Nepal needs incremental changes from the bottom to change; the top down approach has not worked
Beijing and Kathmandu have a lot more in common than we think
Narratives about the relationship between Beijing and Kathmandu often enunciate cultural and historical differences rather than highlight our threads of similarity. But for those who look closely, these threads, which link China and Nepal’s religions, cultures, and histories, are not just written in our ancient literature but are also written into our streets.
I stumbled upon the latter during an exchange with a cab driver while on a recent trip to Beijing. When I told him where I was from, he responded with profound excitement. Rummaging through his local knowledge, he explained in detail how his city was built by Araniko, one of Nepal’s most famous architects. During my time in Beijing, the cab driver’s excitement lingered with me as I noticed how Araniko’s work was written into the city. For example, a plaque at the White Pagoda at Miaoying Temple acknowledges it was ‘built under the supervision of Nepali architect Arniko in 1271.’
Rather than focusing on difference, it is important to approach Nepal and China’s relationship with a variety of lenses. Through this approach, we can better understand our shared ancient history and leverage these threads of similarity to strengthen our cooperation and conservation efforts.
Bahas of Beijing
Courtyards have been a prominent hallmark of the now inner cities that comprise Kathmandu valley. Bahas are courtyards that house places of worship dedicated to Gautam Buddha and follow the Vajrayana tradition of worship. The word is used in the Newa language to explain the conglomeration of monasteries or vihara. The bahas have essentially become a way of living as it has historically fostered the continued congregation of people from various walks of life.
When Arniko, at the behest of Emperor Kublai Khan, travelled to China to design the monastery and city of Beijing, he might have taken the contemporary living systems from where he came from as an inspiration. In this context, walking through the Siheyuan of Beijing felt a lot like navigating Kathmandu’s bahas. Siheyuan, which literally translates to ‘four sides of a courtyard with the garden in the center’, were ubiquitous in some parts of Beijing. The hutong or narrow lanes connect the various courtyards in striking resemblance to Patan’s bahas. The chatter among residents, the sense of knowing each other and the lingering warmth of the historical places felt so similar to Kathmandu streets.
The more one explored the inside courtyards of Beijing, the more similarities one could find with the courtyards of the Kathmandu valley. The structures of lions and tortoise along with other animals that line entrances, the frescos on the walls, or the beautifully detailed wooden gate structures, doors and windows—the place bore much resemblance to things back home.
It’s interesting to note that many of these old courtyards have also aged in ways similar to their counterparts back at home. While some have given in to house multi-storied large structures, it’s clear that both countries recognise the historical and social value of these architectural designs and are actively working to preserve them in innovative ways. In both countries, the usage of exposed bricks in courtyard areas illuminates a sense of ‘historical modernity’—which has grown increasingly popular as a tourism strategy. In both countries, some traditional courtyards have been converted into boutique hotels. I encountered this in during my stay at the Red Capital Club. The hotel, owned and operated by Social Entrepreneur Laurence Brahm as part of the chain of Shambala Serai hotels, provides a modern peek into history. I was reminded of the many similar initiatives by Nepal-based private actors to restore Patan’s traditional houses into boutique hotels. According to Brahm, these kinds of restoration efforts will appeal to tourists who are seeking high end experiences in local contexts and will disrupt the traditional models of tourism.
The history of Nepal is largely learnt and understood through western writers. Newa culture, which primarily defined and contributed to the history of Kathmandu Valley, is largely based on oral tradition, and consequently, it is difficult to retrieve a clear description of history from it. Further, the ban imposed on the Newa language and Buddhism in the 104 years of the Rana regime ensured that whatever little would have remained in the mid-1850s, in terms of oral tradition, vanished as much as possible.
Now, Nepali scholars studying in China are discovering a wide range of literature in various Chinese languages that fill some of these historical gaps. With archival processes in China improving and old texts and documents being made more accessible, researchers with the required linguistic skills will undoubtedly uncover more of these historical and cultural threads of similarities.
As we discover more threads of similarity between Beijing and Kathmandu, a promising next step is to leverage the technology and research driven museums in China to help in the efforts of learning as well as conservation.
The central exhibition at the Beijing Palace Museum showcased Buddhist sculptures from the SWAT valley of now Pakistan to the North east India, Tibet and China. There were many pieces from Nepal too. Nepal never believed in having good museums, as selling pieces to collectors was seen as a more lucrative endeavor than keeping it in museums. The notoriety of many people close to power in engaging in theft and trade has deprived the current generation from witnessing some of the most magnificent pieces of art. This would also ensure that this subject does not become monopolised by a few agencies who portray themselves as guardians of conservation around the world.
Above all, with more people-to-people interaction, further cooperation will be fostered. This would perhaps give us more deeper understanding between the connections we share—be it through a deeper exploration of the physical designs of the bahas and the siheyuan or a closer look at our entangled ancient histories.
Everything looks promising on paper until we get to work
Amidst much fanfare, the current government launched the social security programme aimed at formal sector workers. The mechanism governing the scheme relies on employers contributing 11 percent, employees contributing 20 percent—and, with the result of these contributions—the contributor providing social security in the form of healthcare, pensions and other prescribed benefits. The current scheme aims to cover about 3.4 million people—about 12 percent of the population—working in the formal sector.
By design, no scheme is ever wrong; the intent is always right. But in Nepal, a prerequisite to gauging the effects of our own scheme first depends on our understanding of the government’s capacity and the intentions of the politician-bureaucrat-business people nexus. Successive governments in the past seventy years have failed to implement schemes according to their intended design. There are no examples to substantiate the belief that this one can be delivered, and there are three major points to support this argument.
A bad start
First, the current administration’s flamboyant and self-aggrandising approach to announce the scheme itself demonstrated that their interests were only superficial.
Despite having successively extorted well during the insurgency days and raised plenty of funds to support their electoral processes, the political forces directed government agencies to force private companies to cough up funds for the campaign. The scheme’s introductory campaign resembled the ones we see in other South Asian countries—especially in the Indian states that border us. If there was good intent, the campaign could have been made into an educative one. The same money could have been utilised to explain the scheme across all forms of communication and train people who will be involved in the implementation process.
Poor past record
Second, the government’s past record—across all the many permutations and combinations of political parties and leaders—has been poor when it comes to managing money. No government has ever been able to spend all their allocated money and manage funds properly.
Furthermore, some acts and legislation seem to exist only as enigmas. The old Labour law and Company Act provided for 5 percent of money to be set aside for Employee Housing. Yet no one in the government can actually explain what this provision did and how many companies complied. Similarly, there is a provision in the Bonus Act that stipulates that excess amount after distribution of bonuses need to be deposited into a National Level Welfare Fund. Till now, no one is aware of the whereabouts of this fund and nobody can identify its manager.
Similarly, for the two big government-owned funds Employee Provident Fund, on visiting the website, the last annual report that appears is five years old. At that time, for a roughly close to $2 billion fund, the returns seem to be less than one percent. In the case of the ‘Citizens Investment Trust,’ the website mentions a ‘Return of Investment of 8.28 percent for the fiscal year 2017-2018.’ This figure is less than the interest on deposits offered by any bank.
Whenever issues about money or fund management by the government arise, people working in the government do not trust their paymasters. The lack of transparency around the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the mismanagement of various schemes, projects and programs by the government,gives little room for the people to believe this new Social Security Fund will be managed well.
Thirdly, the cartel-ridden Nepali private sector has always exercised its knack for creating loop holes to circumvent governmental rules and regulations rather than cooperating with state officials to make things work. Employer-employee relations in organisations with large labor forces has been poor. For instance, in factories or hotels close to the Indian border, rather than trying to work with the government on framing more effective legislation, they would rather hire workers from India, who often do not have any voice. The fact that the Nepali private sector organisations—along with some international agencies and consultants—were involved in designing the new enterprise-unfriendly labor laws speaks volumes of how they treat this issue.
The way out
If the current administration is keen on extracting the kudos of work well done by previous governments, they must be ready to take the flak if it is not successful either. Without the following four steps, the latter situation will be avoided. First, find global fund managers who have the competencies to manage billion dollar funds and hire them on an incentive fee structure basis. Also ensure that there are Nepali firms and individuals that are plugged into the process so that it can be sustainable and locally-driven in a decade.
Second, make the process transparent; investing in educating people on the process rather than on its publicity is required for citizens to grasp the scheme’s importance. Start with an interactive website in multiple languages of Nepal to explain to people what this scheme means and what they need to do about it. When the informal sector has to be tapped in, the base becomes more ready.
Third, the private sector and government needs to work on this jointly and government should be ready to start working beyond super-cartels. Surely, bilateral and multilaterals can always help in this process.
Finally, we need to identify a champion like Kulman Ghishing to run with this and make it work. This individual, along with the global fund manager, can ensure that social security really becomes not a lip service but produces real benefits for citizens. This will result in a major recalibration of Nepal’s growth story: something really worth the fanfare and celebration.
Nepal is stepping back further rather than moving forward
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) released its annual report measuring the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ a couple of weeks ago. The fact that Nepal has slipped a few more places does not really seem to bother anyone. Many people in leadership perhaps even do not know what this report is all about, and furthermore, as it is in English, fewer of them care. However, emerging markets use the way they have climbed steps in the Doing Business report to lure more investors and increase investor confidence. Perhaps slipping places in the report is actually a reflection of the mindset and action of the current administration that, since close to a year, actually enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament. The government is also the first in the past three decades to actually push whatever it wants to—be it advocating for reforms or reversing reforms. Seems they have preferred the latter.
Festivals give you an opportunity to reflect and observe
In Delhi, Diwali is a big deal. Besides being one of the most celebrated festivals in India, Diwali is also the biggest festival of gift exchanging. And it is done in grand way. Gifts of all kinds–corporate gifts, family gifts–are exchanged during the festival.
This culture of exchanging gifts has over the years become more than just an expression of gratitude. It has become competitive. Whose gift is better, whose gift outdoes whose, what did you get as a gift from so-and-so organisation or from your so-and-so relative. These are the questions that swim in the minds of the people who receive gifts.
Such a culture has also slowly made its way into Nepal, especially in Kathmandu. The gifting culture here has become transactional. And unless there is a social or religious compulsion or a transactional gain, the culture of gifting does not really exist. The culture of gifting is dictated by the norms of the community one belongs to and by the importance one gives to their religious and cultural traditions.
The culture of gifting is always a man’s world in Nepal. This notion makes me wonder how this society, where such behaviour is still prevalent, can really understand the importance and urgency of equal rights of women as equal citizens. Festivals in Nepal, while changing, are still designed for men. It is the men who celebrate with the women folk in the house cooking and cleaning. One of the most important reasons of the migration of educated working women to other parts of the world has been the fact that they cannot handle this social and family pressure. This has not been much talked about as it has happened in the homes of activists, thought leaders and self-declared intellectuals. Whenever I see posts of people on social media talking about how they celebrated their festivals with their families in different lands, I keep wondering whether they get away with the bullying back home.
While we are talking about festivals, let me touch upon an activity that is synonymous with festivals: gambling. There are many theories on whether gambling proliferates more in societies that are rent-seeking rather than those that are entrepreneurial. Personally, I have refrained from gambling not because I don’t enjoy a game of cards, but because I cannot handle the big stakes. I keep wondering: will I put at stake my hard-earned money in a manner to blow up big stakes in couple of hours? So what money is being gambled? You can gamble the earnings you got from rent; money that you had nothing to do with as previous generations created assets for oneself. That money can be gambled without you batting an eyelid. It’s always the people who have the free money who are the ones who don’t mind risking it.
This gambling mindset has had particular influence on our government, especially political leaders, who keep gambling with projects as the money is thought to be not of oneself. The opportunity to squander taxpayers’ money is the biggest gamble one can embark upon. This is one of the key reasons why the Nepali economy is a laggard and the quality of growth so poor.
Across the villages and towns in India, they are always waiting for festivals in Nepal, for it is during this time that business opportunities are most available. I remember writing in one of the columns in this paper about how a group of eight sweet makers took back $ 10,000 after spending a month in Nepal just making sweets. The same is with vendors selling all kinds of wares in different parts of Nepal. It is interesting that while people complain there aren’t any jobs in Nepal nor opportunities, they do not take the initiative to get into entrepreneurship.
Yet, everything said, there are still horizons of hope. This Tihar, unlike the ones we celebrated in the past, we can light up our homes. It was not long ago that we spent many Tihar figuring out our inverter’s back-up capacity and when and whether we can afford to switch on which light. In 2015, the festival had been its most somber with the Indian blockade and the earthquakes severely affecting the festive mood.
This year, however, every family who will light up their homes this year will surely, knowingly or unknowingly, think of Kulman Ghising, the MD of the Nepal state utility who demonstrated that good and honest management will bring changes. He managed to impact the lives of the Nepali population by ensuring that we got an uninterrupted supply of electricity. It was a big lesson for a country that could not spend its money wisely and who wasted opportunities like getting $4 billion committed after earthquake or $ 13 billion investment committed at an investment summit.
As we seek the blessings of Goddess Lakshmi for more wealth and prosperity, we need to understand that money is not the solution to everything. The country is not poor, the GDP is $30 billion and then remittance is increasing. People’s asset values are also increasing. If one values assets alone, Nepalis are richer than ever before. But that surely ensures that one needs to think beyond money. This Tihar, think about how now that we have the money, but what do we need to do to fix Nepal?
A multi-pronged approach is required to make business sustainable
Nepal, with its amazing but fragile biodiversity, has an opportunity to lead the global discourse if a few sustainable efforts can emerge towards building a circular economy
At the Responsible Business Summit in Singapore co-hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the discussion on one of the streams was Circular Economy. The phrase has been there for three decades, but as the climate change discourse is building, the discourse around circular economy has increased.
Circular Economy is much understood as something to deal with recycling only; the concept is broader that touches from rethinking, design and system to usage. This is in contrast to the linear economy that works on the create-use-dispose mode. With the landmark report on climate change released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that makes the writing on the wall even more clearer, governments, global multi-nationals and people from different fields are coming together to look at what can be done. While this is a very vast field to begin work on, the focus has been on plastic, which is now globally acknowledged as one of the biggest problems in terms of its disposal and the problems it has been creating. Large corporations are waking up to this reality and pushing innovation in packaging and design apart from exploring newer collaborations in disposal and recycling.
Challenges in Nepal
In Nepal, the plastic ban is the biggest joke after traffic lights. A plastic ban has been talked about since the 1990s and the discourse gets only aggravated when donors put in some money for campaigns. The cartel of companies producing sub-standard plastic bags and other materials have well oiled the political and government machinery to ensure that the ban remains like a religious vow, always taken but never implemented. Corporates that use plastic packaging have never thought it important to figure out how to manage the waste their packaging generates. From aerated beverages to Nepal’s national food, instant noodles, packaging waste continues to accumulate. Plastic bags are omnipresent and seen most in temples and places of worship. Even during Environment Day programmes, we have seen food and drinks served to volunteers on plastic cups and plates.
The other big generator of plastic waste is bottled water, popularly known as mineral water in Nepal. Produced by multiple players with over 500 plus brands in the country, they stay united under a cartel that has been effective in shooing away government teams during inspections related to quality. These bottles along with plastic bags clutter drains and pollute rivers; and finding newer landfill sites is a nightmare.
Plastic as such is not a problem that needs elimination, from the time we get up and use plastic bristles in toothbrushes till we go to bed, we use plastic in different ways and forms. However, it is important now to understand what usage is good and what is not. I still remember when plastic bags and water bottles started getting more prominent as a symbol of status; and fueled by convenience, this was seen as something that was going beyond poverty. Therefore, people used plastic and plastic bottles as a status symbol rather than convenience. Also, in a country where household chores are looked down upon, everyone wanted to escape the hassle of washing cloth shopping bags and glass bottles or other water containers.
Later, carrying cloth bags for shopping or water bottles was seen as something done by expatriates or English-speaking Western activists, it is still not seen as something simple that can be used by everyone. In a country that is always projected as a poor one, and where politics and the business of development has been about rent seeking on poverty, plastic bags are being projected as something that is essential for the poor.
The challenge of waking up people who are pretending to be asleep is always greater than the challenge of waking up people who are actually sleeping. Like the necessity of disposal of waste to keep one’s surroundings clean, people know that low grade plastic creates challenges of disposal; and with videos of dirty oceans going viral on social media, people are aware of their own share in creating this global problem. Corporations know about the trash they are generating through their packaging, but it is easier to get a minister to get a corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme launched than to take on the corporate responsibility of waste disposal.
It is not about spending money. More money has been poured into not-for-profit organisations in the name of plastic management and promoting cloth bags. These disappear once donor support finishes, and the promoters of such organisations then look for another ‘project’. A few initiatives like Khaalisisi have been trying to explore innovations in the management of trash. There are other start-ups that also need to ensure they have a sustainable business model, and not promote a business for social media fame or photo-ops but build something that will last long term.
We cannot expect much from the politicians or the government as there is conflict of interest with people who do not want better management of production, usage and disposal of plastic as their interests are tied through cartels that produce bad plastic and packaging. The circular economy discourse is surely beyond plastic. It is looking at designing products and services that promote reuse and recycling along with reducing waste. There are many institutions that can come together and work towards utilising the circular economy concept for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yeti Airlines CEO Umesh Rai made a presentation at the Summit about how the carrier was transporting back waste from flights returning from Lukla, which was very well received.
Nepal, with its amazing but fragile biodiversity, has an opportunity to lead the global discourse if a few sustainable efforts can emerge towards building a circular economy. Twenty-five years ago, we were in the global limelight for our efforts to make the trekking economy circular; now we have another opportunity. With the UNDP as the key focal point and repository of the global work on SDGs, more collaborators are necessary. Innovative ideas welcome.
It is time to have a long-term plan to manage the Nepali rupee
Contrary to the propaganda established by the current Indian administration on projecting a stable Indian Rupee, the currency has fallen 22 percent in the past four years. From close to Rs 59, it is now close to Rs 74. The impact of the failed demonetisation, among other reasons, have impacted this fall.
Nepali economy is a 1.6 one. That is, for every impact on the Indian Rupee, we get hit 1.6 times. This political exchange rate has never been reviewed. Despite being a USD 30 billion economy that has its currency pegged to another currency, we have not thought it important enough to have a mechanism to review this and continuously monitor it. Since the mechanism began 50 years ago, no one has been able to explain why the exchange rate is 1.6 and what will change this.
Post demonetisation blues
When India declared that sets of bills in circulation would lose their value and be nothing more than pieces of paper, there was a lot of outrage. Ordinary people spent hours queuing at banks to get rid of the bills. A mechanism that was thought to be a tool to curb ‘black money’ became a big joke, as more than 99 percent of the bills were returned to the banks.
The Indian Rupee is informal legal tender in Bhutan and Nepal. There is a free flow of the Indian currency in these two countries. While a mechanism was developed for Bhutan to give back the demonetised Indian currency, for Nepal, there has been no such mechanism. Nepali institutions, including the Nepal Rastra Bank, who has a stock of Indian demonetised bills, are left to believe it is now just a piece of paper. The media houses in India that support the current administration made a lot of noise about Nepal holding over $ 1 billion dollar of demonetised Indian rupees, as Nepal remains to be seen as a hub for terrorism financing.
The big question therefore now remains: how much can we trust the Indian Rupee when demonetisation happens? The low trust in bilateral relations cannot resolve issues. So, if there is a big problem with the Indian currency, will the damage in Nepal be handled without impacting its economy? No one has been pondering on this question, but we should.
Free from being India locked
Nepal is in talks of signing the trade and transit agreements with China, but this does not mean Nepal’s economy has finally been freed from being India locked. If the intent of the government is to diversify trade and investment, then it is also time for it to think about whether it needs to diversify its currency basket. Globally, the Chinese Yuan or RMB is becoming a currency to reckon with, as the value of the USD is declining. The situation is not ‘either-or’ for Nepal, but it is something to ponder on.
With the way, Nepal-China relations are going, Nepal will see surely more investments from China in the years to come. Further, with Chinese outbound tourists crossing the 150 million mark in 2020, and aiming to close the 250-million mark in 2030, it is obvious that there will be more Chinese tourists visiting Nepal, especially because by the time Bhairahawa and Pokhara airports will get completed. With Buddhism becoming more openly discussed and embraced, the birthplace of Buddha will be a must-visit place for Chinese tourists in years to come. There are currently more weekly flights from China to Kathmandu than India, and this trend will probably not reverse.
Whenever Nepali exchange rate is discussed, the inflow of remittance is never brought up. The $6 billion that comes in remittances does keep the currency flow coming in to balance out the $ 10 billion export. If we continue going at this rate, in 2030, the economy will be $ 100 billion, and we could be talking about $ 25 – 30 billion of annual remittances coming into the country. We need to start understanding what the impacts of such a large amount of US dollars coming to the economy will do on the exchange rate.
A long-term plan needed
In Nepal, planning is not something we really enjoy. We send out for food to be bought only after the guests come home! We can never anticipate problems and are very bad at dealing with them. The way the Nepali government handled the Indian Rupee stock issue after demonetisation is appalling.
The time has come to think of the future of the Nepali Rupee and what will be the best mechanism to keep its value strong. It is not necessary that the current arrangement has to change, but we need to know why a certain decision is being taken. If there is a peg with the Indian Rupee, then should it not be reviewed when there is a big inflow of US Dollar coming into the country through remittances, something which was not there at all when the peg was changed to 1.6? Is it time bring it down to 1.3? Further, is there a need to move to a currency basket of INR, USD and RMB? If so, by when should we do it?
Perhaps, the Nepal Rastra Bank needs to work on a Nepali Rupee 2030 paper and plan. We are always there to help work on it.
They should build Boulder Park at Teenkune with the help of Kathmandu’s sister city
The flat iron hills that make the city of Boulder so beautiful remind you of being in familiar territory. While hiking the beautiful trails that crisscross these hills, one continues to think of getting back to somewhere you have been. Walking through the pine forests, it just reminds one of being on the way from Hattiban to Champadevi, or looking down you feel you are walking from Chisapani to Chandragiri. The only difference is that you do not have litter of noodle packets and water bottles. Also, there are no signs of bulldozers having made their mark. Walks through these hills make one wonder the commonalities and the contrasts. Smiling walkers and joggers greet you the same way you are greeted on the trekking trails of Nepal. All this reminds me of the piece I wrote for the Himalayan Arc–Himalayan Citizen, where I talk about home being where the hills and I meet.
JLF at Boulder
The Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) has branched out working on many festivals around the world now. This is the fourth edition of the JLF in Boulder, Colorado. The venue is the public library and one keeps wondering why in Nepal the concept of public library and space has vanished. At the opening ceremony, David Farnan of the Boulder Public Library said something that hit me very hard. Public libraries are the signs of existence of a real democratic society. These libraries exist because they are created and curated by an open-minded community. Sanjoy K Roy and his team at Teamworks churn out world class events at simple venues.
I just reflected on the challenges of doing events in the Kathmandu Valley as hotel hall prices are soaring and banquet halls with filthy toilets can only be used to cater to the thousands who are willing to pay for anything to keep up with societal competition. The four simple venues carved out of the spaces of the libraries makes this festival unique. Hundreds of volunteers and people making financial contributions make this festival happen. When I reflect on the similar festival Mountain Echoes in Thimpu, Bhutan and here in Boulder, it is also so important to have a society that has order to make hosting events easier. It does not come with the mayhem of an undisciplined chattering crowd that does not care about the rules or basic human etiquette. A lot for many festivals that are mushrooming in the region to learn from.
The Himalaya has a special meaning for Boulder and Colorado. It is always amazing to be part of a panel with people one has read and admired. Broughton Coborn, author of Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the Heart, has now more books behind him. This was one of the first books I got engrossed in when I returned to Nepal after my studies. This book is about the journey of a Nepali aama to the US. When you hear Wade Davis, another explorer who has written about Nepal, one wonders how much one can travel during a lifetime and write and talk about cultures that one will never be able to encounter.
Yak Girl, as she likes to call herself, Dorje Dolma left Nepal at age 10 and settled in Colorado. Here is a story one can continuously push one into the past and discuss how she can compare present-day Nepal which has changed tremendously from the time she left many decades ago. Shambala Publications is a Boulder-based publishing house that has an amazing array of titles on the Himalaya and Buddhism, and many Nepal books have been published by them.
Nepalis, Buddhism and Colorado
The early Tibetans and members of the Himalayan community settled here as they found the landscape similar to Tibet. Like the Uber driver who drove me from the airport said, this is the only place in US where you can find monks squatting on the front lawns. Due to the similarity of the higher Himalaya, the Himalayan citizens took a liking to it and now have developed a big community. It is difficult to talk about national identities here. Now Pema, a US citizen, does not want to confuse himself by talking about how their parents moved from Tibet after its annexation by China to India as refugees, and then moved to Nepal and found their way to the US. So they find the Nepali question of where is your home very awkward. Nepalis from Nepal and in Nepal need to realise that the identity of being a Nepali also emerges from the language one speaks.
Many Buddhist centres have sprung up, and many people who have put faith in the life and work of Buddha have settled here. When I did the workshop Buddha As A Coach, it was intriguing to see a hall full of people keen to have a conversation on how to use the tools given by Buddha in their everyday lives. Unlike in Nepal, where the discourse around Buddha is about Buddha being born in Nepal and nothing to do with his teachings, here a big community has been built on taking the practice of Buddhist teachings into contemporary lives.
Mayor Suzanne Jones leads a nine-member City Council that has six women members including her. They consider themselves to be a service providing firm and are keen to make the city free of waste by 2025. The city keeps acquiring open spaces. The administration works closely with the City Council to ensure that there are many events around the year like the JLF that give a unique brand identity to the city. Currently, 60 percent of the city comprises of open spaces that neighbouring cities envy.
Perhaps one thing that Kathmandu can learn from this sister city is how to keep open spaces open, and not be tempted to lease out every inch of open space. With more resources from taxes and federal grants, the municipality must be able to acquire private spaces to increase open spaces. The low-hanging fruit will be building a Boulder Park with the help of the City of Boulder at the Teenkune open space close to the airport which everyone fears will be leased out to some party sympathiser, like many open spaces in the Kathmandu Valley.
We have replicated the lack of planning, squalor and chaos of Kathmandu all over Nepal
In Butwal, as I looked out of my hotel room window, I saw water gushing in an erstwhile rivulet that now resembles an urban canal. Then I saw two drains from a newly built unfinished road bringing muck into this rivulet turned storm water drain. Immediately, I was reminded of the Tukucha stream in Kathmandu that now transports a good chunk of trash from homes and establishments, that pride in corporate social responsibility (CSR), into the Bagmati. I started to wonder if we have been replicating the mess of Kathmandu in other parts of Nepal.
Each Nepali city looks homogenous. The common visual produced being potholed roads, dangling wires, waterlogged streets, structures of all kinds, rebars jutting out of the roof, piles of garbage, horrible hoarding boards and, of course, the least caring Nepali who is just happy that land prices are going up.
Where is the problem
It is very clear that money is not the problem as there is billions in government money, development partner money and private money that is going into construction. The construction is done by private firms, and we cannot just blame the government. There are private firms and people outside government who are also involved in the design state and are responsible for monitoring. Therefore, it is neither lack of money nor the non-involvement of the private sector that is the problem. The problem perhaps lies in lack of imagination and execution skills.
For instance, whenever events are held in Nepal, be it a high profile meet like BIMSTEC or a social function like a wedding, the execution is based on the imagination of the worker who generally comes from across the border. People from India who work in tent houses and petty labour are the ones who actually execute the work and do the finishing. The results are limited to their imagination. Aesthetics is something South Asia, apart from Sri Lanka, has stopped thinking about. Further, everything is about making it look good for a few days when it is put up, it is never meant to last long-term.
The fact that our engineers, architects, project managers and people engaged in construction have been educated either in India or in Nepali institutions with an Indian curriculum has led to the absence of thinking about how it looks, how to plan, how to conserve heritage, how to bring about energy efficiency and how to do things for the long term. We need to understand that the Indian curriculum was taken from the British curriculum of the early 20th century where construction was all about creating ugly looking factories and towers that looked like boxes, and never about aesthetics. It was only in the latter half of the last century that people started fighting against polluting rivers and bad aesthetics. In New York, after the demolition of the beautiful Penn Station building to give way to an ugly box building, there was a movement to conserve heritage buildings.
When the imagination of the federal government—with folks who have been educated and exposed to the world—is limited, we cannot expect much from folks in the local government who have less exposure and imagination. Conversations with local leaders is limited about how they will use the municipal or government land to build a complex to have shops. Few of them talk about parking complexes. They are advised by supposed private sector folks who are clearly there on a land grab spree. It is about creating an opportunity of a construction contract that benefits both sides, never about making the city better or more functional. The big challenge of Kathmandu is found now in every city in Nepal.
The urban landscape is now filled with shops and eateries of all kinds. The icon of socialism in Bhrikuti Mandap, the shopping ghetto next to Singha Durbar promoted by political folks across party lines, is the icon to be replicated elsewhere. There is no minimum requirement for an eatery for hygiene or sanitation. No minimum requirement for shops. Highways are dotted with ugly structures of unregulated construction company hardware stores built at a fraction of the cost of the stocks they carry. These outlets doing billions of rupees worth of transactions each year have never bothered to invest anything in safety or the design of the structures. These are iconic structures of crony capitalism, and every Nepali drunk in a watering hole aspiring for quick money dreams of owning one of these. The conversations on what making money is all about can be interesting stories to hear and ponder upon.
What can be done
We have also seen that in the Kathmandu Valley, architects and project managers who have been trained in Europe and exposed to aesthetics, heritage conservation and energy management have produced some good pieces. Starting from architects like Weise in the 1960s to Götz Hagmuller and later on to Nepali architects like Kai Weise and Prabal Thapa, they have been able to create a balance between function and form. There is this beautiful building housing the Norwegian Embassy in Bakhundol, Lalitpur where folks from the government and the private sector go for receptions, but they never think about how we can replicate these structures in our own buildings that are coming up.
We really need to start thinking about simple regulations on structures. What should a shop or eatery have as minimum standards? The local government should be able to monitor them. There has to be better planning of urban infrastructure. Cables can go underground where new roads are built, and storm water drainage should be well planned to avoid water logging. Development partners who are keen to help Nepal should depart from making leaders travel to conferences and meetings. They should promote competition among local governments that will ensure efforts are made to improve aesthetics, functionality and other aspects of urbanisation. Things are yet to get out of hand; but if some major interventions are not done now, Nepal will become a congregation of urban ghettos 10 years later.
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.