Sujeev Shakya

Articles & Publications

Nepal’s future lies in leveraging its geographic location

‘Unleashing the Vajra’ attempts to view Nepal’s future through a different lens—one of wealth creation and not poverty alleviation.

When my first book, Unleashing Nepal, was released in 2009, very few books had been written on Nepalis by Nepalis writers, especially by those who had spent their time in the corporate world. I had just started my entrepreneurial journey with beed, a management consulting and financial advisory company, after spending two decades with Soaltee Group. At the time, my work was very much about how to make investments and management core to Nepal’s transformation, because there were plenty of opportunities in the country. Heavily influenced by lessons in management from Prabhakar Rana, who owned Soaltee, I started advising private and development organisations, particularly focusing on the need for transparency and professionalism.

I was fortunate to be writing with guidance from Manjushree Thapa, a successful author, with influence from Gurcharan Das, whose book India Unbound had started to shape the discourse on liberalism in India. Das also wrote the foreword to the book. A decade later, I have made an attempt to look at issues facing the country through some new lenses.

Megatrends

In my new book, Unleashing the Vajra, I have tried to explore Nepal while keeping five ideas on the forefront.

First, I wanted to continue the idea of unleashing its potential. As India and China are set to be the two big global powerhouses in 2040, Nepal has the same opportunities it did in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it prospered by being a link for the two countries. Second, in the past ten years, Nepalis have become more affluent and more educated, but problems like garbage, corruption and the lack of professionalism have become worse. There first has to be societal change if we are to see an economic transformation in the truest sense.

Third, I did not want to talk about government and politicians. Instead, the focus was on two sectors, private and development, to understand the context of the problems we face in Nepal. Fourth, borrowing John Naisbitt’s term—megatrends—I look at the issues relating to migration and remittances that have shaped the Nepali economy in the last decade. And finally, I deal with action points that have been talked about for so long; but a sense of urgency is necessary to convert vision into action.

Lessons from Nepalis

This decade has seen many books, written by Nepalis, emerge that talk about Nepal. This ensures there are enough local materials that form a part of the understanding, rather than being dependent on foreign writers and the narratives they provide. Digital platforms have given us more access to news and information. And being able to read and type in Nepali has changed how content is created and consumed. This has also helped shape stories, narratives, and lessons.

Nepal, with its population reaching 30 million, has a vast number of opinions to share. Further, migration has created an enormous diaspora population that consumes and produces content in Nepali. I saw an excellent opportunity to sieve through the discourses in Nepali and put together a lesson for the audience that read in English.

Travelling across many countries and interacting with Nepalis has given me a different perspective: how the people in various regions think about issues and how they also keep their interests in Nepal.

What’s in a name

Many people tell me that whenever they hear the word ‘unleashing’, they think of me. Perhaps this is my contribution to the narrative on Nepal—an alternative to the existing discourse. Therefore, I have kept the issues going by using another view to everything happening around us.

Take tourism, for example. I have attempted to view tourism from the lens of wealth creation rather than seeing it as a tool for poverty alleviation. High-end resorts bringing quality tourists will help create wealth for locals. In contrast, the current focus on homestays will just bring in a marginal increase in income at the cost of overcapacity, noise and environmental degradation. So, ‘unleashing’ continues to remain the keyword used to explain another perspective—to leapfrog exponentially rather than be a part of the status quo.

I chose the word ‘vajra’ as a symbol of indestructibility. Something that represents the Nepali power of resilience. While ‘vajra’ can have different meanings for people of different faiths and beliefs, for me, it is a symbol that denotes potential. It represents the dreams of the many Nepalis in the country and abroad to whom I dedicate the book. I want the phrase Unleashing The Vajra to become a metaphor for the unleashing of Nepal’s potential between India and China—by hitching our wagons into the two fast-moving trains to the north and south. 

Welcoming 2020

Hope has to be followed by individual transformation—simply blaming the state won’t do.

Something quite rare happened in 2019. Only for the second time in the entire decade, a person who was prime minister on January 1 continued to hold the post on December 31. As the majority government entered its third year the perception of political stability continues. However, if you would ask the prime minister what the three big things he achieved in 2019 are, he would be hard-pressed to answer. While there was the Investment Summit, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and loads of words spent on rail, ships, roads and social security, on the ground nothing much could be seen occurring. Visit Nepal Year 2020 became a feel-good hashtag, as even the CEO of Nepal Tourism Board did not get his term extended. Like many other concessions, people from the private sector who manage the gravy train continue to milk it; the campaign has received legitimacy from diplomats and international agencies, after all.

However, Nepalis, as always, showed great resilience and kept the hope alive—they started travelling more within the country as bandas and the fear of travelling were eliminated. The medal-winning Nepali sportspersons gave the country a lot to cheer about. Young Nepalis are also being recognised in many parts of the world for their contribution to diverse issues. More startups are coming up than ever before. With load shedding becoming sporadic, electricity is changing lives—and how shopfronts, eateries and streets look. Nepalis continued to travel out of Nepal for tourism and education like never before, despite Nepal Rastra Bank’s draconian foreign exchange policies. Yes, it has benefited the black market for foreign currency, which saw a great revival after nearly two decades; politicians probably get their cut from such underhanded deals.

The year will mark its end with the political parties gearing up for the 2022 elections. The senior citizen club of opposition Nepali Congress does not look like it will get its act together; leadership is unlikely to pass on to the next generation. The few new parties, that act and lead like the erstwhile royal-supporting parties, will have to reinvent themselves to really attract the young people who matter. The ruling party does have new leaders emerging at the local level—mayors, ward chiefs and provincial ministers who deliver. They will be driving the future agenda. By the end of 2022, we should be seeing some new faces coming up who will drive the new campaign in the ruling party.

The way private-sector cartels are fighting for their existence, we expect 2020 to be a year where some tectonic shifts will occur. The relevance of the cartels will be questioned, and law-making processes will receive more input directly from people involved in the sector. This will also be facilitated by the shift in the agenda of the development partners, from aid to engagement with the private sector. The development sector that provided legitimacy to the cartels and supercartels by partnering with them in the past have realised that they have been the biggest impediment to Nepal’s economic development. We have seen, in access to finance programmes, projects like Sakchyam that are directly working with banks rather than the cartel of bankers. This will proliferate. With 37 percent of Nepali exports now coming from the service sector, information technology and communication technology firms that have been the silent crusaders will lead. These are not part of any cartels and they work with international firms following international standards—something the cartels despise.

In the last decade, women have been coming to the forefront across all sectors. While there is a push towards women-led patriarchy as promoted by the president, real change, led by women that will change the future of Nepal, has also been occurring. Men are scrambling to learn how to make presentations to women who are making decisions, manage travel with women colleagues and work under women bosses. In rural Nepal, women that started to manage affairs—more from compulsion after men started to leave for jobs abroad—are now consolidating their leadership positions in society. We saw women journalists breaking many stories in 2019, and we will see more of them in 2020.

If Nepal is to really make 2020 a year heralding its decade of transformation towards 2030, it needs to revisit its priorities and think of these five things: First, Nepal needs to take diplomacy and foreign affairs seriously. As Hindu fanaticism is gripping India and new maps of India are emerging, Kalapani will start looking like a teaser. There will be more geopolitical play in the region; we have to be proactive, not reactive. Second, investments are a priority. But this has been paid lip service for too long without concrete action. Investment is about planning—let planning get priority.

Third, succession planning is something we need to take seriously, be it in small businesses or in the country’s executive branch. The speaker of the federal parliament was charged for a heinous crime. Still, no one has been appointed in this speaker’s place—this has impacted legislation seriously. Fourth, freedom of movement and freedom of speech have been the foundations on which Nepal’s transformation has been possible. This cannot be scuttled. Finally, we need to just change ourselves a bit to bring about a bigger transformation. This is true for basic actions such as respecting cleanliness, openness, transparency, accountability and responsibility. It is no use talking about how things are going wrong when you personally cannot correct small things at your end. Credibility begins at home. Let’s greet 2020 with some individual agenda of transformation.

Unshackling sports and athletics

Nepal succeeded in hosting the South Asian Games, but it could have achieved much more with dedication and planning.

The South Asian Games have ended, and Nepal has shown a lot of promise this time. But to truly improve, we have to make continuous efforts to ensure sports is used as a tool for youth empowerment. Yet, it seems that Nepal only attempts to make short term gains before reverting to old practices. We are doomed to repeat history, it seems. As I was contemplating this issue, I stumbled upon my own column from September 2013, titled Leveraging Sports, in which I talk about taking a commercial view on sports, the building of infrastructure and questioning the utility of sports associations. It provides an interesting comparison point to see whether sports and athletics in Nepal have gone through any substantial changes.

Nepal is a country where problems are aplenty; so much so that conversations everywhere, from the lowly tea shops to glittering cocktail receptions, all focus on these problems that everyone feels. So, it was an utter joy to see people forget all problems, ethnic divides and political divisions and come together to follow Nepal’s athletics journey. The South Asian Games provided a platform for all Nepalis to feel proud of belonging to this country. Yet, it would be remiss not to mention the problems that are so glaring.

When watching the opening and closing ceremony on television, I was reminded of my student days in India—of watching the Asian Games in 1982, when India had finally managed to introduce television broadcast in colour. The quality of the entire broadcast was poor. This was in stark contrast to the visuals being uploaded on social media from inside the stadium. When looking at the production and broadcast quality of reality shows, such as Nepal Idol and Voice of Nepal, it is clear that the country can produce content that rivals any in the world. Then why were the broadcast rights given to the channels that couldn’t be bothered to up their game?

Another major issue cropped up with the equipment available for athletes. While there has been a lot of news covering the increased investment in infrastructure, equipment and participants this time, it is also obvious that many things were overlooked. It was heart-wrenching to see Nepali shooters having to borrow pistols and bullets from competitors because Nepal itself did not provide the right equipment on time. The necessary equipment should have been procured at least several months beforehand, giving athletes enough time to familiarise themselves with the new apparatus.

Nepalis can pull off anything in a short period of time, but shabbiness has been our hallmark. The introduction of online ticketing services meant that we saw families enjoying the games live without any encumbrance. But, at the same time, also present were the people who do not pay for such events but wiggle tickets out of political associations. They were the ones making lots of noise of not being able to get to the stadium. But these were the same people who also arrived late to the venue, to begin with. Large venues necessitate seating times before the event begins, and politically connected people need to understand that these are not like the functions they like to hold up with delays.

It was also interesting to see that the diversity presented by the athletes’ cultural and ethnic make-up wasn’t reflected in the sports associations. There is a stark contrast between the people who actually play and the people in control. The people who play rarely make it to these sports bodies and some of the rent-seeking officials do not even understand the rules of the game.

I recently had a conversation with Biplav Gautam, a Nepali based in Singapore who is Sports Partnerships Director at Sportradar. For someone who has been engaged in the world of sports across multiple countries, I asked him what it all meant for Nepal’s future. He says that the usual way of promising financial rewards to medal winners is not the best way forward. Rather, support for sportspersons should come before the events, not afterwards. The current scenario is like agreeing to send your kids to school once they ace subject exams. What is necessary is an investment in athletes so that they may achieve strong results.

Given his observations in many countries around the world, he argues that, often, host nations are euphoric after the completion of multi-sports extravaganzas, only for the momentum to be quickly lost. This is regularly seen post Asian Games, Southeast Asian Games or Commonwealth Games, where countries boldly announce sports development initiatives and their aspirations to host World Championships or the Olympics, but then return to business as usual. Therefore, for Nepal, the key challenge will be to keep the momentum going.

Here are the three things to do, borrowing from my previous columns on the subject. First, there has to be a structure that aids commerce and investment—like the cricket leagues that have gained in popularity. Professional bodies that can procure investments and garner corporate sponsorships have to replace sports associations. We should not forget that we are a $34 billion economy and just the commercial banks put together are worth more than $15 billion.

Second, we need to have a global outlook and link sports with tourism. Rwanda signed a four year $32 million contract with Arsenal, for instance. Some experts say that this will tremendously help market the country all over the world. We also need our sportspersons to get into international teams and acquire international sponsorship and attention. Look at what one Sandeep Lamichhane can do.

Third, we need to plan; a difficult thing for Nepalis, as culturally we are not wired to do so. We need to engage international firms that can bring the necessary revenues and visibility as soon as any sports meets are planned. No one will be interested if you ask them four months before the opening ceremony. Nepotism must also be done away with.

Finally, I stick to my decade-old push for making the Mahendranagar airport an international class sports complex before the politician-business nexus will plot it and distribute it. Built to push the royal sport of hunting, it has the potential of becoming a multipurpose centre with academies, professionally managed stadiums and a sports tourism attraction.

The government’s year-old social security scheme is a mess

Arbitrary actions, confusing policies and opaque management will throttle investments and economic growth.

Last year, the KP Oli-led government undertook a multi-million rupee media blitz throughout the country to launch its contribution-based social security scheme. The scheme and its accompanying Social Security Fund were launched with the slogan ‘Naya Yug Ko Suruwat’, which translates to ‘the beginning of a new era’. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) lauded the move on its website, considering the scheme ‘one of the milestones of the ILO’s on-going interventions in Nepal’. A year has passed and on November 30, the deadline for organisations to register with Social Security Fund ended. Till the cut-off date, 10,477 enterprises and 115,606 individuals had registered, a dismal number compared to the number of enterprises and people working in Nepal. Investors, foreign and domestic alike, are waiting to see how the scheme moves forward, given the weak reception. Consultants have been bombarded with questions; there is uncertainty on policy directives moving. Real estate prices are taking a hit and the stock market will not recover any time soon due to the confusing policies. As it is, the Indian economic slowdown has been impacting business and tourism in Nepal already.

Nepal has a history of making a mockery of every good intent. The opacity of the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund showed how the management, systems and processes of government funds lack transparency. When the Bonus Act led to banks paying out large bonuses, the government mandated that the excess amount must be deposited to a National Level Welfare Fund whose scope of activity is unknown. Therefore, the government does not have the credibility to be able to win the confidence of employers and employees that it will not siphon off money from the Social Security Fund.

Twentieth-century mindset

The basic idea of the social security scheme is that an employee will put in 11 percent of their gross salary into this fund, and their employer will contribute an additional 20 percent. This savings is locked-in until the person turns 60, after which they will be eligible for pensions. The government has already made it impossible for organisations to legally hire interns and fellows. They have also done away with probation periods, which means that an employee is eligible for all benefits from day one and there are no linkages between wages and productivity. In an age where people are known to hold partake in multiple income-generating activities simultaneously, the shift from a focus on careers and jobs to income is clear.

Any social security scheme should be able to explain how healthcare expenses will be defrayed through such a large contribution to a fund and how the pension scheme will work. In Japan, there is a strong push for doing away with the concept of retirement. In Nepal, there is no clear understanding of what the government is trying to do. The employees and employers have for years been contributing to the Employee Provident Fund (EPF) and Citizen Investment Trust (CIT)—both are government bodies mandated by acts of Parliament. Now, it is unclear what will happen to these funds. There are rumours swirling about how the government is planning to dissolve the EPF and the CIT and transfer the accounts to the new Social Security Fund. Many people, therefore, are attempting to withdraw their money from the two old funds owing to the uncertainty that jeopardises their savings.

In Nepal, the employer-employee discourse has been monopolised by the cartels and political unions, who negotiate with the government on acts, laws, regulations and policies. Those who speak against them are either silenced through smear campaigns in media or verbal/physical threats. The contribution-based social security scheme was a result of the negotiation reached between employee unions (that this government has to keep happy) and the employer council of cartels, facilitated by experts from concerned international organisations. I remember how, during my days working at Soaltee Hotel, heavyweight pseudo-militant union leaders from different parties would come to negotiate on behalf of the employees, who were working diligently. The irony here is that some members of the business houses making up these cartels have been boasting openly about how they hire Indian workers in their factories to circumvent labour laws and social security schemes aimed at Nepali workers.

Nepal may regress

Business ventures are fluid, they will always find a way to work as long as the product or service has enough demand. But recently, through better access to finance and easier way to pay taxes, businesses had started to move away from the informal sector to formal ones. The recent confusion threatens this progress; businesses will be tempted to embrace the informal sector again. This is detrimental to Nepal’s growth. In Unleashing Nepal, I advocated for Nepal being a capitalist welfare state, where free enterprises will be responsible for welfare payments along with the state. The private sector has to see it as something that they are encouraged to do for it to work.

Nepal’s growth prospects are dependent on attracting investments—both domestic and foreign. The government needs to reach out beyond their political base, of cartels that fund them and the unions that give them muscle and electoral power, to examine how to make social security a reality for Nepalis in a manner that is credible, gradual and acceptable.

Nepal hasn’t been able to adapt to a changing world

Think tanks can play a significant role in helping countries like Nepal deal with the changes.

Last week, more than a hundred think tanks came together in Bangkok to discuss how they can help manage the transition amidst trade wars and the shrinking of space for open dialogues and discourses. The Asia Pacific Think Tank Summit was organised by the United Nations ESCAP and the University of Pennsylvania. While the world has progressed and is discussing pertinent issues, back home in Nepal, we continue to be preoccupied with mundane issues like the health of the prime minister, parties and lawyers busy protecting criminals and, of course, politicians making sure they do not lose control of universities. No one, whether in government or heading institutions, has a vision as to how the country or their respective organisation will look like in 2030. It seems that the only way of thinking prevalent at the individual level is the drive for personal gain—more wealth, more parcels of land, and probably more gold. Given that, it is always enlightening to hear discourses on the future.

Managing a China-led future

For a world accustomed to the West’s domination of thought, innovation and economic matters, one of the most uncomfortable issues is the emergence of China. A study carried out by the McKinsey Institute points out how, over the decade from 2007 to 2017, China almost tripled its production of labour-intensive goods from $3.1 trillion to $8.8 trillion. At the same time, its share of exports has dramatically decreased, from 15.5 percent to 8.3 percent, which means that the country is consuming more. It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are two different yet important economic systems in the world now. The people who envisioned the Washington Consensus never imagined China’s rise. We need to engage with China—a country that is making its own rules—in the way it operates rather than wishing or pushing it to change. China’s size and scale need to be recognised. Think tanks need to learn from both these systems, rather than judge and take sides.

The assumption that there is a line dividing government and business is not valid anymore. The way China is moving ahead has changed the way other countries think. Vietnam, for instance, is more than happy to ape China over the West. By 2040, Asia will claim a 50 percent share of the global GDP and a 40 percent share of consumption, with more than half of the world’s population residing in this region.

The West, especially the United States, is retaliating in different ways; rule-based trade is coming to an end. National security issues are being used as an excuse to change rules and uncertainty on trade is impacting investments. This is also visible in the way the Japan-South Korea trade dispute is taking a toll on tourism and investments in the two countries. With populism on the rise and the world adjusting to a new global order, think tanks, too, need to recalibrate their way of operating.

Keeping up with change

Discourse is changing rapidly. Publications and research have been coming at a much faster pace. There are more challenges and opportunities emerging each day. Communication technology has shrunk the world on the one hand, and has polarised it on the other. Social media has provided users with an overwhelming amount of content—sometimes similar and sometimes contradictory. It is much harder to keep track of what is factual. Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence is helping create new breakthroughs in healthcare but at the same time is making people vulnerable to cybercrime.

However, at the think tank summit, there was a consensus regarding the biggest challenge: How will countries create policies, and legal and operational frameworks, to manage a society that is ageing. A presentation from Japan argued on how the concept of retirement age should be scrapped. This means the concept of social security will no longer be relevant and people can be paid based on productivity. If this happens, the concept of work, income, and saving—all will change. Japan’s argument could be valid for Nepal, where 50 percent of the population is below 25 years of age; many in the 21st century are unlikely to opt for a 30-year career in a single sector.

For Nepal, where politics and the bureaucracy hardly attract the most analytical and educated, it is challenging to hope for a deeper dialogue. Our challenge is to manage a society where communication technology has penetrated at a faster pace than information technology. There are hundreds of online news portals but barely a handful of research agencies that collect data, mine them and convert it into useful information. We have banks boasting of apps for quick transactions but using obsolete software for information management.

Nepal has an opportunity to engage in these discourses more closely, as many other countries face similar situations. Nepal Economic Forum has offered to host the summit in 2021 and by then we hope to sensitise people on the need to reimagine the roles think tanks play.

Aiming for a better future, by prioritising the young

Nepal has no idea how to prepare its children for the future. But it needs to learn before it is too late.

With the arrival of UNICEF executive director Henrietta H Fore in Nepal, people in government and others who have lived out of donor largesse are scrambling to talk about children. With a renewed global focus on Nepal, as many international visitors have been visiting, the country is trying to figure out what to say. Unfortunately, with this crowd, the authorities concerned cannot rely on a transient patchwork as they did for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit. The discussions have to be substantial. It has been three decades since the government committed to children’s rights but has little to show for it. It was perhaps because of this that the government representatives, speaking at one of the functions I attended, we’re unable to clearly espouse the official view, or the official future plan of action, on the subject. Nepal has no idea as to how it will implement UNICEF’s new Generation Unlimited initiative, which is ‘a global partnership working to prepare young people to become productive and engaged citizens’. The initiative apparently connects ‘secondary-age education and training to employment and entrepreneurship, empowering every young person to thrive in the world of work’. It is important to examine children-related issues from a few perspectives.

Is education preparing children for the future?

A government report that has detailed statistics till 2017 says there are 7.4 million children in school in grades 1 to 12 with a slightly higher percentage of boys compared to girls. They are in 35,601 schools all over the country. Formal education has never been a priority in Nepal; it only gained some recognition from the Rana regime a hundred years ago. The Shah kings further messed up matters by creating a concoction of systems that crippled education. And, since the 1990s, it has been more about the politics of teachers, unions and private school cartels. There is an unattributed saying that goes: The collapse of education spells the collapse of a country. Perhaps Nepalis have followed this too well.

With technology being adopted rapidly, and machine learning and artificial intelligence entering our lives at an even faster pace, the response has to be even faster. The top 10 jobs of today are ones most had not even heard of just 10 years back. In the US, a recent study revealed how more than 15 percent of the people hired by the top 10 tech firms did not go to college. The discourse has moved to income generation rather than job creation as people want income, not jobs, and definitely do not want to be in the same job for thirty years like our social security programmes assume. The big question, therefore, will be how we will recalibrate our education system to get our children to adjust to the new world.

New technology brings new problems

The former executive director of UNICEF—and only Nepali to have reached the highest coveted position in the United Nation—Kul Chandra Gautam recently shared that the big challenge at present has been induced by technology. Social media and the internet have created massive problems by generating new forms of child abuse—be it in the forms of sexual or financial exploitation. He also talked about the new types of addiction towards gadgets that are becoming a major social challenge.

I remember seeing children less than three years of age, at a children’s ward in a hospital, who had to wear neck support as their parents and grandparents were letting them overindulge in using mobile digital screens. Children’s addiction to electronic devices and their anti-social behaviour is much talked about. But little is done to stop such behaviour. People also seem to be happier to complain about this trend, rather than protecting their own children. There is also no way to restrict people of all ages from using new media platforms, be it Tik Tok or content on WhatsApp.

What can be done?

But where should the responsibility lie? In a country where it is common to see parents bringing children to A-rated movies or forcing their kid’s classmates to drink at birthday parties, the issue of proper parenting needs to be discussed. Let us not forget that many parents who pay for their children’s college education abroad spend money not for a good degree, but for a visa. This mindset has to change.

Schools also have a significant role to play. Schools and colleges are found to advertise themselves as a transit point on the way to obtaining citizenship and employment abroad. This has to change in a really big way. We have to prepare for the children to leave Nepal, but to surely come back after amassing knowledge and skills.

Finally, instead of pointing fingers, we have to think about the steps that can be taken individually to improve the situation. Today, the Nepal Economic Forum is hosting an event to kickstart the discourse. We need to secure the future of half of Nepal’s population. Let’s join hands. 

Before Visit Nepal, the country needs to improve airport management

It was a nightmare day for airport authorities and passengers the day Xi Jinping left Nepal.

On Sunday, October 13, when Chinese President Xi Jinping left Kathmandu, the country’s only international airport turned chaotic. Tribhuvan International Airport had aeroplanes and people stuck in air traffic and on the ground. Quite naturally, the people were left frustrated. Having arrived that day from New Delhi, I knew I would be facing a long ordeal before I got home. I tried to keep myself busy and occupied throughout, and tried not to think about the circumstance. But when I reached the immigration counter at the airport, 10 hours from the time I left my hotel in Delhi, I snapped. There was a riot at the counters. The frustrated immigration officer at the Nepali citizen counter was clueless and hence, more interested in shirking his responsibilities. I got hold of the officer in charge and, as every immigration officer that evening told me, he was equally lost as to how to manage the affairs.

It was very clear that 11 flights would land in one and a half hours, which meant that around 2,500 passengers would hit the immigration counters at the same time. The immigration officer kept fighting with the passengers. Instead of attempting to alleviate the situation, he was openly pondering as to why people chose to travel on that day. I tried to calm him and remind him that the situation could be worse if the crowd lost its cool. I then decided to volunteer to control the crowd. For the next hour, I was at the immigration counter ensuring that queues were respected, and the old, sick and people with children received preference. The immigration officer was thankful and grateful, and so were many tourists. But what was alarming was that two tourists decided to offer me tips—one Rs1,000 and the other $10. Apparently, they were under the impression that, in Nepal, you need to pay to get things expedited. The situation in the baggage claim wasn’t much better. People’s luggage had been scattered all over the room, with no one there to answer queries. I was too exhausted to volunteer anymore—I spent the next twenty minutes to find my bag across the piles of bags. It had been over twelve hours since I started on the journey to take this one hour-plus long flight.

Questions galore

Many questions kept nagging me that night and kept me awake. First, and most important of all, why does anyone still choose to live in Nepal when there are so many alternatives across the world? It is very difficult to continuously convince oneself as to what are comparative advantages in terms of quality of life, personal or professional. Is it that Nepalis don’t care for civic sense? Why is it that while Nepal’s GDP has grown three-fold in the past 15 years and people have better education, their civic sense has plummeted? Why is it that people who follow rules of queuing in every other airport around the world at immigration and security counters just go berserk when they come to Nepal? Why is it that people get so selfish that they would do anything to jump the queue, from threatening staff to bribing them?

I was surprised to see that, in one instance, when I allowed a passenger in a wheelchair to skip the queue at immigration with a family member, the family produced 12 passports, and were not ashamed to do so. I was also surprised that the authorities could not plan ahead for such a day, knowing full well in advance how it would end up. What would have happened if a disaster, like an earthquake or fire, struck on such a chaotic day? It also seemed like many among the queue were non-resident Nepalis, who have no problems in abiding by their adopted countries’ rules, but who in this scenario were acting pathetically and adding to the chaos.

What needs to be done

An airport is often the point where people create their first impression of a country or region. In Kigali, Rwanda, the Rwandese are very proud of how nice and well managed their airport is. On Saturday, October 19, when I landed at Guwahati airport in Assam, India, I was surprised to see a clean orderly airport that resembled Southeast Asian airports rather than Southasian ones. A good airport is not only about decent infrastructure and hardware, but it is also about the systems, processes and people. Simply employing a proper queue management system can solve half the problems; cleaner toilets can say a lot about a country’s hygiene and sanitation. Shops and restaurants with substandard quality of products and services do not make people happy. More importantly, the authorities need to ensure that the changes are implemented consistently.

Instead of next year being a Visit Nepal Year, perhaps it would be better for the focus to change to make it an airport management year, where consistency in service provision is promoted over the year. There may not be any money made on lucrative contracts for publicity and advertisements. Neither will there be junkets to see how other airports in the world would keep their toilets clean. But there would be a sense of national pride and purpose. And perhaps the tourists coming in would automatically be inclined to promote Nepal to others.

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2019/10/22/before-visit-nepal-the-country-needs-to-improve-airport-management

As Xi comes a-calling, a footprint without traction

Nepal will gain little from China’s outreach unless there is a recalibration in its long-term vision of development.

Earlier this week, on September 24, in a two-day event attended by the top brass of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) which included the Prime Minister, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed by the NCP with the Communist Party of China. Signed on the sidelines of the programme, “Communist Party of China’s Opinion about Xi Jinping Thought and Ideological Discussion between Nepal Communist Party and Communist Party of China”, it was in preparation for the visit of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping in October, his first since assuming the presidency in 2013. The last time a Chinese President visited Nepal was 23 years ago, in 1996.

Looking north

In August 2014, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Nepal, Kathmandu shut to welcome him. It was called a historic visit by an Indian Prime Minister after more than a decade-and-a-half. It felt as if the India-Nepal relationship would undergo changes as a number of sops were announced. Less than a year later, when a big earthquake struck Nepal, India was quick to respond with help and relief materials. This made everyone feel that the changes in ties were for real. But months later, India which was dissatisfied with the Nepal Constitution imposed a blockade that changed the perception about Mr. Modi and India forever. It was an act that alienated a whole generation of Nepali youth, and Nepali leaders played the nationalism card to reach out to China. Chinese interest grew after the earthquake and the blockade. With the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), exchanges and interactions between the two countries grew. Nepal signed agreements with China to ensure it was not “India locked”, in turn opening transit and trade opportunities through its northern border.

Inertia in reaching out

Nepal, in its nearly 70-year journey after the Rana autocracy ended in 1950, has yet to leverage its bilateral or multilateral ties. From the days of the Shah kings who ruled directly till 2006 to the current form of a federal democratic republic, Nepal’s engagements with the outside world have been more of theatrics, speeches and little action. After the 2015 earthquake, China, India and other countries pledged approximately $4-billion for reconstruction; India pledged more funds, but Nepal has been tepid in utilising these funds. Scouring for grants remains key while there has not been much traction on agreed projects being implemented. It has never been about seeking investments and get into a partnership model such as what Bangladesh has been able to do successfully with both China and India.

With a strong patriarchal and feudal culture embedded in Hinduism, rituals dominate Nepali life. With people from the Bahun (Brahmin) community dominating the bulk of leadership in politics and bureaucracy, there is much emphasis on rituals rather than an understanding of the deeper issues. Therefore, there is little expectation about the upcoming visit apart from keeping nationalism alive from an electoral point of view: in general about creating doubts about India to making anti-India statements.

Nepali politics

The biggest feature of the Nepali communist ignored by parachute analysts is that communism to Nepal came through Calcutta and not straight from China. Therefore, what we see in Nepal is the West Bengal version of communism rather than a Chinese one. First, the communist movement like the one in West Bengal has been about multiple factions that keep splitting and coming together rather than it being about one single and unified party. At one point in time, people had lost count of how many communist parties in Nepal were overground and underground.

Second, the communist movement in both India and Nepal has been about rent-seeking on positions and selling rhetoric and hypocrisy. It has been about talking about Red Book during the day and on other diametric subjects later. This is in stalk contrast to the Chinese societal model of hard work and encouraging entrepreneurial pursuits.

Third, Nepali communists, especially the former insurgents, still talk about Mao and the Maoist ideology. In China, Mao is a word best avoided and is jarring for the current key leadership. Finally, in China, over the years, when a majority group within the party decides on an issue, people with opposing views accept the decision and do not challenge them in the future. You can debate on an issue but after a decision is made, you abide by it. Nepali communism has been about continuous infighting and creating fiefdoms rather than accepting an individual’s leadership.

The recent rise of the Nepali communist has been due to the empathy of and support from the Communist parties of India that were part of the United Progressive Alliance. The Maoists, while underground, received tacit support. With the communist parties in India in disarray now, the Nepali communist leaders are looking for options. With the co-chair of the NCP, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, in line to succeed Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, other leaders such as Madhav Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal who became Prime Ministers earlier with Indian support are trying to look for options in China.

While Chinese engagement in Nepal has increased post the BRI phase and with revamping of outreach policies, those backing the few projects with Chinese investments have not been happy with the government as they now face the same problems that other investors are experiencing. Foreign direct investments to Nepal are low and the way the government has functioned does not really encourage large Chinese investors to look at Nepal seriously enough. The increase in Chinese businesses in Nepal has remained mostly low level examples being operations in hotels and restaurants. Till there is a complete recalibration in Nepal’s long-term vision of development, a willingness to implement investor-friendly policies and enable concrete steps towards efficiency, President Xi’s visit will once again be one made by a “friendly neighbour or cousin”, who brings some gifts, exchanges pleasantries and then moves on.

We need a culture of dialogues in Nepal

A remnant of the feudal past, people are always willing to dole out speeches but never willing to listen.

Last week, a national consultative meeting was held for the planned Sagarmatha Sambaad. The Sambaad is a multi-stakeholder forum that the Nepal government has initiated and plans to host in April next year. It was heartening to see the foreign minister and the minister for forests and environment sit there and listen through the session. Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali explained very well how dialogues differ from workshops, conferences and seminars. This prompted me to really look at the issue of why Nepalis do not have a culture of dialogues. It is due to a lack of this culture that arrangements, from business deals to political settlements to family issues, do not come to a logical conclusion.

The culture of speeches

I was tweeting a lot when I was attending that event—frustrated listening to people blabber and speak endlessly. It seems that people compete on the length of their speeches rather than their content. It is very easy to spot the usual suspects: People who will speak in a condescending way expressing their superiority in the subject. Perhaps, our speech-making habit comes from the way there is no room for critical thinking or the culture of challenging assertions. Much like the religious leaders, they seem to be influenced by, Nepalis like to push through one-way communications. Sermons are more revered than interactions. If one can quote verses in Sanskrit, then one is revered even more. It is due to this that self-declared intellectuals embark on the journey of teaching others. Since our culture shuns the practice of putting viewpoints across, the individuals fed up with this are ostracised. Like in politics—where the able become the silent majority—the mediocre rule in all aspects of Nepali society.

Keeping the youth and women out

The irony of Nepal is that 70 percent of the population is under 35 years of age, but male senior citizens (65-and-above), constituting perhaps 2 percent, dominate all discourses. In a culture where age and seniority are revered, this is the biggest impediment towards bringing about change in the way we think or do things. The youth and women are generally ignored across all sectors. Lisa Honan, Head of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for Nepal, shared at an event how she was the only female speaker out of the 90 speakers in the recently concluded Infrastructure Summit.

Usually, at such events, panels of nine or 10 people ramble on; the rest of us are left wondering what these speeches by men in the panels lead to. As it is, these sessions are supposed to be dialogues. Even global firms like KPMG, which was the knowledge partner in this event, had to succumb to the Nepali culture of alpha male domination. When I chatted with the organisers, they shared their helplessness on how, in Nepal, things can really go out of control. The Nepali culture also extends to wherever Nepalis are. I had tweeted about a diaspora event in Europe, where the panel consisted of 13 men of Nepali origin—all over 40 years of age. There was not a single woman panellist. Perhaps this trend reflects the way we treat women and the young at work, in our homes, and in society at large. Until we begin to include these marginalised groups, there will be no dialogues—there will only be boring people making boring speeches covered by boring media outlets.

Tokenism and photo-ops

It is important to analyse where this trend of one-way communication began. People need to understand that they were designed under a feudal system, where monarchs and those close to palace graced what they deemed to be important occasions. When television stations were established, a protocol developed where state-owned broadcasters would only cover events that ministers attended. Therefore, the culture of competing to invite ministers began. The private media houses continued this trend. In the 1990s, the competing development partners popularised this as they had more direct access to the ministers than general Nepalis, and ministers never said no to an invitation from foreign agencies.

Things have not changed much since. We still observe ministers gracing programmes of all kinds; the youth keep asking what this is all about. With agencies and institutions having social media pages, the tokenism has now shifted to social media. Nepal used to be known as having one of the highest numbers of reports published per capita. We now have moved on to having the highest number of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs). Social media platforms are flooded with pictures of signing events. This craze for instant fame has affected the younger generation a lot. Entrepreneur-mentors such as Ashutosh Tiwari and Suman Joshi have been venting their frustration on how young people get caught up in fame. These young entrepreneurs subsequently ignore the businesses they had planned to build.

With Nepal Economic Forum conducting over fifteen dialogue-based events in the past six months, the key lessons have been that those who are seriously interested come to chat and listen. They are not there for photo-ops. When people ask us why some government officials or other key individuals do not come, we share our experience of people who demand preferential seating (preferably plush sofas) or the opportunity to make speeches and how such people do not attend. There are plenty of lessons on what works and what does not. The learning will continue. 

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2019/09/24/we-need-a-culture-of-dialogues-in-nepal

Bangladesh is transforming, and Nepal needs to learn from it

Perhaps we can see more movement of people between the two countries, followed by investments.

Last week, a news report made the rounds in India and the world about Bangladesh topping the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate in the past 10 years. The Indian media, online and offline, did express surprise about this development and did not know how to react to projections by the Standard Chartered Bank that Bangladesh’s per capita in 2030 would be higher than that of India. The Bangladeshi growth story is something that is being discussed, and there are lessons to be learnt from it.

Bangladesh’s GDP has crossed the $300 billion mark (10 times that of Nepal) putting it among the top 40 economies of the world. By 2030, it is estimated that it will make it to the top 25 economies of the world. A lot of these numbers have come about with increases in exports and a stable exchange rate. Bangladeshi exports will cross $50 billion this year, and its trade with India is increasing. Readymade garments, which make up a big portion of the exports to India, are expected to cross $1 billion this year. These export-oriented manufacturing industries have created jobs that are important to fuel growth.

The other big thing that one can notice is that the Bangladesh taka has remained strong. The taka and the Nepali rupee used to be on par around 2012, with the exchange rate of both being around 1.6 to the Indian rupee. Now, the taka has remained strong at 82 to the US dollar and around 1.2 to the Indian rupee while the Nepali rupee has depreciated. I have continued to question economists who talk about exchange rate devaluation being a necessary tool for boosting exports and continue to talk about how the Nepali rupee is overvalued. However, Bangladesh has increased its exports, especially to India, despite its currency rising in value. What I have understood, and what Bangladesh’s rise has proven, is that a stable exchange rate that is strong reduces import bills and increases real income. That helps the economy.

Balancing geopolitics

The current government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been in power for 10 years, and analysts in Dhaka told me she functions more like a Southeast Asian leader than a South Asian one, with an emphasis on pushing projects, especially infrastructure development, and accepting the challenges that it brings around governance and dissident voices. The infrastructure projects are visible, and the common person on the street is happy about the jobs and earnings that they bring.

This government has been able to keep the China and India balance in a way that Nepal has never been able to understand. While more Indian companies are investing, and imports to India are rising, the Chinese presence is becoming more visible, especially on construction projects. With the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh has been reaching out to China to manage Myanmar. The current government has the backing of India, and bilateral relationships are at their best with more agreements in transit. My driver in Dhaka told me he would be visiting Darjeeling soon with his family because now it is effortless to get visas to India. Similarly, projects in the Indian state of Tripura are being built by transporting goods across Bangladesh from Kolkata. The way bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India are moving, the entire Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) platform needs to be revisited to create a futuristic multi-modal platform.

At Dhaka airport, when we landed, 200 Chinese visitors were crowding at the Visa on Arrival counter as we waited an hour for queue-agnostic folks to clear up. I was chatting with the officials, and they did share that this had become a common sight and more Chinese restaurants and hotels catering to them were opening up. The readymade garment industry relies on China for raw materials and machinery. The geopolitics narrative has transformed where key policymakers, business people and especially young people think Bangladesh is at the centre of the growth triangle of China, India and Southeast Asia.

Social re-engineering

One of the biggest transformations one notices on the streets of Dhaka, apart from the new buildings, restaurants, coffee shops and shopping centres, is the fact that there are more women on the streets than ever before. They are working, and they are leading the societal transformation. Because of ride-hailing apps like Pathao, a woman sitting on the pillion seat of a stranger’s motorcycle has become acceptable, and people do not comment on how girls are dressing up or what they are eating and drinking. Many new hubs have emerged, and I enjoyed being at Jatra, a melting pot of art, culture and culinary delights. My young driver in Dhaka was very confident that Islamic fundamentalism had been silenced by the women working in the garment industry and others who have now found their identity as workers, and have the money to buy sarees with their own money. They will not allow any religious fundamentalism to come in the way of progress. He talked about tolerance towards other religions, and how Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja were celebrated in his village with much vigour and masti, because people would get bogged down meeting relatives during the Eid festivals. Many people I interacted with echoed similar feelings.

For Nepal—that is lost in its myopia of repeating the history of rudderless authoritarianism, stifling liberal values and practices, and closing down investments and markets for the outside world with increases in privileges and perks for people in power—there is a lot to learn from Bangladesh. There are similarities in our journey, and there are interests in both countries. Perhaps we can see more movement of people between the two countries, followed by investments. 

https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2019/09/10/bangladesh-is-transforming-and-nepal-needs-to-learn-from-it