in your own case. It is quite the norm to find employees who have been transferred every six months. In many cases, they will take a leave of absence or long sick leave, leaving the position unattended for such periods. This is very acute in the case of hospitals which are often understaffed because medical doctors assigned to hospitals in remote areas often do no go there.

The key criterion for promotion is seniority - based on the points accumulated for various assignments, years of service, education, etc. But there is no incentive points for a job well done, for above average productivity, for innovation, etc. In the case of promotion, too, a premium was set or the right connections made all the difference.


Needless to emphasize, decision making in Nepal's bureaucracy can be characterized as being controlled and dominated by the ruling class/power, and in the 90's by the ruling politicians. Even minor details are reviewed by the minister or in some cases by the cabinet of ministers. Given this culture of decision making, what can be observed is : a new hakim will make decisions often without a free and open consultations with his staff, nor coordinate with other department and ministries. His decisions are handed down as "adesh". The hakim can and will change decisions made by his predecessor, especially if he can extract the right fee or exchange favors. Such changes have no formal review and consultation process.

There are countless cases of inter departmental and inter ministerial conflicts arising out of the Jagir decision making style. The right hand not only does not know what the left hand is doing, often, it does not care.


Responsibility and accountability are two concepts that do not seem to exit in the dictionary of our bureaucrats and politicians. They will often bemoan the lack of authority, and at the same time reluctant to talk about matching accountability with authority.

In my opinion, the centralization of power, decision-making authority and control is an integral part of the Jagir Culture. As we say in Nepal, all documents land up in Kathmandu, even for the simplest of decisions. One must, then, ask why we need so many field/district/regional offices and staff to process all the paper work when the decisions are all made in Kathmandu.

Job responsibility and accountability are often vaguely defined, if at all. So call job descriptions are a list of things to do -not in terms of results, final output or productivity. Where numbers/targets are assigned, they are just that. No evaluation of the quality of those numbers is made. In fact, one cannot find any meaningful criteria to evaluation the performance of a personal make such evaluation even more infrequent or practically useless.


In Nepal, an assignment in planning and monitoring is not a highly prized one. It is not a lucrative jagir, and has very little authority and hence power. There is a reason for this. Plans and evaluation are for the most part an academic exercise, a charade often done for the sake of the donor or when demanded by them. Most reports lie in some dirty corner gathering dust. The monitoring job for the most part is only a formality, and often not done or done poorly.

The concept of asking for regular feedback from customers, suppliers or for HMG, from the concerned public and other experts is virtually non existent. What is missing is a system of periodic regular and transparent review and consultations with outsiders. I would argue that it goes against the grain of the jagir culture which aims to centralize, control and maintain its autocratic hold.


If you possess a degree, really any degree, it means that you don't have to pick up the trash that you throw on your office floor, that the peon carries your bag from your car to the office, that you are not required to dirty your hands, go down to the field. It also means that you can stop learning.

In the bureaucracy, it does not matter where you obtained your degree from: whether it be some unknown college in India or Cambridge and Harvard University. They are all the same -in terms of points given, transfers and promotion. And the last thing expected is that you present new, creative and innovative ideas to address your job. Within ministries, scholarships and education both short and long term abroad were seen as special favors to be granted. There are countless stories of the most deserving, qualified persons being denied such scholarships, or missed through intentional bureaucratic delays, or last minute reversals in recommendation. And of course, you are not required to submit any report of your study tour or its implications.

Scholarships to the West are prized more than those to India or other contrives in Asia (except Japan) not necessarily because the education is better. To many Nepalese, the possibility of saving the scholarship stipends are of greater important than the potential benefits to be derived from a western education. After all, where one studies makes little difference in terms of the points earned, in terms of promotions, etc.

As mentioned earlier in this commentary, the one area where we have not developed our expertise, skills and capabilities is in organizational or institutional management. At best, we have send a few isolated individuals to some universities/institutes abroad.

There are a couple of saying in Nepali which reveal the severity of the problem we are facing: khutta tanne and vhatkauni (pull someone' down or undermine someone from succeeding or doing well).


Another Nepali saying goes "The bureaucrat is skillful at manipulating his pen" (kalam ghumaune_ meaning that since he has the last word, he will always manipulate rules and regulations to mainteain his control. The rules and regulations by which the bureaucracy functions are not transparent nor easily accessible. It is not uncommon to pay an access fee to get these rules and have it interpreted. The game is to formulate the rules in secrecy (no outsiders allowed), keep it vague and open to different interpretations, do not consult with other ministries and departments as far as possible, protect your office from other ministries, change the rules without any public discussion or knowledge, keep the public in the dark. Even where the rules and regulations go against the Law or declared public policy, there is no recourse for an examination or debate about it.

The framing of rules and regulations has been strictly and jealously guarded as their prerogative. It is the primary legal method by which the bureaucrats control the game- and are able to extract the right fees, threaten businessmen, and harass the public.


Unlike other societies, Nepal has not upheld "the rule of law" as a basic operating principle. Another Nepali saying says the rules and laws apply to those outside the power circle." This tradition of the ruling elites flouting the rule of law has is evident even today in the democratic political system.

What are the different dimensions to the rule of law:

an efficient and consistent application and enforcement of the law and rules

an institutional open mechanism to ensure fairness in the application of the rules

an early advance notice of rules and regulations

an independents system to resolve conflicts

procedures for an open review and amendment of rules as they become irrelevant.

The ultimate result of the rule of law is a certain consistent pattern of behavior or predictability and credibility of a government's policies and actions. 


It is now an accepted Nepali saying that one can earn good money by working for the government as a jagirdar. And these earning are not derived from salary and allowances. The literal translation from Nepali is to earn money (paisa kamaunu).

If you were to listen into people conversation you would hear them say such things as

--            he's got a good job/position as he is working at customs department. He will earn very well in six months, even a peon makes enough to build a house in a year's time.

--            how much can he earn by transferring to excise or income tax, etc.

--            his brother made a pile of money as a hakim of xx office or he was a fool (stupid) to not do so.

Getting rich through corruption, bribery or bureaucratic extortion has now become socially acceptable. It is socially acceptable to give one's daughter to a hakim who has made money in such a manner.

To paraphrase a management saying, "The work that gets done is the work that gets rewarded." In the case of forestry, the rewards were in cutting down trees not in planting or sustainable utilization. In the case of income tax, the rewards are in harassing the businessman. The general public says that government officials set up different obstacles and harassment to force you to "drop money (paisa jharnu) into their hands.

There is no incentive to save costs and come under budget, to speed up the process of serving the public, to improve quality of service, to design innovative products and services, to examine rules and regulations periodically, to question decisions or to debate openly, to talk straight. The normaly yardstick used by business or the private sector does not apply: quality of products and services, customer satisfaction, competitiveness, team work, productivity, competent skills, increasing profit margins and market share, fulfilling a need, etc.


Managing large, complex social systems such as today's organizations and corporations requires a different mind set and organizational culture; performance oriented internal operating systems; appropriate reward system; a more effective way of learning as individuals and as an organization; and visionary leadership.

Probably the most devastating effect of the Jagir Culture is that has disabled people in their capacity to create new possibilities, new visions, and to take responsibility for creating and initiating changes.

"Ke garne? kine tauko dukhaune, this is Nepal (nothing can be done, why create a headache for yourself?) is a commonly accepted belief, a local paradigm in Nepal."

There is a general consensus that the Nepali bureaucracy and government has a very dismal track record. Clearly, the ruling Congress government has yet to demonstrate the kind of leadership and management capabilities and the commitment required for the times. The success of our current government will be measured not only by the level of democratization but also by increase in productivity of the nation.

What will make the difference is a strong and persistent commitment by the political and social leadership to a long term program of re-learning, education, and transformation in the way we manage our state organizations. 


Ravi Pradhan is the founder of Karuna Management and has over two decades of experience as an international consultant and trainer in management and organizational effectiveness. His current focus is on change management and leadership as well as on introducing mindfulness based emotional intelligence. He lives in Nepal and  Vietnam where he is working on a similar mission.

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Other articles by same author:

Why is soft so hard? (Part 1)

Why is soft so hard? (Part 2)

Last Updated ( Sunday, 14 June 2015 10:12 )  

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