Sujeev Shakya

Articles & Publications

Call for change

Through peaceful and smart protests around the country, the youth have demanded a structural transformation. It should be perceived by a warning bell by all of society.

A youth, out of frustration, started a group on Facebook called ‘Covid-19 Nepal: Enough Is Enough!’. When I first came to know of the page, it had 500 members. In just a week, the number has swelled to over 180,000. From the outset, the group has called for protests against governance, not for a change of government. It has demanded accountability on the public money spent and questioned the manner in which the federal government handled the pandemic.

The people venting their disapproval now are very different from the usual protesting crowd. This group definitely departs from the image that party workers project; politically backed protestors in Nepal seem to think that the more furious the mob looks before a camera, the more effective the protests. But the protestors currently demanding change are not the kind to burn tyres or destroy vehicles and property. What happened recently was a departure from the youth vandalism we see in the streets in the name of protest.

It is common in Nepal to spend years in college and university to ensure one keeps a position in the unions. The student unions have in the past competed over who could be more violent or forceful. They received patronage from political leaders as many of them later became leaders in mainstream politics because of their superb track record of their triumph of politics over education. There are only a few exceptions to this rule. Yet, the recent protestors were not visibly tied to any such student unions.

Global Nepalis

In Unleashing the Vajra, I have described the type of people currently showing dissent as the ‘Global Nepalis’. Nepalis who want their world to be the best any youth can have anywhere in the world. They grew up with education taught in the English language; therefore, they are exposed to more writings and global platforms such as TED and Medium. They know of the latest trends in coffee. They listen to music that is globally trending—which can include music as diverse as K-pop or an obscure band from Africa. They watch well-developed productions on YouTube and have subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. They know where to download the books they need or want. They want to compete with their peers throughout the world. Therefore, when one looked at the pictures of demonstrators squatting on the road, it was no different than the youth in Amsterdam, London or Los Angeles.

This is the new force in Nepal to reckon with. In this country, we forget that 50 percent of the voters are women. We forget that the youth under 25 comprises of half of our population and people under 35 make up for 70 percent. However, out of the 6 percent of the people above 65, we have seen the 2 percent males rule in all sectors. Many of the protestors that I talked to shared how their parents or elderly family members did not understand what the dissent is about. Perhaps this is not a movement against the government, but a movement against the status quo.

There were political leaders and others who were quick to label this as an elitist movement, of the privileged English-speaking people (as most banners and posts in the group were in English). Comments on what they were wearing and what they were carrying became pointers to say they were outliers. However, when a single cause spreads to all cities across the country, it should be perceived as an alarm bell that must be heeded. In 2015, Blair Glencorse and I wrote an opinion article for The New York Times, ‘Shaking Up The Status Quo In Nepal’ which touched on this. The youths here can be a productive force to shake up the state of things. They can bring about big transformations, as the Arab Spring did in the Middle-East and North Africa. The next round of elections being just two years away, it will be important for not only the government but all political parties to think about how they will address the demands of these youth.

Unleashing transformation

My book Unleashing Nepal was about a corporate executive wanting to use money, investment and management skills to transform Nepal. This became the base of my arguments for change in Arthat Arthatantra, my first book in the Nepali language. In Unleashing the Vajra, I end with the need for social transformation to realise economic transformation. Many of my columns in the past year have focused on individual transformation. This week, my second Nepali book, Arthat Pariwartan, is being launched. It explores the way we need to change how we look at Nepal and Nepalis. I talk extensively about the potential of the global Nepalis who are there to take on the world. All that is needed from society is a change in perception. These young people who took up to social media and the streets inspired the team behind Arthat Pariwartan to push the launch forward—in an e-book format that the youth can relate to, with audio embedded so that readers can listen along. Moreover, readers have a choice to buy and read separate chapters or the entire book.

Change is inevitable, but it is always important to be on the right side of change. One has to learn and change to be able to have the credibility to talk about change. 

Internalising change

Many have witnessed positive change at the individual level during the lockdown. The key is to sustain this growth even after a return to the normal.

I am an early riser. I go from a state of rest to one of activity fairly quickly, making a lot of noise going up and down the wooden staircase or opening and closing doors; that is, until my family members brought this to my attention. Perhaps the noise generated when opening or closing doors is a small matter, but it provides huge lessons in humility. In the sixty or so days of lockdown, the noise levels have been practically eliminated; the family does not know my day has begun. The lessons I learnt from this small exercise in change was important in the household, as have other small but important lessons learnt during this time. These sixty days of moments of learning about oneself could not have been bought—even by paying millions of dollars. It prompted me to design a programme about internalising and implementing change, which I conducted over webinars voluntarily to groups inside and outside Nepal.

Self-critique is difficult

In a country where people find digression in discussing maps and politics, it is very hard to focus on one’s life. I found some interesting reactions during the webinars I had conducted. There were people, particularly women, who were having tremendous difficulty in juggling the supervision of children for online lessons, managing husbands who are seeing kitchen sinks for the first time in their lives and the needs of demanding parents and in-laws. Some did not know how best to use their free time—many indulged excessively on the internet and got frustrated with an overload of news reports. Some, even with the security afforded to them with stable jobs in international organisations, world-class health insurance and the privilege of mobility in vehicles that are allowed to move during the lockdown, would not stop complaining.

Yet many more will go to great lengths to not analyse their personal lives; they would rather find distractions and escape from reality. So, questions on Nepali politics, the future of capitalism, the border issues and the government’s response continued to feature despite requests to focus on the individual. An organisation leader who joined in on a webinar with his team said he was interested to learn about the economic impacts of Covid-19. I, of course, reminded him of the reason the programme—a voluntary exercise—was created and told him there was enough material to read on his subject of interest outside the webinar. The leader was upfront after that—he did not feel comfortable sharing his personal experiences in public, especially not in front of his team. In a society where conservatism rules and mental health is seldom discussed, discussing personal challenges and self-change are seen as taboo subjects. People are happy to advise others but less open to self-critique.

A volatile world

One of the greatest joys of this lockdown has been to connect with scholars I would not have otherwise been discussing issues with and learning different ways in which people are coping with this change in different parts of the world. Professor Jack McCarthy of Babson College introduced me to the concept of the VUCA world—a world that is going to be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. He not only shared with me the different aspects of this new world but provided a solution to convert the VUCA into an action-oriented response. The response being vision, understanding, clarity and agility which is so critical in the way we look at the post-Covid-19 world. Eliza Ryan, author of bestseller Supermindful: How to Tap Into Your Creativity guided me to look at the tree differently. She talked about how we can think of ourselves as a tree; we can deepen our roots and we can branch out more. This can be seen on how some people managed to complete online courses, learn languages, learn baking or cooking new dishes, playing online games with families and connecting with people they had not talked to for decades. The response to the crisis and the uncertainty that will unfold can be only managed by analysing the self to understand the changes that are needed at a personal level to meet the uncertainties of the times.

Sustaining the changes

The questions people ask at these sessions mainly focus on whether people will be able to sustain the positive changes. Women ask me whether their husbands who are doing some amount of household chores will continue to do so. Will men who were used to going out with friends continue to spend time with family? Will families continue to watch movies or series together? A popular question was whether the meditation people have been accustomed to, through online groups, will continue when things go back to normal. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to sustain the positive changes one had brought about at the individual level. Many worry that, much like the clear blue skies, the silence, and the clear air which may regress after the enforced lockdown is over, personal changes may also be short-lived.

Human transformations take place through awareness; if one has to sustain the changes, one has to become aware of the transformations that have taken place. There will be no drastic changes in people, but change is always incremental. All of us who have made those positive incremental changes will need to preserve and build on it, as they will surely help to build better families, societies and nations.

We need more economists

And we need firms and organisations to invest more in research and analysis.

Two events last week prompted me to write this column. First, for a work-related meeting, we listened to an analysis given by Swarnim Wagle, current executive chair of the Institute of Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), on the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and what to expect. It was full of insights; during the team meetings later, we discussed how we need more people like Wagle, people who are willing to provide analysis backed by deep research and share it in an easily understandable language. The second event was after the finance minister spoke on the government’s economic plans. I was scrambling across different media for some review and understanding, yet even the mainstream media was more than happy to carry a report from the national news agency, RSS.

For every hundred opinions on Lipu Lekh, why is it that we do not have one good analysis on the economy? Is it because this requires reading and analysis, in contrast to off the cuff opinion? Even when economic news or analyses are featured, most media outlets are seen to be relying on validation quotes from either some cartel head (irrespective of whether the person has an understanding of the issue or not) or the same ‘experts’ who have been used to seeing their picture in the news for the past 30 years. It is also interesting to note how some in the media ask for opinions in these issues—as if they are doing the expert a favour by having their opinion in their news stories, in print or television. Personally, I have now begun asking journalists to pay me for any analytical content they need. In Nepal, there are only a few media outlets that actually pay for opinion pieces. It is not about the amount paid, but it is about recognising the time and effort put in by people to produce content. Perhaps people who do not have the habit of spending time to formulate their thoughts would never recognise the value of research and analysis.

Lopsided priorities

Many budding economists who have taken the route to establish think tanks and research institutions complain about not being able to find funds to run institutions. A year back, a team that I was involved in got together to figure out why people find it difficult to pay for research. We discussed how banks that have combined deposits of $30 billion and operate in an economy of this size neither hire economists nor are willing to pay firms that have them. I remember talking to a banker about a monthly arrangement for providing exclusive research and analysis. We had several meetings, but eventually, it became clear that they were not even willing to pay a token amount each month. When I saw them spend millions of rupees in jacket advertisements in newspapers welcoming a visiting boss, their priorities were made clear. Sycophancy keeps your jobs safe, not research and analysis.

Many institutions have been shuttered when the funds they were getting from development partners dried up. Even in large multilaterals, glossy publications emerge whenever there is a leader that values analysis and pushes for research; they dry up once the person leaves or the funds are spent. Billions of rupees spent on research projects do not leave any repository of knowledge or data that people in the future can refer to. There have been times my firm has been approached by organisations, after a leadership change, to ask for copies of reports that they themselves published! This is what happens when research is seen as an offshoot project, and not taken seriously in institution-building. Further, with many development partners preferring to hire individuals over firms or institutions, most of them do not promote building a knowledge repository. If such organisations find some talent in local institutions, they find it easier to poach the person rather than help build the local firm to benefit many.

Transformational mindset

At Nepal Economic Forum, we have been consistently working for over a decade in producing economic research and analysis supported by a unique model where people who work at Beed—our management consulting firm—volunteer time to keep the not-for-profit going. We have also been inspired by people like our Senior Fellow Chandan Sapkota, who despite his busy days during his PhD and now working at a key position in Asian Development Bank, India finds time to analyse economic issues back home. There are many who are following Chandan’s footsteps. They need support so that they may keep one foot in Nepal, even when living and working in other parts of the world.

We stare at a new paradigm in the post-COVID-19 world, where the lines between economic, physical, behavioural or mental health-related issues and issues relating to development and finance are blurred. The world of big data will make extrapolating the future easier than it was in the past; more pracademics will enter the world of analysis. With online courses from the best universities and institutions in the world becoming accessible and people getting trained better by lockdowns to manage the virtual learning environment, we only can hope more people are going to take up research and analysis with more interest. It is critical to do so to make informed decisions. The hope lies in these new-age analysts who will emerge with a transformational mindset. If entrepreneurs and next-generation leaders in family-run businesses are willing to invest in research and analysis as a comparative advantage vis-à-vis their competitors, we will not only see a paradigm shift, but we will see more Nepali businesses going global.   

Buddhism as a connector

Forgetting the religious aspect, Buddhism can still be used as a cultural tool to connect Nepal to the world.

On this week falls the 2565th Buddha Jayanti. The Theravada-influenced celebrations regard this day to be the day Siddhartha Gautam was born, and also the day he attained enlightenment and nirvana. Different Buddhist sects and countries have different calendars that they hold as the correct. Therefore, it would be good to discuss Buddhism as a connector when we all are locked in our homes but connected to the world through technology.

While Buddha spent a lot of time in Nepal after receiving enlightenment, his teachings have remained very limited. Apart from the narrative that ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’, we do not have Buddha’s teaching or way of life integrated into the school curriculum. The years of Shah and Rana rule isolated Buddhism. During the Rana rule, Buddhist monks were expelled from Nepal and took refuge in Kalimpong in neighbouring India, where institutions like Dharmodaya Sabha continued to preserve practice amongst the large Newa diaspora that were linked to trade with Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism became the most prominent amongst the Buddhist sects in Nepal and the Himalayan region, as the Buddhist monks were also the political rulers in Tibet and in Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, the monasteries were parallel political power centres, much like churches in medieval Europe. It is a little known fact that Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from Nepal, with Princess Bhrikuti in the sixth century and later with the Buddhist master Padmasambhava who meditated in Pharphing, Namo Buddha and Mustang. Atisa Dipankara, a Buddhist master from the Pala Empire (current day Bangladesh) travelled to Tibet through Nepal. Guru Milarepa resided in the Tsum Valley in Gorkha; this valley still does not allow animal slaughter. The Tibetan inscriptions use the Ranjana script used by the Newar language and popular art like Newa Paubha became Tibetan Thangkas. In my book Unleashing The Vajra, I explore the journey of Arnico to the court of Kublai Khan, who is regarded as the one who built Buddhist temples in Beijing. This was in contrast to the history lessons that I read in school, which said that Kublai Khan was a Muslim emperor. The various theories, writings and oral history passed down from generations for over millennia make the reading around Buddhism with a completely non-religious perspective interesting.

The major writings on Buddhism begin with the travel of King Ashoka and his children to spread Buddhism. However, little is written about—and research is only just emerging—on Buddhism spreading with the Shakyas after the loss of the Kingdom of Kapilvastu and the massacre of the Shakyas. To escape death, many Shakyas fled towards the Kathmandu Valley, where the Vajracharya priests accommodated them in their own category despite the Shakyas belonging to the warrior class. Many more members of the royal family of Kapilvastu migrated as far as current-day Burma and Afghanistan. With more people getting interested in Buddhist anthropology, more accounts of these migrations will emerge. King Ashoka is known to have spread Buddhism to Sri Lanka and from there it moved to Southeast Asia. The Mahayana tradition began in China and moved to present-day Korea and Japan. The Ch’an school, based on the Sanskrit word dhyana, started taking root and later became Zen.

History is always written by the conqueror and in Nepal, the Mallas, Shahs and Ranas who were devout Hindus regarded Buddha as only a part of the Hindu pantheon and never wanted a practice-based sect to challenge royal patronage of Hinduism, especially when the rulers purported themselves as the reincarnation of gods. Therefore, Nepal as a state never looked at pushing scholarships and research around Buddhism.

After World War II and the challenges of the Cold War, the annexation of Tibet by China and the ghastly events of the Vietnam war, peace became a mantra and there was tremendous interest in Buddhism in the West. The rise of the Dalai Lama as an icon of non-violence and compassion made Buddhism a cool thing to embrace. In Nepal, Lumbini was to be developed and the Shah Kings quickly took over control through the establishment of the Lumbini Development Trust, which in Republican Nepal functions as an extension of the political party machinery. Lumbini Buddhist University, founded in 2004, has been producing some good papers and research connecting Nepal’s history to Buddhism, but a lot more can be done.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Nepal have dotted many hills across the country, and many of them attract many foreign visitors in search of Buddhism. They like to position their form of Buddhism as connected with Tibet rather than Nepal because that connection has better brand value and appeal in the West. The opening up of China towards indulgence in Buddhist practices will lead to more stories and perspectives, as it has preserved Buddhist history and writings like no other country in the world.

During my visits to Buddhist centres, many stories have emerged. In Indonesia, where the world’s largest stupa-style Buddhist temple, known as Borobudur, resides, there are stories of Gunadharma—the artist who built the temple—actually coming from Lalitpur in Nepal. The Pala dynasty in what is now Bangladesh had strong connections with Nepal. The tradition of the Vajracharya priests chanting the Charyapada and Charya dances actually originate in Nepal, but folks here do not want to concede that much. In the monasteries of Ulan Bator, we learn of exchange visits of monks between there and Nepal. The most surprising for me was to discover the Republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation that is 10 times the size of Sikkim but half the population is predominantly Buddhist with strong ties with a few monasteries in Nepal.

In Boulder, Colorado, I met people who talked about how Buddhism came to the West millennia ago through Mexico (the names Guatemala and Maya have a connection with Buddhism and the indigenous people of the United States have practices similar to Buddhists). There are people who also tell you that the conversations between Nagasena and Indo-Greek King Menander (referred to as Milinda in the famous book Questions of Milinda) could have influenced beliefs and practices in Christianity. The Aesop’s Fables find their roots in the Buddhist Jataka Tales.

The attempt is not to prove who is right and who is wrong. I find it important to understand the different perspectives emerging from different parts of the world when you look at Buddhism not as a religion you follow but as a connecting tool to understand.

If Harry Potter, a fictional character created by a human being can gain so much popularity and cult, then why can’t we look at Buddhism as a connector to push Nepal’s own connectivity with the world. We have seen during the lockdown the extent technology can connect the world, when physical contact is limited. The new age explorers are not the ones who will travel the seven seas, but the ones who use the power of the keyboard to connect. Nepalis can surely leverage this to build their own global identity. The world has seen in this pandemic how knowledge, research, wealth and military power can do little if we do not focus on the smaller issues—understanding our own lives, our purpose, our desires, aspirations and priorities. We have been given great time to reflect on our awareness, mindfulness and compassion. There are always new lenses available to look at the same issues. This will be the best way perhaps to celebrate Buddha Purnima, a national holiday.

The Nepali economy will bounce back quick

More in-depth analyses and multi-dimensional perspectives are required.

All media platforms across the world are filled with analyses on the impact of Covid-19 and the resultant lockdowns on economies. Job losses in the US have made the headlines. There are doomsday prophecies to be found everywhere. It is too early to say what will be the impact, but I do not tend to agree with the naysayers. The economy will rebound to surprise all of us.

For Nepal, it is important to understand the nature of our economy and businesses. It cannot be swayed by numbers being generated in economies it is not connected to. We should not forget that in 2015, the economy was hit with a major earthquake and subsequently by a blockade. The supply chain and job disruptions that time were harsh. In the aftermath, we thought Nepalis will be hit by conscience in terms of spending on social events, not building unsafe structures and preserving open spaces. We were all proved wrong. The exorbitant spending post-2015 actually pushed our economic growth numbers. Similarly, we need to quell haphazard analyses and look at the key issues on our own.

Understanding tourism

We need to dispel the popular notion that Nepal is dependent on international tourism. On the contrary, research shows that 64 percent of the tourism revenues come from domestic tourists. Nepalis are not going to sacrifice their travel, sekuwa and booze after this for sure; rather than travelling outside Nepal, which will be a challenge for some time, the domestic movement will increase.

Data from hotel sales suggest that big hotels in Kathmandu and other big cities have their revenue driven by domestic social events like marriages and family events. It has become a societal necessity to a certain portion of the population to have multiple functions like wedding anniversaries, multiple-day wedding functions, baby shower parties, birthdays and any other functions—seemingly an attempt to emulate Indian soap operas. Along with events hosted by domestic organisations, nearly two-thirds of revenue and profitability of these hotels came from these domestic sources. These segments may be impacted until social distancing rules remain, but we definitely will not see Nepalis suddenly having events with 51 guests only. In Nepali society, like in some other societies, spending is not only about celebration, but an opportunity to show off one’s wealth and networks. Therefore, it will be important to back analysis with data.

In the context of international tourism, the bookings in China after July are looking good. For Nepal, the China market will be the one to watch post-October. With China’s ambitious soft diplomacy plans, and plans to keep its airlines afloat, we may see a large number of tourists that may travel with state support. Similarly, for Indians, the religious tourism component will dramatically increase, especially if Nepal can get over this crisis with minimal damages to lives and livelihood. We already have theories on why this former Hindu kingdom has not been hit so hard due to the great gods and goddesses that protect it.

Understanding migration

The other big component stoking fears is an end to labour migration. But it is very hard to believe that people from host countries like the UAE and Qatar will actually get around to doing their own dishes. Their lives have been engineered to depend on workers from outside; this will not change. There may be a hiatus, but the demand will not end. For many workers who are now stranded in Nepal or may not want to go back, domestic job openings will increase. Let us not forget that, officially, there were 600,000 Indian workers in Nepal before this crisis began and there are opportunities for Nepali workers to prove that they can also work with the same productivity and accept the same wages as Indian workers. Nepalis are known for their resilience—and their ability to find work and thrive even in highly unsafe countries such as Iraq and South Sudan.

If there is a challenge at hand, it will come from those that I brand ‘DV nationalists’ who are now stuck in the country. These are the breed of people who are desperate to leave Nepal, who never consider living here, but are the ones who flood social media walls with ultra-nationalist slogans. Nearly 100,000 people who go to Australia, UK and US to seek generally long term settlement through student visas (peddled well by the education consultancy industry) will be ones who see the chances of going abroad shrinking. We have seen only a small percentage of them actually return to Nepal to work or settle down.

In another month, it will be clear where the country is heading. Nepalis need to look back and think of all the difficult situations we have persevered through in the past. This one is a different one, but it will pass. 

Lockdown Musings

This is the best reflective time we have got—everyone needs to use it productively.

This has been bizarre and unprecedented. We are connected virtually to the world but we are isolated in our houses. It has surely helped people to reflect on many things. While social media is providing all sorts of news, views, prophecies, predictions and humour, people are learning how to live in a world where uncertainty and anxiety rule. Nepal’s fate is very much tied to India’s during such times; our land border can bring goods and people from either side but can also bring in the virus, SARS-CoV-2.

We were not too worried when Covid-19 was a big issue in China, we continued to allow flights from our northern neighbour. Our major sources of news and views are not from China, and with a complex system of information dissemination, we do not have accurate information from the country. Even if the information is being shared, we question its authenticity and credibility. Nepalis started to panic only when the pandemic hit Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Canada and then the US. Almost every Nepali family would have someone within their first degree of contact that resides in those countries.

A yearning for a home

The pandemic hit Nepal when it started to impact Nepalis across the world. The sense of identity became important as, at these tough times, it is only the country whose passport you hold that becomes a true source of hope and comfort. Therefore, the worst-hit are the Nepalis who have been living without proper papers in different parts of the world. The mass exodus from India also reflects this behaviour; it is not only about going hungry, but in case of the worst-case scenario medical teams will start to choose—naturally they will choose their own citizens before others. In Italy, this choice sadly became based on age, where younger people were being treated at the cost of the elderly. I hope that no other country will have to take such decisions.

The lockdown is the new normal and we are not sure how long it will continue. People are getting used to new ways of life. Working from home is possible for knowledge workers; people are discovering newer platforms to keep connected. With electricity and the internet being available in abundance, many services continue. However, people who work in small private sector firms or have jobs in shops, eateries, hotels, and still others who run small businesses, are already being impacted. Some of them are innovating through providing the home delivery of goods, but this is a very small segment.

The people in such sectors will need to dip into their savings—if they have any—for at least a good four to six months; rarely do government programmes reach the people who are in need. Further, a majority of the large Nepali private sector players, in the past, during the most trying times, have demonstrated they just do not have large hearts. In the end, it is the social structure of Nepal through families, friends and well-wishers that will help to tide this situation.

The few positives

It is nice to see the social media space also being plastered with pictures of the skyline devoid of pollution, the birds chirping and with clear views of the Himalayas. We in Kathmandu are suddenly realising why many visitors in the seventies and eighties used to refer to this valley as being air-conditioned. The climate control button does not always need to be in human hands—nature is giving us a climate where we do not need any heating or cooling. The complete shutdown of construction and traffic is providing our eyes, ears and nose with a calm not experienced in decades.

We realise how picturesque the valley remains with the greenery and flowers. Perhaps, we realise in the quest of getting the last anna of land when a family property is being divided or trying to get the government, guthi and public land to build and extend our structures: did we do the right thing? In these unprecedented times, we are also witnessing social change. As women are forced to work from home as well as work at home, more and more men are stepping up—or being forced to step up—to help with household chores.

On the macro scale, it is time to think of replicating the mindset of reflection we have created during lockdown to see how this can be used when we think of climate change, consumption, following traffic rules, construction norms and our overall greed for more land and property. Whenever this lockdown comes to an end, we need to ensure that the reopening needs to occur in a staggered way. It will be important to keep Nepal isolated for some time from international passenger flights, though emergency flights and cargo flights need to continue with the right protocols.

The land borders need to be regulated; there has never been a better time to begin keeping proper records of people who are crossing the border on both sides. This is not a new thought—it was recommended in the report of Eminent Persons Group for India and Nepal. Now, India will also realise that this is not only in Nepal’s interest but its own as well. Of course, we have to also ensure that we have goods flowing two ways, as that keeps a lot of smaller businesses on both sides of the border going. The effects of the 2015 blockade, though largely felt in Nepal, also impacted the Indian side right across the border. We need to have a plan for the gradual easing of activities, but social and religious gatherings will still need to be curtailed for a long time to come. We can again learn from Singapore, who just released their circuit breaker guidelines—which ensures further distancing. 

Get the small things right

During such trying times, citizens need to trust the government. Portraying professionalism would help.

On Friday, March 20, I saw a tweet from the press advisor to the prime minister, announcing that Prime Minister KP Oli would be speaking to the nation at 6 pm on the same day. During such trying and confusing times, I try to look for what the government is saying rather than depend on the barrage of messages that flood different social media and connectivity platforms. I put on Nepal Television channel and waited for Oli to appear; it was only at 6:09 pm that the live telecast started (I am not sure whether a few minutes were truncated as it began abruptly). In times of crisis, nine minutes is a long time. I immediately tweeted—tagging all of Oli’s advisors—that, like washing hands, we need to get the small things right. It does not matter who is in government, but the country has to be able to rely on the government.

Only in a time of crisis, like now, is when the head of government becomes the most important person in the country. A speech from the prime minister of Singapore brought about calm in the island nation. In Rwanda, the president has taken it upon himself to show the citizens how to wash hands. There is a belief in what the leaders say in that country because the leaders’ reputations are solid. But here, in Nepal, when an important broadcast to the nation begins late, it is very difficult to believe that the government will act in time when there is a crisis. All crises present great opportunities to leaders. We Nepalis are already big fans of Oli’s personal resilience—fighting his health condition and emerging victorious. Yet, we need to see this extend to the conduct of national affairs.

An official designated handle

Recently, a two-page announcement attributed to the government was floating on social media, initially shared by some officials. However, the points made in the announcement did not hold true for even an hour. The SEE examinations, which were not supposed to be postponed as per the document, were postponed. Because the government does not have an official handle for different social media platforms for all communications, it seems the prime minister’s key aides began competing to show who is more close to the source of the news. It is important that we now have an official handle across all platforms; those close to the prime minister and the federal government should share the official version of all announcements through that avenue, so that all can take a cue and share said information. The state also needs to take action against those who are spreading false news—many of the rumour manufacturers are high-profile people.

We also need to release information in multiple languages, both local and global. With unofficial translations doing the round, confusion reigned supreme. An example of this could be seen after the government announced the closure of all incoming international flights into Nepal beginning March 20, midnight. Many, including foreigners who work in Nepal, were confused whether the cut-off meant passengers couldn’t come in from 12 am on March 20 (Friday night) or from 11:59 pm (Saturday night).

Foreign missions in Nepal are also grappling with the challenge of being accountable for so many citizens who are stuck. Consequently, Nepali missions abroad are bombarded with questions. For Nepal, it is good to recognise the other languages of Nepal beyond the token two pages that appear in Gorkhapatra once in a while. Guidance needs to be disseminated in audio, video and print format across all platforms in different languages. If the government does not have the resources (the first excuse we will hear), it would be prudent to designate voluntary organisations who are willing to take up this task.

Trust and resilience

We do not live in a world where neighbours will fight for tissue paper and hand sanitizer. We have a strong social ecosystem. During the earthquake, despite the news of epidemics breaking out, or after the Royal Massacre, when the insurgents spread rumours of milk being poisoned to panic valley residents, we reached out to, and helped, each other. In times of crisis, our bathrooms, kitchens and rooms do not remain our own. In the worst-hit places of the earthquake, people helped each other to provide food to volunteers who came to help. Many of the selfie-maniacs (the ones that took selfies instead of providing relief) were shocked, as people who went to provide food were given food in return. We went through difficult times during the Indian blockade of 2015, and let us not forget we had a dismal power supply situation then. At least now, we can keep our induction stoves going without batting an eyelid, we can work from home as we know there will be electricity to power our modems and internet connections. We need to also reflect on how fortunate we are while we also prepare for any eventualities.

The private sector has an opportunity

The private sector in Nepal has the notorious reputation of using times of crisis to hoard, artificially inflate prices, ask for excessive government support and then convert it into an opportunity for themselves. Many people accuse me of generalising trends in the Nepali private sector. But since no one comes out to speak openly against these wrongdoers, we need to assume that the majority of businesspersons and industrialists can be put into this basket. While we have a great history of philanthropy, both through religion and culture, we have not heard of the most affluent among us coming out and announcing any actions or contributions.

Businesses that will be impacted will need support in the form of tax and interest relief, but the people who can contribute something without hurting their financial position must go ahead and help the government in these times. Similarly, this is not a time to think of how the private foundations—usually set up to complete token corporate social responsibility tasks—will make money out of this crisis (some of those who similarly profited during the earthquake will likely be scheming already).

The private sector needs to help the government to ensure that supply chains are not disrupted. And, in a case of extremes, private hospitals and healthcare providers should be willing to work under unified command and direction. Every one of us has a role to take on during a crisis—an emergency that we have not created but that has engulfed the world all the same. Like we used our resilience, common sense and community approach to get over crises of the past, we shall overcome this one, too.

What we can learn from Covid-19

Every challenge teaches us lessons; it will be important to be prepared to tackle the next one that comes without notice.

When news of the novel coronavirus first came from Wuhan, the world got busy talking about how China’s political system had allowed a virus to hit its economy and how its political system is not suited for the 21st century. In New York and Boston, I heard of it being a China problem. Of course, the commentators pointed out that a few other underdeveloped countries like Nepal also needed to be wary of it. From what has come out of traditional and social Chinese media outlets, it seems that China has been able to do something that other countries would not have been able to do easily—control the spread. More than a month later, today, the virus has spread to different countries—from Iran to Italy as well as Korea and Japan. Paranoia has gripped countries like Australia, the US and other countries where people have already started panic buying—hoarding stuff in anticipation that they might soon be in short supply.

Comparing my observations while travelling the US and various Asian countries in 2003 and now, the reaction to SARS—a highly contagious, serious and potentially life-threatening form of pneumonia that went viral 17 years ago—was different. If social media had been a thing in 2003, the world would have shut down. During Ebola, I was flying in and out of Rwanda to different parts of the world, having difficulty explaining that Ebola has hit a small part of West Africa in a continent that is huge and not very well-connected. This time, travelling through Bangkok, Singapore and Indonesia, I noticed different reactions again, along with the barrage of posts in social media. Here are some of the lessons that I learnt.

Understand the source of news

People tired of Hindu fanatics in India were sharing how politicians and god brokers (people who broker relationships with their idea of god) were coming out with nonsensical solutions to the virus. There were people sharing what to do and what not to do. Few sane people were forwarding official messages from the World Health Organisation and credible public health practitioners. In many parts, xenophobia and racism against Asians emerged. There have been hearty jokes that have kept us sane during the period. But the big lesson is that social media can be a two-edged sword. While the same platform helped people to learn and understand, it also became a platform to spread fear, hatred and doomsday prophecies.

In Nepal, the tourism minister and his cronies, trying their best to keep the money-spinner running, even started a campaign on how Nepal is safe. In less than a month, they had to postpone their entire tourism campaign. In Bangkok, the news of the shortage of masks and the recycling of masks went viral on local social media platforms. While some people stayed indoors, some went on with their daily life. Human beings have different choices, some prefer to look at the source of news and act rationally but some get swayed by what they see on their phones. In Singapore, a video clip from the prime minister calmed the country. The credibility of leaders count. In Nepal, we do not even listen to our gods, forget our leaders.

Planning and execution

An important takeaway from Singapore is that it is important to put the best minds together with a plan and execute with precision. At the airport, thermal screenings of passengers coming in from China took place, along with the isolation of those exhibiting symptoms. But that was done in the most systematic way possible. There were the guidelines on Business Continuity Planning issued, wherein groups of people stayed at home and other groups came to the office. This helped facilitate the tracking of people and isolate people in case anyone from the group was infected. Each building I entered had temperature checking and recording and taking of pictures so that they could track the movement of people. People did not think this as in irritant but cooperated fully.

The guidelines were clear and covered even minute things like having a regulation on not shaking hands, as to lower contact with people. However, for such a system to work, as I discussed in other countries, people require to really trust their government. They need to have confidence in the government’s decision, the health facilities they have created and the way they care for the citizens. Governments in Singapore and Hong Kong provided some handouts to citizens in cash to cope with the difficult situation. There can be governments that are bigger and richer, but to garner the trust is quite difficult.

Learning from the world

In Nepal, we forget things quickly. Just five years ago, the country was hit by a massive earthquake, but we have started building structures in the same old haphazard fashion. We have allowed the encroachment of open spaces—areas that would have been perfect for people to gather in during times of emergency. On social media, we put up posts about how scary the world has become due to the virus, but are secretly happy to attend large gatherings at banquet halls and public places where the washrooms, which are not in the best condition, can spread multiple diseases, let alone Covid-19

We are yet to look at the economic impact of the ongoing pandemic on Nepal’s tourism. As with many other parts of the world, the biggest outbound market, from China, is affected and so are multiple inbound markets. In a largely import-dependent consumption-oriented society, the largest producer of products in the world has been impacted; it will leave a big lasting impact.

Every human challenge teaches us lessons; it will be important to be better prepared to take on the next challenge that comes without notice. Disaster preparedness is not just an external, money-making programme—it is about building up the credibility of the country and winning the trust of the people. It is also about self-learning and community outreach. We need to change ourselves, and then share our learnings with the rest of the world.

The cartel of accountants

How a profession that led the reforms in 1990 is becoming an impediment to change now.

Last week, I was inundated with text messages and emails from people who were contesting the elections of the Association of Chartered Accountants of Nepal (ACAN). During election time, the organisation is abuzz with activity, unlike the rest of the time when the members are pretty dormant. The candidates actually pay the fees that are due, host parties and spend a lot of money. Like with many other voluntary organisations, candidates spend a lot on campaigning—but no one can explain why. Winning candidates must have found a way to dip their fingers into the gravy train. The foundations of corruption begin here. Chartered accountants have started to be associated with graft and politics in Nepal.

An elite club

When I qualified as a chartered accountant in 1992, I was the 75th in Nepal to do so. In those days, it was very prestigious to become a CA. I completed this programme not to become an accountant or do audits, but because it was a great way to move up the social ladder, gain recognition and build a network. It was an elite club to join. Chartered accountants then got direct entry to senior positions in government and other organisations. It wasn’t very easy to get through the exams; only 2 percent of the people who sat for the examinations qualified. Most Nepalis would pursue Indian certification, and it was known to be one of the difficult ones around the world. It was also the time when Nepal opened up to the world with reforms.

Chartered accountants like Robin Sharma led the government’s privatisation programmes. Chartered accountants helped to write new pieces of legislation, and international companies were impressed with the quality of accountants available as Nepal opened up to foreign direct investment. There was intense competition to perform better. Chartered accountants like Prithvi Bahadur Pande went on to lead a revolution in banking in the country. Later, others like Ratna Raj Bajracharya followed suit. At the Soaltee Hotel, where I used to work then, chartered accountants held vital positions. The current chairman of the hotel, Dinesh Bista, is a chartered accountant.

The profession brought about professionalism and adherence to global standards; it was about taking Nepal to the world and competing in other markets. Chartered accountants like Shashi Satyal and Madan Sharma and their firms started extending their service abroad. It was a great fraternity to be associated with. However, now, with the politics involved, I do not even mention that I am a CA anymore—such has been the profession’s fall of grace.

A slide in quality

The Association of Chartered Accountants of Nepal in the 1990s brought about the push for Nepal to have its own institute, and there began the fall in quality. With the political transitions occurring, political party members started to lead the institutes. And with such persons sitting on many key regulatory bodies like the Securities Board, the problems began. Companies that raised money from the public went bust; there were disciplinary cases filed against erring firms and individuals. There were cases of negligence filed, but no one was ever convicted. All over the world, this profession is regulated by bodies comprising of members. But like everything else in Nepal, the association turned into a cartel. It wasn’t long before everyone involved began rent-seeking activities.

The elections to this association—and to similar associations covering skilled professions—have become very important. For instance, the vote here paves the way for people to then get on to the governing regulatory body—the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nepal. Many elected members have been accused of malpractice and graft. It is also apparent which politicians and political parties are backing particular members.

Today, the quality of chartered accountants churned out of by Nepal is such that they are not job-ready. The higher economic activity and the increased demand means that many are getting jobs. But this new crop has been demanding more money while becoming less productive. Their soft and basic skills are a challenge: some of them are not able to write a single grammatically correct sentence in English (a necessary language for the field).

Those frustrated by the profession leave Nepal for greener pastures. The irony is that Nepalis are performing very well as accountants in Australia, the UK, the US and other countries. In foreign countries, Nepalis work for international accounting firms. This shows that it is not that Nepalis do not have the required talent; the problem is that incompetent individuals are changing the rules of the game and keeping the competent folks out. Nepali nationalism is being used to hide inefficiencies, and the unqualified professionals have now become the biggest impediment to foreign direct investment. They have attempted to block international firms from setting up shop in Nepal.

What can be done

If the association has outlived its utility, it should be just be shut down. This applies to similar associations in other professions. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nepal needs to become a stronger regulatory body—one that works on a world-class curriculum and continuing education programmes. It needs to push for self-regulation and set a higher benchmark for the conduct of its members. The state of affairs in Nepali corporations, like the national flag carrier Nepal Airlines, is such a mess that it needs an international institute, contracted through a transparent bidding process, to fix the mess and then prepare a good group of Nepalis to take over in five years. International accounting firms should be allowed to operate in Nepal. They will demand (and attract) better resources, train them well, and prepare a cadre of professional chartered accountants that will be there able to aid in unleashing Nepal’s economic potential.

The Kathmandu Post:

Nepal can benefit greatly by embracing connectivity

The recently concluded Kantipur Conclave had many lessons to give, especially for the ones willing to learn.

The two-day-long second iteration of Kantipur Conclave ended on Saturday, February 8. The greatest positive feedback the organising team got from conference veterans is that the event was world-class. In Nepal, where we love to complain about the things that do not work, this was a lesson that undertakings can be achieved in a way that meets global standards. The conclave had many lessons to give to the people who were willing to embrace it.

Along with the positive response, we were also alerted that in case Nepal wants to position itself as an international conference-hosting country, the airport management and infrastructure has to improve dramatically. There were a few interesting conversations at the speakers’ lounge on this subject. One of the speakers put it in an interesting way: high profile speakers and participants may know that there are great things ahead once they reach the hotel, but many will not be willing to endure the wait at the airport—with the old-school security checks and chaotic baggage claim—to get there. Global travellers who zip in and out of locations every week do not want to deal with the stress.

What was also interesting were how people responded to the new way of collecting questions for the panellists. At the conclave, all audience questions were collected through a mobile app. This was the only way the organisers could manage 10 sessions in a day and make it engaging for everyone watching. I had phoned a gentleman who I thought would be able to contribute meaty questions. But when he realised that he would not be able to stand up in the limelight while posing the queries, he decided not to show up to the conference altogether.

In Nepal, when it comes to events, people are very individual-focused. We see that many people do not come if they are not to speak. But what’s intriguing is that a few of the expatriates based here have also begun to absorb this trait. Listening is a difficult art and the patience to listen and internalise is something that South Asians have to learn.

It was also surprising to see the hall become crowded for the session with Nepal Communist Party Co-Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. This, while the other discussions were not nearly as jam-packed. Why is it that even when one can attend for free—as the majority who had invitations did—most only choose to attend speeches by politicians? It still amazes me to see the level of fondness Nepalis have for politics. The same people who deride politicians and accuse them of creating Nepal’s challenging state also show up to such talks and clap their hands to the statements being made. Perhaps this can be the subject of a book.

Reimagining connectivity

For the first time in Nepal, we were exposed to a multi-faceted discourse around connectivity. Bruno Maçães brought with him the Eurasian view of looking at the region, and his views were striking. Maçães comes from Portugal (and is a former minister), where the population stands at just around 10 million. Yet, the Portuguese never think they are a small country. He said that Nepal, by comparison, would be the fifth-largest country in the EU by population, and sixth by area. But we are made to think that we are small, sandwiched as we are between two large neighbours.

C Raja Mohan articulated the future of South Asia, and this conclave, perhaps, will be remembered for recalibrating the discourse around what South Asia means. Andy Mok gave us a first-hand account of how China thinks and acts; Nepal needs to be proactive and not reactive with a country that plans for decades. But the biggest message that emerged out of the keynote session was that like the hotel business, a country’s prospects centre around its location. And it is not important only to have the right location—countries need to learn to leverage it, too.

The discussions were diverse and fascinating. The sessions even managed to analyse the globalisation of health challenges, like the current novel coronavirus outbreak. We had a chance to listen to amazing individuals like Sagar Tamang, a man who only came to Kathmandu from his hometown in the nineties and worked as he went to college, and who has since worked his way to lead a multinational team in a global market research company based out of Singapore. Such individuals will hopefully inspire many to rebrand themselves and hold themselves in higher regard.

Mohna Ansari questioned: ‘Why are we not proud about our country?’ Perhaps when we learn to be proud of ourselves, we will be proud of our country. The world of art and culture continues to be the biggest tools to help bridge and expand connectivity. As Namita Gokhale explained, the book trade is one of the most primitive ways to exchange knowledge; the way it has been taxed in Nepal is appalling.

The biggest takeaway from the conference has been that connectivity requires an open mindset. Many have dubbed me the walking LinkedIn. Yes, perhaps we can only reap from connectivity if we ourselves are open to connecting with people. People can connect cultures, societies, businesses and organisations. Countries that have people willing to further connectivity in various forms always benefit from it—history has proved as much.