Sujeev Shakya

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Using Buddhism as Soft Power

The geopolitical wrangling over the future of Buddhism between India and China is making the Nepal Buddhists uneasy

I am a Shakya from Nepal, a supposed descendant of Siddhartha Shakya, who went on to be known as the Buddha. Every Shakya is engaged in a different path today, yet is bound by one phenomenon. But it is rare for individuals, or the tribe, or even Nepal to feature in a congregation of Buddhists such as the Global Buddhist Summit, which took place in New Delhi in April. Realisations like these prompt a closer look at why growing superpowers, India and China, are defining their own versions of the future of Buddhism and using it as a tool of soft power.

The Shakyas who ruled Kapilavastu after Buddha’s Parinirvana did not have an army, and many were massacred in Sagarahawa. Eventually, the remaining Shakyas fled to different parts of Greater Magadha and to far-flung places like Gandhara (modern-day Afghanistan) and Burma (Myanmar). Many also went to the Kathmandu valley and were granted a status comparable to that of the Vajracharya priests, but they were not permitted to practice priesthood outside of their families. Therefore, in Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (Golden Temple) Shakyas alternate as temple caretakers and conduct all the rituals. Aside from the Kumari temples, this is one of the few temples in the Kathmandu valley where a 1,000-year-old tradition continues. When Nepal accepted a grant from the Government of India to renovate portions of the Golden Temple complex, it created a controversy. Many locals believe that India was only interested in this project because, after Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, this is the temple complex most frequently visited by Chinese tourists, indicating vested interests and strategies.

India’s Buddhism

For India, Buddhism provided an identity of peace and tranquility during the formation of the Republic, which was a time of intense violence and division between the country’s two key religions, Hinduism and Islam. Professor Naman Ahuja, curator of the Lumbini Museum, discusses the usage of Buddhist symbolism as a means of escape difficult times, whether it be the Ashoka Pillar or the wheel in the flag. In addition, the inscriptions on the edifice erected by King Ashoka provided evidence of the life and teachings of the Buddha.

Due to such usage and evidence, India likes to claim Buddhism as its own. It convened the Global Buddhist Summit in April primarily to provoke China by promoting Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. There were no Nepal representatives present. The summit was hosted by the International Buddhist Confederation, a Buddhist organisation based in India, which has neither a patron nor a member of the Supreme Dhamma Council from Nepal. Nobody from Bhutan, a Buddhist nation, was present either. Therefore, the geopolitical tool for India seems to be the promotion of Tibetan Buddhism, which has greater Western appeal.

The India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage is coming up in Lumbini, Nepal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone in May 2022. A year later, little progress has been made on the construction of this centre. This could be seen as an attempt to counter the opening of the Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa, Nepal, which, in India’s eyes, is a Chinese project. It was constructed as part of a project financed by the Asian Development Bank and carried out by a Chinese contractor.

India’s overtures of Buddhism in Nepal began only after ‘Buddha is Born in Nepal’ became a populist slogan of sovereignty in Nepal, which Mr. Modi had to accept in a speech he delivered to the Constituent Assembly in Nepal in 2014. India’s claim over Buddhism by excluding discussions with the pallbearers of tradition and the larger Buddhist community will only serve the purpose of irritating China.

China’s Buddhism

China is home to around 245 million Buddhists, 28,000 Buddhist monasteries, 16,000 temples, and 2,40,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. This makes Buddhism an important soft power for China. By adding religious overtones to China’s existing portfolio of cultural and linguistic diplomacy, the state religious system has become increasingly involved in Xi Jinping’s efforts to support the growing political and economic power of China abroad. Beijing pursues a multifaceted and flexible approach to promote Chinese Buddhism abroad, with its specific modalities varying depending on whether the target country is Buddhist-majority, Western, or one of China’s Asian competitors. As a source of Buddhism, the Chinese look to Nepal rather than India, as the popular temples in Beijing have a connection with Nepal, whether through the use of Newa Ranjana scripts on the pillars or the association of these temples with Nepali artist Arniko, who is revered in China. China utilised Buddhist narratives alongside infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka, just as Cambodia, Laos, and other Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia do. With large crowds thronging to Buddhist temples, China cannot ignore the undercurrents and, therefore, would prefer to use its own version of Buddhism not only for national integration but also as a tool of soft power.

In Nepal, one of the popular rumours is that China will send five million Buddhist pilgrims and establish hotels and other businesses through its investment arms as a big soft power push. It is also rumored that India will invest more money in Lumbini. My hope is that the geopolitical wrangling over my ancestors will not turn Nepal into a Buddhist Disneyland.

Reflecting on events

The last couple of weeks saw a spate of events in Kathmandu, including many high-level visits. The decline in Covid-19 cases meant that one could decide to host an event with minimal chances of cancellation. Airports opened in the region, so more connecting flights. It was good to meet so many people in person after a hiatus of over two years and a half. These different events provide an opportunity to observe and reflect on many aspects of events. Here are some thoughts.

The pandemic pushed for innovation in how virtual meetings are held—better quality videos over lesser internet bandwidth. Many busy speakers do not have to fly across the world to speak for half an hour. They can join virtually. More people can join and participate from around the world. Artificial Intelligence driven cameras provide better quality, and one can add more cameras without cameramen running in front of you. The digital backdrops have improved, and software innovation provides better images and video quality. Nepal has adopted these well, which is reflected in the improved quality of technology.

When multiple events happen simultaneously, figuring out how one curates an audience and the target audience inside the room becomes essential. It’s finding the right quality of audience rather than quantity. There is no point in having a hall full of people chatting or spending their time on the phone browsing the world outside the room. The world over, specialist organisations are engaged to curate the right set of circumstances through partnerships and in Nepal too, and gradually this will be the norm.

Walking the talk

It’s appalling to see those who complain openly against men-only panels participating in them. Development partners in Nepal have signed a Diversity In Dialogue pledge emphasising diversity in panels and other dialogue platforms. Still, it is sad to see some of them not walking the talk. It is not that you cannot find people. For instance, at the Kantipur Conclave, we had Pooja Sharma moderating a male-dominated field of electric power. As a personal commitment, I have decided not to participate in any panel that does not have diversity. It is crucial to have young people and women with ethnic diversity.

Boju Bajai has developed an open-source platform to look for women speakers if you are not finding one. We need never forget our demographics—50 percent of the population is under 25 years, 70 percent of the population is under 40 years, and 50 percent is women. Working hard to ensure diversity goes a long way in making the discourse inclusive.

Despite multiple discussions during the planning phase, our love for using single-use plastic does not seem to wane. We began eliminating plastic a while ago and are getting more granular. No use of plastic, be it for delegate cards or tent cards. Plastic waste is created with materials supposedly necessary for branding, popularly known as flex. It is essential to substitute plastic with digital boards or encourage artists to display their relevant works. The single-use plastic bottle seems to dot climate change and sustainability programmes. It is also essential that the message filters through to all levels of team members. At one of the events, in the quest to not have plastic water bottles, I saw hotel staff complaining about the extra work of filling glass bottles by emptying single-use plastic bottles. When some climate activists comment on social media, rather than taking them seriously, organisers get angry and defend their actions.

Managing time is a severe challenge in Nepal, especially in a culture where people feel they are only important if they arrive late! Further, a situation like the traffic chaos and the challenges posed by the gridlock during the Chinese delegation’s visit does not help. On top of that, despite everyone having smartphones with a clock and different apps to manage time, we seem to go our own way. However, from experience and handling multiple events, people are happiest when something starts on time and ends on time. It is not about stopping being nationalist by respecting time, but respecting people by not wasting their time.

In a democratic secular Nepal, we still have an increasing number of rituals. From asangrahans(people having to formally take a seat on stage) to the traditions of garlands and khadas (scarves) as tokens of appreciation, it is something we do not do at our events, and many people can do away with them. Privilege rules as the important folks sit on sofas and mere mortals on different types of seats. Patriarchy rules as it is generally a woman who has to call a man on stage to speak or a woman who carries trays of garlands to be put on men by men. It is surprising to see even international organisations not wanting to demand changes to archaic rituals based on the caste system and patriarchy.

Nepal’s opportunity

We need to bring about change, as I continuously harp upon. As a neutral venue in South Asia with good air connectivity and more hotels and conference facilities, Nepal has great potential to emerge as a great conference destination as one can have many pre- and post-conference activities without travelling long distances. The city walks, quick sojourn, excellent cuisine and entertainment options at reasonable costs open many possibilities. Able vendors provide world class technical support. Nepal has many young people who specialise in diverse fields and can be part of panels or moderate them. Translation quality and facilities are getting better, and aided by virtual support from people sitting in any part of the world. Of course, improving internet speed and electricity supply in terms of quality helps.

Looking forward to more events in Nepal, and of course, last night, it was great to host Nepal National Day in Kigali to celebrate Nepal’s Constitution Day and to share our food, culture and beauty with friends in Rwanda.

Read the full article on The Kathmandu Post:

Photo credit: Keshav Thapa
Photo credit: Keshav Thapa

Upholding the rule of law

For the past few weeks, social media has been abuzz with videos of unauthorised constructions being demolished. Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah has been leading the campaign to ensure that buildings have adhered to the approvals they have been given. Underground parking that thrived for years as shopping complexes, eateries and classy bars were taken down. Others were quick to follow the instructions. There were shopping malls and other buildings that took rent from stalls put up on public sidewalks which were torn down too.

People protested as they claimed they had done nothing wrong. Owners used political connections to stop the onslaught. There were criticisms that the action was unlawful, but in a country where stay orders can be obtained through the courts for a price, they could not wait. While the political parties could not come out to support the actions with the elections looming ahead, most of the public cheered. The comments on social media, and the way people circulated the videos with their comments, clearly showed that the Nepali people are not looking for big promises to be fulfilled by political leaders, but small actions like these. Actions that took on unauthorised construction were seen as a victory against corruption and leaders who promoted construction. In the day of social media, optics is important; and Balen, in combination with a go-getting valley traffic chief, delivered.

Politically connected

We would hope to see this movement expand to other parts of Nepal. The majority of Nepali citizens have suffered from the actions of a few. Next to my house, in an authorised furniture factory, is a shed built on open land that produces noise in a quiet residential area and many dust particles float around. Similarly, there is a café and centre that houses exhibitions and events with no parking facilities, and our small lane gets cluttered with the bikes parked there. Coming home from the office, as we turn left into Chakupat road, the bikes of folks coming to the eateries that do not have parking create jams. I remember 25 years ago, when the sheds were being built on public land taken by some private, politically connected guy on lease, I had suggested creating a beautiful tourist shopping centre with handicraft stores. But then, getting the roadside eateries were easier. Due to good turnover, they are willing to pay more rent, and of course, if you have well connected businesses as your tenants, you cannot bully them for sure. In my neighbourhood, it’s navigating such challenges each day, and perhaps it might be the case for many people across Nepal. Your mind space is taken up by these irritants and it is a super frustrating state of helplessness. We do not know where to go as none of the people in the concerned government offices are interested as they will not take on something that provides them with a source of income. Many Nepalis have such stories. The action of Balen Shah has given hope to many Nepalis that perhaps someone is taking on the challenges.

Of birta and jagir

The core thesis of my first book, Unleashing Nepal, was on the rent-seeking mindset and how it has deterred entrepreneurship. It begins with the jagir and birtathat were provided to people basically which were land grants. These people could make money by optimising land use, whether authorised or not. If we look around every part of the country, land next to religious places, educational institutions and public spaces are the ones that are used in a manner that creates the biggest challenges to parking, noise pollution and garbage generation. These lands were controlled earlier by individuals with a political connection to the palace, and later by clubs and organisations that are led by political leaders or have deep ties with people in politics. The maximisation of income can only happen if one can make use of the place against legal provisions. The job of the politician or elected leader was not to take on these people who are making unauthorised or illegal use, but to protect them. The senior leaders of political parties, by gracing the events of such organisations engaged in illegal acts, ensured long-term protection.

Similarly, when one hears that people paid Rs500,000 and used all their political clout to get a job as a guard at a public educational institution, it sounds bizarre. But what people do not realise is that once you get a job as a guard, there is that little store you can open at the gate of the educational institution and let a family member run it, which ensures that your investment is recovered within a year. You can see these shabby structures at the gate of every public educational institution. Now, if you oppose them, there are many socialists who will come and defend them. So you have protection from all sides to run your business from an illegal structure.

While we think this is a generational issue and maybe with young educated people, it will change, the young have not been different. When you see youths parking haphazardly, throwing trash everywhere and not following traffic rules, it does not indicate that education and age are the issues. It is a societal disease that needs a cure. Perhaps, the action led by Balen Shah provides some hope to a few, but it can only gain momentum if the mainstream political parties support it rather than using all their energy in trying to thwart the good deeds. The coming elections will also be a good litmus test to see if Nepalis would want the change makers or if they need old hags-led political parties to protect their illegitimate and unauthorised assets. 

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Preparing for COP 27

The preparation for COP 27 has begun in Sharm-El Sheikh in Egypt. Countries are preparing the agenda. Actually, preparations for some countries began as soon as COP 26 ended. For Nepal, we like to leave it till the last minute, and since this year COP is going to be held just a week before the federal elections, it is impossible to tell how the government will prioritise the issue.

The climate crisis gets attention whenever people experience extreme weather conditions or face natural calamities. This year, the scorching heat in Europe with rivers drying up, wildfires and flash floods have brought more global discourse. At the same time, the war in Ukraine has also divided the world like never before. Bilateral negotiations between China and the United States have become hostage to the geo-political squabbles between the two countries. As former president of the Maldives Mohamad Nasheed said at the Kigali Global Dialogues, the people who started the discussions at the first COP now have their children talking at these COP meetings.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum, whose representatives constitute countries from the Global South, have not been able to push the perpetrators to take corrective action. When it comes to the Global Climate Fund, while its reports show support to multiple countries, many countries have not been able to get access to funding for climate adaptation due to the long and stringent screening processes. The bigger discourse on renewables, especially solar, also gets complicated as people are worried about China’s control of the market. However, as Ritu Lal of Amplus Energy said, why didn’t people question oil production being concentrated in a few hands, but have issues when solar solutions are skewed towards China?

Challenges for Nepal

I have been writing about how it has become necessary to link our religion and culture towards the impact of climate change. While our religion and culture talk about purity, with clean rivers and the mountains being axis mundi of our lives, our religious and cultural practices have only generated more waste, exploited natural resources, and accelerated the impact of climate change. And concerning the issue of health, Nepal has the world’s highest lung disease death rate that can be linked to increased air pollution. Infectious diseases that breed on filth are on the rise as dengue and cholera have become a challenge. Waste management has become a political football that politicians enjoy playing. While segregation of waste and ban on single-use plastic has been mandated by laws and regulations, it is hardly followed. Environment day functions are celebrated using single-use plastic bottles, and the thought about not putting up plastic material flex at events is not something that passes through people’s minds. The rise in social and cultural spending has only generated more waste.

Since 2017, with the formation of local governments, there has been a spike in building ill-planned roads that have been more responsible for natural disasters like floods and landslides. In the quest to outdo each other, rural municipalities and municipalities are converting every open space into entertainment squalors bringing about major impact on land-use management and long-term challenges. This is not different from Himalayan towns and cities in India. There was a tweet from The Bhutanese editor Tenzing Lamsang on the overcrowding of Ladakh during the Indian Independence Day weekend and a reminder of how Bhutan has tried to manage its fragile ecology.

Assuming leadership

From 2014 to 2019, we hosted the Himalayan Consensus Summit and thereafter handed it over to the government of Nepal to grow into Sagarmatha Sambad (dialogues), but that again became a political football. Nepal is located in one of the most fragile ecological regions in the world, land linked to the world’s two most populous countries and those who have to live up to their commitments when it comes to mitigating climate change. Water will be the most contested resource in the decades to come, and Nepal’s water is connected to both its neighbours. The standoff between the two neighbours does not help. It is in Nepal’s interest to push to take on the leadership position. Nepal needs to push the agenda of how efforts have to be multilateral as problems do not see the limitations of political boundaries. Nepal needs to forge regional alliances to take up major issues. Nepal houses the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) that includes eight countries around the Himalaya including China and India. Such institutions need to work with the government of Nepal and recalibrate themselves to meet the changing needs.

For Nepal, this is also a long-haul issue and our project mindset has to transform to something where we think of a few decades. The timing is right as Nepal’s Green Resilient Inclusive Development (GRID) Action Plan is underway, and Nepal’s Climate Change and Development Report is ready. The agenda for this time would perhaps be to see how we move the next COP to be hosted in Nepal, and also develop Davos-style permanent platforms for the people who are thinking and people who are going to meet. 

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Will Nepal vote for change?

The election dates have finally been announced, giving much less preparation time than usual. Political parties are scrambling to find candidates, and potential candidates are already figuring out the price of an election ticket. In South Asian democracies, paying the party and its leaders to get an election ticket is an acceptable social practice, and no one will be ostracised for doing so. The political parties led by older men despised by most Nepalis are figuring out strategies on who to select (never elected) and how to manage fragile coalitions. All permutations and combinations between political oligarchies have been tried and tested, resulting in a similar result of deep hatred among the general populace. From the “partyless panchayat” to “party-full panchayat”, the general dismay has never changed, with corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, poor management and governance becoming words that never cease to go away. Against this backdrop, there is a lot of hope pinned on some incremental change, as we saw in the local election as it voted for 81 percent new faces.

Old issues are gone

Gone are the days when politicians could go to seek votes based on the time they spent in jail. A quarter of the voters are those who were toddlers or in pre-school when the Shah dynasty ended, so for them, forget 1990. Even 2006 is a distant past. You cannot fool a young Nepali who has internet access that sees how the world is progressing by talking about promised programmes that will encourage rearing goats or chickens. They know they can get a passport that will open the world to them. They are literate; they follow social media platforms which the oldies have no clue about, and their aspirations are like any other young person’s.

The issue of reversing federalism is a pipe dream as it will cost more lives and decades to change a structure that gives people access to resources and opportunities. Similarly, geopolitics has become very complicated, and it will not be easy just to be towing the lines of intelligence agencies or political parties north or south of the country. Covid-19 has exposed the inefficiencies of many countries in the world. Suddenly, when it comes to vaccination, despite a robust local government setup, Nepal ranks behind Singapore in getting both doses administered. Compared to countries in Southeast Asia that are limping back to normalcy, Nepali resilience has been remarkable despite all the challenges the government poses.

The next couple of years will also see more digitalisation which means human intervention that was the foundation of government services will slowly give way to automation with better platforms. This is what people would want to see happening, so recruiting more people for government jobs will be the last of the promises politicians can make.

Today, if you ask a young person what they want, their demands are simple. They want to get their driver’s licence and passports quickly and efficiently, and are willing to pay high fees. They want the process to obtain a no-objection certificate when they have to go abroad to study or a labour permit to go and work outside simplified. They want easy ways to send back money home, and when they return, they want an eco-system that encourages them to join or start a business. They want service when it comes to the occasional certificate of government that is required, the process of paying taxes and getting approvals and a financial eco-system that cartels of financial institutions do not dictate. Above all, they want better infrastructure and don’t mind paying taxes as long they are efficiently spent on infrastructural development.

Women want respect and equality in the real sense; gone are the days when some token reservations were going to work. Look around and see how women are omnipresent in all spheres of life. This election will be decided on how 50 percent of the voters, that is women, vote. In the local elections, we saw how women refused to heed the insistence of male members of the family like before but voted based on what they thought was best. The victory of Balen Shah in the Kathmandu mayoral elections is an excellent example of how results can be swayed.

What will change

Given the different patchwork of a coalition of convenience forming between political parties to protect the old men, it will be interesting to watch how the independent candidates will fare. Given an obvious hung Parliament, the key will be to elect 15-20 people across the spectrum, which will elevate the level of discourse in Parliament and enable healthy discussions on legislation and significant reforms. Let us not forget this Parliament will go down in history as one that did little in five years, leaving nearly 60 pieces of legislation languishing for years. When we look back at the Indian Parliament, among the 500 plus legislators, only a few set the agenda irrespective of the political party they belong to. Perhaps, we will have to plan for this, and the parliamentarians can rely on policy centres, think tanks and academic institutions to help them elevate the discourse.

Every election provides an opportunity to bring some change. Change is always incremental; hopefully, in this one, we can eliminate some of the faces that have spread negativity amongst Nepalis in the past decade. 

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Take a long-term view

When one reads about the extension of the import ban on certain items, one begins to question the state of the Nepali economy. However, the restricted items form less than 2 percent of total imports. From local liquor cartels trying to stop the import of alcohol to auto dealers clearing their stocks, and grey market specialists finding ways to block legal imports, the race is on. Similarly, there are comparisons made in the Sri Lankan and Indian social media which have been going berserk in trying to pull China into the conversation, knowing very well that it had nothing much to do with the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy. Then there is the news of the enormous spending in the last month of the fiscal year, where nearly one-third of the government’s annual spending happened. Every combination of political parties has never swayed from the tradition of sizeable distributive expenditure in the last month of the fiscal year to keep relatives, party workers and construction cartels happy, and add a few million to their pot of slush funds.

The monetary policy is out; it takes a cautious approach to manage inflation and restrict credit flows. But banks are busy with their collusive behaviour keeping interest rates at current levels and not allowing them to rise as per market fundamentals. Bank promoters have interests in more than one bank as they invest in and borrow from another. They want to protect non-performing assets (NPA) and are keen to ensure poorly managed banks do not fail. The irony is that irrespective of the bank’s financial health, the high levels of NPA in some, poor governance and management in some, they all give you the same interest rate on fixed deposits and charge the same rates for loans. Given the same products and services from all banks, one wonders what is different between them. If there is a difference, it may be the brand of the vehicle the top management drives or the brand of the single malt whiskey they consume.

Vision 2030 document

With short-term governments and fragile coalitions, a long-term view of the economy has seldom been taken. In 2016, under the leadership of Swarnim Wagle (then a member of the National Planning Commission), a Vision 2030 document was prepared and what remains in cyberspace is the proceedings report of an international seminar in March 2016 on the Asian Development Bank website. Neither is the report available on the National Planning Commission’s website (as another government did it) nor on the Asian Development Bank’s website. I had worked on the private sector component of the report, and like many reports in Nepal, it has perhaps been permanently deleted from the recycle bins. The 25th issue of Nefport published by the Nepal Economic Forum in June 2016 on Vision 2030 perhaps remains the few documents envisaging long-term economic vision. The Vision 2030 document, prepared six years ago, provides a good framework for Nepal to move towards Reforms 2.0 to attract investments of around $7-8 billion each year to be able to meet the targets of a $100 billion GDP and a per capita income of $2,500.

In conversations with the International Monetary Fund, it is obvious that while there may not be any major challenges at this point because of the nature of the Nepali economy, we need to start thinking of how it can be transformed, not through remittances and consumption only, but by creating economic opportunities in the services sector by pushing exports, reducing corruption and managing the cartels. Taking the macro view is important, but this has not been anyone’s priority till now. Nepal, that has fixed its currency to the Indian rupee, has also benefited from actions of the Indian central bank to stop the Indian rupee from falling. Global inflation and a strong dollar will have their impacts. The situation in Ukraine, the standoff between China and the United States, the challenges in the China-India relationship and the crisis in Sri Lanka are not helping the fears to decrease.

The Nepal government has benefited immensely from the high tax-to-GDP ratio, and it makes a lot of spending irrationally with little accountability. The issues raised by the Auditor General in its annual Audit Reports on irregular spending, potential graft and other important matters have ceremonial value. While development partners are very keen to get their monitoring and evaluation right, they have little interest in the Auditor General’s report, which evaluates and grades the actual performance of the government.

All-party working group

In a country where it’s challenging to find apolitical thinkers and people labelled along party lines just because they accepted positions in particular governments, it would be beneficial for all if we could rise above petty issues and work as a group on a long-term economic plan for Nepal. These, once prepared, should be endorsed by whichever combination of governments comes to power. There are great individual thinkers and many more working in global organisations outside Nepal who are willing to volunteer and get involved. This will be music to the ears of development partners who are struggling to cope with the frequent changes in government. We at the Nepal Economic Forum are willing to host the first one and decide on the modalities. It is not creating another structure with chairs and secretaries, with older men lecturing young Nepalis; it has to be an inclusive platform for people who want to see a real transformation of Nepal in the long run. 

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai unleashed

It is always amazing to see how cities develop, and a visit to Dubai always provides an opportunity to see how the city has been transforming each year. Infrastructure development is taking place rapidly, with more roads being built to connect newer areas. The metro train network, that began in 2009 amidst the big question of why it was required, today has become a lifeline for many people who commute to work, providing a better means of transport and taking off a lot of traffic from the streets. The development project lists are never-ending. In 2005-06, the construction industry stated that 25 percent of the world’s construction cranes are in Dubai. While the artificial island in the shape of a palm tree grabbed the world’s attention on the scale of new developments, it did not stop there.

There was the building of Bluewaters Island, which will be home to several resorts and an amusement park. The Deira Islands development included a 4 km stretch of waterfront, large enough to accommodate more than 500 yachts and boats. Then there is Dubai Harbour, a luxurious waterfront development that combines world class maritime facilities with the most advanced cruise terminals and the largest marina in the region. The list is endless.

People will come

When Nepal received about 400,000 visitors in 1995, Dubai received less than 50,000 tourists. At that time, there were about 2.4 million people in the United Arab Emirates. By 2020, Dubai’s number of visitor arrivals was close to 16 million. It aims to beat Bangkok by 2025 with 25 million visitors. The success of the Dubai Expo 2020 hosted during the pandemic perhaps pushes Dubai ahead of other Southeast Asian countries as it did manage to have tourism activities despite Covid-19. The expo went on for six months from October 2021 to March 2022, as per official statistics; the event registered over 24 million visits from 192 countries.

Dubai has gone on to build everything that would be the world’s biggest, tallest and other adjectives that would keep them in the leading position across different areas. They want to be the leader on all fronts, from museums to libraries to performance centres to conference venues. Despite the challenge of weather and an arid landscape, it pushes to create spaces using technology and innovation.

In the parking lot, one can find a U-drive electric car that one can unlock using an app, use it and park it at your destination and pay for the distance travelled, an innovative way of renting cars. For someone in the United States who has to fill their fuel tank at the fuel station, it would be shocking to hear that fuel in Dubai can be delivered to your house by a tanker run by a company that gives you an incentive to fill at home. Plastic bags are disappearing, and so are single-use water bottles. One can now spot these kiosks where people can fill in drinking water. The immigration processes are automated, and this time I did not have to see an officer when I was clearing my immigration; it was managed by technology. This is a city that does not tire of bringing about innovation by attracting the best companies and their best talents to the town.

The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the Gulf War of the 1990s brought forth the strategic importance of Dubai. From fuelling planes to providing recreation and recuperation breaks to many serving in the war zone, it started to push its image of neutrality and safety. It is the gateway to the complicated geographies of West and South Asia and the Middle East. With Africa’s economic potential coming up in discussions in the global corporate boardroom, Dubai is seen as the safest place to operate from. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine exposing challenges around the global supply chain, food security and currency parities, a new paradigm is emerging where countries with the business approach will push ahead.

Dubai wants to position itself as the superpower of the Islamic world, but is becoming more liberal in its approach. Friday is no longer the weekly holiday along with Saturday, and the weekend has been aligned with the global Saturday-Sunday holiday routine. During Bakr Eid, unlike in many countries, one cannot sacrifice animals at home, but there is a guideline on what can be done and what cannot. Even during the holy month of Ramadan, one can find places to eat during fasting hours as there is a vast population of expats and tourists who are not fasting.

Nepalis in Dubai

Out of the country’s 10.2 million people, 1.16 million are locals and 8.92 million are expatriates. There are 32,000 Nepalis, representing 3.6 percent of the expat population, but this is growing. During the pandemic, 65,000 went to the UAE on visit visas in 2021, and many converted them to work permits, pushing the government to impose stringent restrictions. In restaurants, stores and other service businesses, we see more Nepalis as Indians and Pakistanis go up the food chain. And with the Philippine government putting restrictions on minimum repatriation, it has helped open up more jobs for Nepalis.

As tourist arrivals increase, new airport projects are being planned. There will be more jobs for knowledge workers as global companies will hire more people to be based there to look after the growing opportunities in the Middle East and Africa. Perhaps, for Nepalis, it is crucial to learn from the success of Dubai and the opportunity it presents. For the government, where learning is a complicated process, it may just begin with opening a consular office in Dubai to take care of the growing number of Nepalis living there since the numbers will only grow in the near future.

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Re-imagining Nepal’s workweek

Effective June 15, the government decided to revert to a six-day week. It’s not the first time the Nepal government has reversed its decision from a five-day week. Like many government decisions, it was superbly haphazard and confusing. It succumbed to the pressure of people not getting service. Even fuel stations shut along with other essential services. Being shut on Sundays was bound to attract public ire. Despite the recent rollback, Nepal must move to a five-day workweek with proper homework, study and recalibration of working practices. We must organise our schedule to work 40 hours a week and get a much-needed two-day break. Why can’t this be possible for everyone working in Nepal? What do we need to do to ensure that this happens? Indeed, no one size fits all, and the nature of work will mean there will be people working different days of the week, but enjoying a much-needed break from work.

Concept of holiday

The concept of a five-day week is very new in the world. In the industrial United States, it was only in 1926 that Henry Ford introduced a five-day week without a pay cut. And in China, it was only in the last decade of the 20th century that it decided to move to a five-day week. More than 95 percent of the world generally follows a five-day work week, putting in between 40 and 48 hours of work. Even in the Islamic countries, they are reconciling to a two-day break, generally Friday and Saturday, but recently, the United Arab Emirates has moved to a Saturday and Sunday break with an extended hour of lunch time for prayers on Friday.

In Nepal, it was only during Juddha Shumsher’s reign that a Saturday holiday was introduced. Till then, people working in government offices got only “ekadasi” (11th day of the lunar fortnight) off. And after the restoration of multi-party democracy, in trying to be inclusive, Nepal went on to have the highest number of holidays and currently has 31 days, which is still one of the highest numbers in the world. In terms of productivity, despite working six days a week, Nepal’s productivity is low due to short daily working hours. When winter timings are introduced, government offices work only six hours a day or just 35 hours a week, and many organisations follow this low productivity schedule.

At a presentation in Rwanda, when asked about our government’s working hours, they expressed disbelief as Rwanda follows an 8am to 5pm schedule and is off on weekends with only essential services running. Therefore, it is crucial to link the work week with productivity. Like many international organisations, we should follow a five-day, 40-hour week, 9am to 6pm, with an hour’s break for lunch. In my over 30 years of career, this is how it has been, and I would like to recommend everyone to follow this. Like in the hotel, airline or many other industries, it does not mean the two-day break has to be Saturday and Sunday. It is to plan operations to ensure the processes are generally 24/7 or each day of the week, but people work five days a week and take two days off.

Concept of leisure

If you ask an average Nepali how they spend their holiday, the answer would generally be taking care of household chores, but more importantly, managing social visits. While the new generation has taken to outdoor activities like hiking, running, cycling and other sports during the weekend, my memory of holidays for Nepalis (even outside Nepal) are playing cards and indulging in eating and drinking.

Leisure is men-centric, and the concept of holiday and leisure does not consider the growing number of women joining the workforce. At Beed, we ensure that the day after Vijaya Dashami or Bhai Tika is a holiday as it is a day that women team members need a break from their work during the festive days. A two-day weekend is critical for working women as they are increasingly under pressure to juggle work and families.

With nuclear families on the rise and many family members settled abroad, the pressure on working women has increased like never before. At the sessions I conducted during the pandemic on coping mechanisms, women broke down in virtual meetings sharing the pressure of managing online school, online work and household chores during the lockdown. If we have not learned from the pandemic, no other disaster will teach us more.

Government services can go online like in Rwanda; the digital government platform Irembo has made it easy for people to receive government services. Why can’t we apply for our passports, driver’s licence and other government documents online and just be delivered to us? Each ward office that has a computer can be the place to take biometrics and point for the physical interface. Online payments and other services make it easier and eliminate the need for physical offices.

We require a more forward-thinking approach, looking at how the workspace will be in the future, what services people will need, and how they will be delivered. Hopefully, like that intelligent thinking unknown bureaucrat who pushed passports to be issued from districts and changed Nepal’s world of migration and remittances, there will be someone who will bring about much-needed rules on how Nepalis will work. 

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Tourism in the digital era

When we talked about promoting tourism, it was that opportunity of being able to be at ITB Berlin or WTM London. It was about physically being there with brochures, like selling your wares at the weekend market or village haat. People swing by your stall; you try to sell your wares based on the promo materials you have, and then rely on them to be able to send you a group of tourists.

The digital world has brought about many disruptions. You can book your tickets, hotels, tours and everything you would like to do online. Portals like Trip Advisor give you reviews to decide which destinations to look out for, and which products and services. The world of Instagram and TikTok has allowed you to view destinations, products and services from people you believe in and created tremendous peer pressure. Then there are internet entertainment platforms like Netflix where you can, apart from movies and innumerable series, gain access to many high quality documentaries and other materials that can make you think about different destinations you have never dreamt about.

New dimension

The last decade has changed how people view travel and choose what and where they eat, drink or carry out leisure activities. The pandemic has also added a new dimension where people travelled virtually during times of lockdown and restricted movements, and made some bucket lists for physical trips. Of course, there are the influencers, anyone with a device who can show you a whole new world you have never imagined.

In Kathmandu, with diverse speakers at a Neftalk organised by the Nepal Economic Forum, we discussed what is happening to tourism in the digital era and explored the disruptions and opportunities. There are three things to look out for.

First, there are new mediums that drive people’s travel decisions. For instance, the success of 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, a Netflix production with Nims Purja climbing all 14 eight-thousanders, triggered the imagination of many people, which was reflected in tourist arrivals to Nepal. Globally, people who have watched local content are 2.4 times more likely to make the place their #1 travel destination. Similarly, the video around the visit of the Prince of Bahrain and a vlogger from Qatar during the pandemic has let people in the Middle East who thought of Europe and the United States as premium destinations start to think about Nepal. At a luxury hotel in Pokhara, I was asked by a couple from the United Arab Emirates as to why we do not have $1,500 a night hotels as there would be lots from their country who would be interested.

Second, domestic tourism, which has been the bread and butter of many destinations in Nepal, has just exploded due to digital mediums. We hardly saw any sustained campaigns from any agency to lure local tourists, but then vloggers posting their bike ride videos on YouTube, Instagram and now TikTok have changed the fate of Nepali domestic tourism. People like Sisan Bainya have taken production quality seriously, and people want to follow him to the places he and his team have been.

Imagine Nepal is capturing such imagination of Nepali travellers. With a diaspora population of over 5 million, excluding India, across 180 countries, we will see a considerable demand surge from Nepalis visiting for religious or social purposes or just embarking on pure fun! For the domestic tourists, with the easing of payments through digital platforms, it’s all digital. Be it finding a destination, making bookings, paying for it, writing reviews and then posting about your trip. With more women joining the workforce, nuclear families and the concept of holidays not being limited to playing cards and drinking will significantly increase domestic tourism growth.

Third, the biggest challenge for Nepal to manage would be to ensure tourism has sustainable growth. The littering of trekking trails with cans of alcoholic beverages, bottles of aerated drinks and many other packaging materials is a huge issue. Structures are mushrooming everywhere to house travellers without proper planning. Everest is a golden goose we are killing by selling it too cheap. We have to think of the destination as super high-end. With a fragile ecology and biodiversity, we need to conserve; we need to use the same digital platforms to spread messages on pushing sustainable tourism. We have the commitments we made at COP26 to remember and the government’s Green Resilient Inclusive Development Action Plan to bear in mind.

Virtual reality

Finally, we need to prepare for tourists who will want to get to Nepal without actually getting to Nepal. With virtual reality and augmented reality becoming the future, with the Metaverse becoming the future real estate, we need to be there. We need to exploit these platforms to attract more people coming in person. We need to create that buzz of a destination that people will yearn to visit as we are one of the most photogenic countries in the world.

For all this to be leveraged, we need it to be private sector-led and come out of the shells of cartels, and we need the government to continue to provide a legislative and regulatory environment that facilitates these developments rather than thinking of stifling them in the name of controls. In many countries, governments have relied on self-regulation as a governance model. This is mainly due to the unique features of online content. Technology allows an individual to make an informed decision about how, when and what content they consume. We have missed many previous waves of disruptions, this one, we should not.

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post:

Photo Credit: Angad Dhakal/TKP
Photo Credit: Angad Dhakal/TKP

Rekindling hope

Many surprises emerge in every nation’s history, and events can rarely be predicted during their course; people cannot say what change may happen in the next two to three years. If we think of 1988 or 1989, who would have thought that the people of Nepal would challenge the monarchy ruling under a partyless Panchayat system and move to a constitutional monarchy? Similarly, when we think of 2004 or 2005, who would have believed that a monarchy that ruled for 240 years would see an end? Like in many other countries, events in Nepal happen without the people expecting them. Whenever we feel we have lost hope, whether during the insurgency, an economic crisis or natural calamity, we spring back; we manage to spring surprises, and then another trajectory emerges.

The local elections in 2022 have been another event that will change Nepal’s future. They are a slap in the face of all the people who have been saying that federalism is not going to work in Nepal. The megalomaniacs in Kathmandu, be it the political parties or bureaucrats, have been taken by surprise. The voice of the people in a democracy is the ultimate decision-maker. This election and the results have provided many different pointers that we need to take positively.

Bitter pill

First, the way the people voted to elect their leaders has disrupted the status quo. They voted for independents; they voted looking at the candidates’ competencies rather than their allegiance to the political parties. Many senior party leaders had to swallow the bitter pill of their party’s candidate losing in the wards they voted in. It could be voter frustration against the party leaders who have been doing little but fighting within the party and against other parties, not on ideological or significant issues, but on petty matters. In a country where 70 percent of the population is below the age of 40, the old male leaders have been given a wake-up call or maybe a suggestion that they should hang their hats.

The second is that this election indeed demonstrated the power of social media. Gone are the days when the candidates and parties used to make speeches and host dinners and parties to woo voters. They made all sorts of promises that they could never keep. Things have taken a different turn with social media platforms entering people’s lives. You have to have messages that people understand. You cannot just use false data and other means to bluff your voters. Accountability has moved to a different level. Every individual who has a smartphone is a source of news who can share videos on various platforms or provide opinions that can go viral. The old generation of leaders and leaders of so-called new movements who thought social media were platforms for sycophants to sing the praises and share their divine statements could not fathom how much the platforms had transformed.

Third, it is about managing expectations. In a recent study on local economic development conducted by Beed Management, it emerged that people wanted to link up local governments with economic transformation, be it the creation of jobs, providing access to markets for their produce, helping them in their entrepreneurial journey or seeing some major projects come to their neighbourhood. The mood was also that they were disillusioned by how the political parties functioned. People vehemently opposed the sudden transformation in the behaviour of the political parties, becoming their ally when for years they remained aloof. Younger folks and women did not like this at all. Many of the candidates who won by surprise perhaps knew this gap and addressed it well with the voters.

Finally, all eyes are on Kathmandu not only because Balen Shah created an upset but with more details emerging from his planning process, it has provided hope to many aspiring leaders in Nepal. He has his work carved out, but in terms of basics—cleanliness, garbage management, misuse of building permits and getting rid of shabby structures—what he will be able to do in Kathmandu will hopefully be replicated across Nepal. There are just two things that can be taken as pointers.

It has given hope to many young Nepalis that one can fight an election and win it if you have the right strategy and work hard. One does not need to affiliate with any party. Like in the case of Sunita Dangol, the party found her, but it is very clear that she could have won irrespective of the political party. So hopefully, during the upcoming federal elections, we will see new aspirants who will dent the hopes of status quo propagators. The top leaders will see some able contenders, and perhaps an excellent time to make retirement plans!

Independent leaders

It would be a good starting point if the independent leaders could form a coalition with others and take on one issue to deal with, be it garbage or aesthetics. It is good that Balen Shah did away with khadas and one did not see him painted red. A start to ensuring a pleasing aesthetics of oneself. It is so difficult to believe that people who allow their faces to be painted ugly red and accept the wasteful tradition of khadas and garlands will actually keep the streets clean!

There is a rekindling of hope. We have more educated people than ever before, and people with more money than their ancestors could have ever dreamt of. So we need to work on small things that ensure a sense of civility, inculcate civic sense and lead by example.

Read the article on The Kathmandu Post: