August 28, 2018 Sujeev Shakya

Upholding shamelessness

When there’s no pride in competing with the rest of world, mediocrity reigns

When the BIMSTEC summit begins this week in Kathmandu, Nepal’s head should hang in shame. A $30 billion economy hosting an international convention that will be one of the shabbiest events the country has hosted. In 1988, when Nepal was just a $4 billion economy, the first SAARC Summit was held in a spruced up convention hall— and that was perhaps one of the best in South Asia, during which the visiting heads of state were put up in the newly built suites of the Soaltee Hotel. Three decades later, the fact that Nepal does not have a decent set of rooms or a hall to host the BIMSTEC Summit speaks volumes about how, in our myopia of power struggle and mediocre ambitions, we have squandered time and opportunities.

Inward looking behaviour

The Nepali socialism propagated by leaders across the spectrum, not limited to political parties, is about treating anything that is world class as capitalism. Therefore, we have made mediocrity our benchmark. Nepalis who have global ambitions leave Nepal and the majority of the people in the country are happy to ensure that they are the best among the worst. From the days of the kings, there has been no aspiration for taking the global centre stage. Never has a Nepali leader aspired for global attention, like at a TED talk, which, for example, the Bhutanese Prime Minister leveraged to get the world’s eye on Bhutan. Nepal’s former royals were happy showing off to sycophants how they were far superior to the commoners and that practice continues despite the change in our political system. Business leaders are content showing off to people who have the time to sit through days of boring meetings, but never aspire to be a speaker at the World Economic Forum—to get Nepal’s message to the world.

This inward-looking attitude never made us want to compete with the world. Last week in Rwanda, we took a tour of a new convention centre built at a cost of $400 million and another one recently completed for $25 million. The country wants to be a prime destination for the world and provide services and facilities that can be ranked as one of the best in the world. In Nepal, in the proposed new convention centre, we will make a better version of a party palace or improve Bhrikuti Mandap, the eyesore of the Valley.

Perhaps I wonder what we aspire for. I look at the way people conduct their social functions, at the makeshift structures that are created at home for social events. I have seen them in rich and poor household alike, across religion, caste, and ethnicity. The common thread is that there is a project mindset. Let’s get it done. It is about quantity and not quality. It is about having 5,000 guests but not ensuring the guests have decent parking or excellent food. It is about showing off to your own family members or friends or colleagues. It is not designed to provide experience.We miss out on small things. We do not care about the key things that make the experience special. We spend millions on flower arrangements and decorations but no attention is paid to the toilet. The state of toilets at all major hotels and party palaces are pathetic. But people do not complain because only people who are used to clean toilets expect clean toilets. So this vicious circle of mediocre facilities being accepted as mediocrity reigns continues.

People keep wondering why meditation centres have just walls or nothing. It perhaps reflects that the human mind likes good aesthetics. The imagery of South Asia is clutter and chaos that has been positively sold as vibrant and colourful but people need to ask themselves: does one get excited about seeing the miles of tangled wires or the collage of ugly hoarding boards? We also believe these advertising boards are a tool of visual pollution (that’s why they are pulled down ahead of the VIPs visit) but we have allowed it to mushroom to create one of the ugliest cityscapes in the world.

First things first

The fact that well-to-do people actually rent their window front—the source of light for their rooms—to have ugly advertisements put up speaks volume about what money means for people, and their perception on quality of life. We have tall glass buildings, but no one ever pays attention to cleaning the glasses. We throw trash in drains that are built for water to flow. In fact, the Nepali word for drain—dhal—has become synonymous with trash pile. You can’t expect a person’s mind to be clean and want top-notch facilities when they are used to living around dirty drains, dirty windows, looking at ugly hoarding boards.

Events like BIMSTEC brings about public outrage on last-minute patchwork, and gives us an opportunity to reflect upon why we are in a state that we all know is not acceptable. We have been talking about big things and big dreams—maybe it is time to ponder upon the small ones.

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