By Biswo Poudel in Berkeley, CA
“The passion of men for equality is ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible” (De Tocqueville, 1860)
For a brief moment last winter, it seemed as if Nepal was on the brink of being disintegrated. The demands made by Janajati, Madhesi and other groups made the political environment muddled. There were demands of all kinds. The demands ranged from the demand for quota, and jobs to the demand for reservation on the parliament. Occasionally, it was laced by Brahmin-bashing.
It seems like an eon ago, but around five years ago, this author was shocked by the prevalent attitude in Nepal, especially among the elites of Kathmandu. Remember this was before the Madhesis or other groups were in the street. The parliament was in the thrall of NGOs. I met several friends who used to recount the tales of parliamentarians coming to them and asking them to take small projects to their districts. In return, the NGOs, often run by the western educated people, had such an access to the parties and parliament that they seemed to be running the government and writing the bills. NGOs were parallel government, they were different from the existing government in that the government was theoretically subject to popularity test every five years, while NGOs were like a permanent government, never subject to any test by the people.
NGOs were proliferating because they were subject to almost no laws. They even had the audacity to oppose when the government decided to regulate the money inflow on those NGOs. They behaved as if they were sovereigns. Some NGOs opposed Arun hydroelectricity project to the extent that their honchos made the trip to Washington DC, World Bank office, claiming that there would be enough electricity in Nepal in the next x years if only we didn’t make Arun. Well, we couldn’t make Arun, and today, we are still living under the load shedding.
NGOs were not the only one running a quasi government. I also read a demand as ridiculous as this one: journalist association was making the demand that some seats should be reserved for their members in the hospitals. (While my memory is blurry, I am certain about the veracity of this news. I would love it if our skeptic readers verify it themselves, however.). Most of the journalists did extremely poor job those days. They mainly wrote propaganda pieces. I wonder if the journalists of several weeklies ever crossed the chakrapath. News always emanated from the center and went to the villages. The journalists sucked up to the national leaders, and never really looked at the local leaders and nurtured them. A promising mayor of Hetauda, who came with creative ideas such as banning plastic, making a nice park, and widening the street, never really got the credit for that.
The journalists, the NGOs, the teachers, the lawyers all continued their radical politics even when the country had a functioning democracy. The teachers until a few months ago were shameless enough to demand automatic tenure and the leadership in opposition was shameless enough to encourage them. No boundary was un-crossable, no promise was un-makeable by our leaders. The message to the marginalized groups was consistent and clear: be noticed, and government will listen to you and somehow you will have access to the national resources. Otherwise, you will be damned to whatever state you are in forever. How else can you explain the fact that the government never had time to think about the issue of Karnali or Madhesh, while it spent hours dealing with asthayi (temporary) teachers demanding automatic sthayi jagir (permanent job)?
Forgotten at the time were valleys in the far away mountain where a certain radical group was organizing neglected and hungry citizens without hope. Those people were programmed into being a killing machine of extra ordinary ruthlessness. Hope given by the state, and its rules never was clear to those people, while the terrorists and their clear, transparent vision seemed to so near and so attainable.
One day, I rode on my favorite bike from Shantichouk, Chitwan, a cozy civilized village straddling the east west highway and headed north towards Shaktikhor, more recently famous for housing the Maoist cantonment. Shantichouk might be a relatively modern town, but people there are still conservative, women still fast in Ekadashi, and old men still ask caste and gotra before deciding marriage on their children’s behalf. I had to bike for around seven kilometers before I reached the verdant hill of Kangalikot, crossing small creek of Kair Khola at least two times while doing so. At last, tired, and seemingly at the end of the civilization, I entered a restaurant at the godforsaken place, and asked the owner if he could make some chicken for me.
The restaurant was rudimentary in its endowments. There was a wooden oven in the corner, and breads, cigarettes, and biscuits were stuffed in a small wooden cupboard in the front. Few people were sitting and talking with each other lazily, their talk often interrupted by the hand-swattings of flies buzzing nearby. It was an exercise for me to eat the chicken curry with chiura in the presence of those flying flies, and I wondered whether I was rare among the customers patronizing the restaurant in my desire to eat the chicken.
A few minutes later, a long queue of indigenous chepang people filed in from nearby village. They first crossed a small creek from a ford nearby. Then, they came to the restaurant. The small children looked at my food with covetous eyes. The elderly men sat outside, perhaps afraid to enter the restaurant. They asked for a stub of cigarette, which the restaurant owner unwillingly complied.
There was a love hate relationship between the owner and the chepangs. The owner knew that those chepangs were his major customers. But they were also bums, looking for a lot of freebies in his views. Running a business is a tough business even in that remote corner of the world.
The group of people numbered almost a dozen: a stubbly old man who was lean and had a narrow bony chest, three women who would be considered diminutive from almost all standard, and a few other kids, whose gender was difficult to differentiate without asking them. The kids looked sick, their eyes were teary, their stomach distended, their hair tousled, and their cloth tattered. They looked hungry too. They were looking at my food, and I found it hard to make any decision on whether to continue eating.
The restaurant owner explained to me that the chepangs had come to sell ‘chiuri’, a delicious local fruit. Apparently, those chepangs had no other sources of salable stuffs. They were not tame enough to be employed. Most of them had no education.
Human had started farming at least ten thousand years ago in Turkey, according to some historians. In pre-agriculture days, a person needed on average tens of hectors to find a morsel of food for a day. His food was subjected to randomness: if he could find an animal to kill, he would have food, otherwise, not. Before fire was discovered, an average man would thus find a prey, and chew the raw meat. It would take hours to chew even half a kilo of such food. Discovery of fire made consumption easier. Invention of farming system similarly made food supply relatively stable. People with stable and reliable food supply also had some free time to think about subjects other than food itself. This was how civilization developed.
In that way, chepangs were thousands of years behind the first human who started farming. It is no wonder that sans any government help to make them abreast of modern thoughts, they would find ideologies of even nineteenth century more advanced.
In these last five years, Shaktikhor (not necessarily the Chepangs, in deed, their participation in politics is still minimal) remained a bastion of hot headed Maoist rebels. While government in Kathmandu was besieged by the groups demanding reservations in hospitals, groups such as chepangs had no one to speak on their behalf, and the government was not good enough, or extensive enough, or perhaps rich enough, to take care of all the groups that deserved its attention. Slowly, those who were near the ministers benefited from their connections, while marginalized groups fell behind.
How neglected groups behave? Do they rise? Do they submit to their extinction meekly? Do they happily welcome adversity that is bound to inflict the generations to come? The history of mankind tells us that the answer is neither meek surrender nor resignation. People either rebel, or adapt. Adaptation has been inalienable human trait.
Nepal is a mosaic; it is not a melting pot. Any attempt to force uniformity is bound to fail here. Although admittedly, the change has come to us, we are changing and converging towards something, but it is not a culture of one particular group. The mores of all groups are changing. More than anything, adaptation is seen across the board among all the groups residing in Nepal. This is a convergence while keeping the mosaic fabric of our society constant.
This year, I was surprised to note that in the village of shantichouk and vicinity, the number of bullocks was significantly lower than that of heifers. The observation took me by surprise. I asked around if there had been some bullocks specific disease, and found that there were none. Since cows are sacred, there had been no murder either. Then, where had those bullocks gone?
The answer lied on a dark little secret that I later figured out. The pious Brahmins of the village had lately found that the stags, which used to be used in agricultural purpose, were no longer useful as the introduction of tractor had made them obsolete. Since one needs only one bull for tens of cows for mating purpose, the bullocks were virtually a useless investment. You couldn’t use them in your farm; you can’t sell them for meat. What do you do? The pious farmers found an ingenious way to kill the baby bullocks: they wouldn’t let the babies suckle for a couple of days, and then the third day they would let the baby drink all the milk of her mother. The helpless little bullocks would then choke and die.
This incidence provides evidence for the claim that economy is the biggest religion, and people’s behavior is directed by norms based on the economic consideration. This also provides evidence to the claim that as we become more developed as a nation, our differences might matter less. We will remain a mosaic nation, but our differences might not be as big as they are today because even now our values are slowly changing, and perhaps converging to those of other communities in the country. Those who are daydreaming about a homogenous state based on the community traits of centuries ago are in for a great shock, as the traits themselves are shifting.
To sum up, in this brief essay, so far, I tried to make the argument that our country which even in the heyday of democracy had been a country that listened only to the vocal groups and managed to neglect the indigenous groups committed a mistake by doing so, but that these marginalized group will either rise or adapt, rather than meekly surrender. But during this rising, any argument for pure ethnic states based on the argument that we are unmixable communities is bound to fail, because even as we are mosaic, our mores are converging, and we are closer to each other than ever before, particularly because our more is guided by our economic consideration, which doesn’t have any community specific nature.
I would like to finish this essay by reminding my readers that while we fought with each other, our country lost a lot of money because of our inability to harness the natural resources, reap the benefit of hydropower, and the money that could be spent on our marginalized groups have went elsewhere. This has been, in my view, the greatest tragedy of our last decade. It will continue be a tragedy in the future too.
If you look at the white paper of Nepal Electricity Authority, you will find that it was running in benefit from 2049/50-56/57 fiscal years. Last year, NEA lost Rs 2.47 billions. Out of that loss, Rs 1.75 billion was lost because it had to pay higher prices for electricity produced by Himal Power Ltd, Bhotekoshi Power co and Chilime. The reader shouldn’t forget that the ownership of these high priced power companies belongs to the foreigners.
If we are looking at gulf or Africa, and wondering how foreigners have exploited their natural resources, please look no further. It is at our own home that we are letting our hydro be exploited by the foreigners in a way that should baffle everyone. Let us look at the middle Marshyangdi project. NEA undertook this project after the Germans assured us an assistance of 127.82 million euros. But they attached a condition: we must hire a European contractor. There are a lot of issues with the European contractors. They are expensive, any issues should be settled in European court where hiring a lawyer would cost a fortune for us. (I don’t believe that a European court or American court is going to be any fairer than a Nepali court. But these Europeans live in their own world!) If you are following the row between the contractor and NEA, you will realize that the cost of project has already skyrocketed to 273.41 million and our government (and NEA) has to foot the balance (more than 111 million euro). If we had undertaken this project ourselves from the start, and hired Chinese contractor, it would have been constructed in approximately that much amount. There is nothing for us to be grateful about to the Germans for their help. In fact, we are now stuck with their equipment, and should some problem arise in future, we would be paying more dough to them for maintenance etc. We are probably in a big mess.
It is hard to find a person, or state to blame under these circumstances. I recently read a paper about Swiss hydropower, and found that most of the counties of that country consider the rent from hydropower as their major source of revenue. In a lot of the cases, upto 25% of the incomes of the counties come from hydro rent, and this could go upto 70-90% in a case of a particular municipality. In our country, whatever rent there is, it is not reaching to people. It is reaching to elsewhere.
And yet it is hard to blame someone. I have met several intellectuals who opposed Mahakali sandhi vocally. They initially claimed that 1 crore units of electricity was too low. Then India upped the ante, and gave 7 crore units. I asked people what they thought of the new provision, and they still opposed it. I then asked what they thought would be the appropriate number, and I never found any answer. The intellectuals who were so quick to oppose didn’t know what the fair deal should be. They just love to oppose and play victim, their only point often is anti-Indianism, rather than an informed opposition. Do we deserve half of everything? Do we deserve less? How much is it that would be a fair deal? Or should we just oppose the project and not make anything?
The issue again is the knowledge. If we have a scientific tradition, if we foster science, if we encourage our students to go to school rather than drag them to krantikari sabha-julus, may be we will have enough people to work out what our legitimate right is. Today, it seems we don’t have people who can tell us what our exact right is, how much a fair deal is, while we have a horde that can incite violence in the name of Mahakali treaty. If we calculate and find that we deserve 10 crore units, then we can talk to the Indians with confidence about our estimation. Or when they offer 11 crore units, we can happily close the deal feeling like a victor. Ignorance is fueling our inferiority complex, and we have been a prisoner of our ignorance, and skeptic mind. This same ignorance makes us treat our own fellow Nepali as less pure Nepali and this same ignorance makes us weak and prone to fight with each other. Fight is not going to make us stronger or richer, light will.
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(God, take me from ignorance to enlightenment.)
Biswo Poudel is a a PhD student (environmental economist) in University of California at Berkeley.