Every time a friend with whom I can be candid complains about life in Nepal, my simple question to him or her will be—can you name five people in your circle of influence who are financially worse off now than they were 10 or 20 years ago? I am yet to get a name list. Perhaps complaining about life has become a way of life in this country. The Nepali diaspora does it too. Perhaps it is not only about Nepal, but also about Nepalis.
Better Than Yesterday
In the cocktail circuits of Kathmandu, I listen to business people complaining about the situation despite having bought good cars, land, apartments and having gone on multiple foreign trips in a year. I listen to people who have raked in a lot of money from the stock market complain. People who invested a few hundred thousand dollars while starting a bank are now worth hundreds of millions, but they still complain. Banks with over half a billion dollars of market capitalisation are complaining about not getting some free money from a donor to start a bank. People who throw parties worth millions for their kids’ coming-of-age ceremonies talk about problems in Nepal. My simple question to them is: are you not better off than you were 10 or 20 years ago?
I look at my friends, relatives and business acquaintances and see how their lives have changed. Apart from a few who are selling inherited land to eke out a living, most people I know have leveraged their ancestral properties, earned well and transformed their lifestyle. This holds true not only for people in Kathmandu and other urban centres of Nepal, but also for those in rural areas. People who rent-seek find various ways to make a living around selling poverty. It could be finding the only poor neighbourhood in some parts of Far-Western region of Nepal and saying how poor Nepal is, or telling people to remove their motorcycles and refrigerators from the house when a VIP donor visits. Or it could be in Patan’s handicraft shops, where I notice some folks I know telling tourists how they cannot lower the prices as they have so many mouths to feed. Little does the tourist know that this shabbily dressed man in slippers with a rickety bike parked outside is actually making a million rupees a month from rent and that in the evening he would sip nothing less than Black Label.
The economic opportunities have changed Nepal’s face. After the introduction of multiparty democracy, school teachers have become rich politicians. Bureaucrats who earlier had to wait for a royal blessing to find some post-retirement engagements are now more powerful and financially stronger after retirement. When I tell people abroad that 10,000 students go to the US each year from Nepal, they are shocked; they wonder how a supposedly poor country can manage this.
People in far-flung villages can now get a passport and work anywhere and send money back home. This was not possible before the democratisation of the passport system. Countless Indians coming and working here in various sectors shows that opportunities are immense for workers in Nepal. Farm labourers in remote areas are earning Rs800 a day, which is far above the daily minimum wage. Now if they spend it on a bottle of beer or half a bottle of whiskey each day, then that is not the state’s fault!
Leveraging The Transformation
When I travel to the US, I observe the life of people who would have left Nepal two decades ago and started education and work in the ‘land of opportunities’. In the beginning, they looked very fortunate. Now after two decades, they talk about why they cannot return to Nepal. It is because their contemporaries—for instance in the banking sector—have moved far ahead financially. In the US, a couple working hard would have been able to pay off a mortgage for a house and finance their children’s education, but only barely. On the other hand, their counterparts in Nepal would have got into an influential position, built an asset base far beyond people’s imagination through investments, and their children would be studying in the best universities in the world and flying in and out for festivals and family functions.
Nepali musicians can afford to build a house by participating in various shows and earning royalties from music albums. Journalists have been able to fund their own media businesses. Artists and writers are now able to earn well through full-time work. You no longer need to be a doctor or an engineer to make it big in Nepal.
If we accept we have changed for the better, why not leverage this transformation for something even better? Money alone does not make a nation. It is about adhering to global standards. When I interact with students from the Middle East, I see they have virtually all the things that money can buy, but some of them behave as if they are not from this planet. It is tough for them. In Nepal too, the free flow of cash has made people think that money is the key. Yes it is to some extent. But beyond a certain point, development in true sense has a lot to do with global aspirations, ethical practices and the ability to compete in a world that believes in transparency. Integrity is the rule, and we cannot make it an exception here.