Path to progress
A half an hour ride from the city of Dharan in eastern Nepal brings you to a vast expanse of rice fields. Stretching as far as the eye can see, lush green rice shoots swelter in hot turgid plots of marshy soil and sway easily in the afternoon winds. My photographer friend and I were on a walk, him out to shoot rural Nepali life and I, just along for the ride. We passed through isolated little houses, two or three mud huts clustered around each other, sharing the same plots of land. Occasionally, someone would call out, ask us who we were. My friend, the Singaporean intern, couldn’t speak any Nepali so naturally, he deferred all questions to me. I replied that we were journalists from Kathmandu, the capital a 22-hour bus ride away. Some would let it go at that, while others would often invite us into their homes, for a glass of water and for some news of the capital.
This was soon after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had won the Constituent Assembly elections in a victory sweep that surprised Kathmandu to no end. But here, the victory didn’t seem so surprising. An old man, whose name eludes me, called us in, offering us cold water respite against the sweltering heat of the Nepali flatlands, known as the tarai. While my friend fiddled with his camera, I talked to the man about the recent election.
He confessed to being a Congress man through and through. Even since the days of BP Koirala, founder of the Nepali Congress, he said. But the days of the Congress seemed numbered, I said, since the Maoists had won so easily. At that, he offered us lunch and after some obligatory polite declining, we agreed. It was a simple meal of dry beaten rice, a chutney made of peppers that made my friend blow steam from his ears, and cool water from the well. While we ate, he started to explain to me, the way politics worked in his little village.
There were people like him, Hindus, he said, and loyal to the Congress. The Congress was Nepal’s oldest political party and it had done more for Nepal than any other political body. It had led the first people’s movement and had played a prominent role in the more recent second one. He would forever be loyal to the Congress, no matter who came into power or what happened to the country. But the Muslims, he said, were another story. They are easily swayed, he continued. The Maoists came and brainwashed the Muslims with promises of food, employment and a better standard of living. This was how they won, he said to me in confidence, because they won over the Muslims.
The old man may not have been entirely right but he wasn’t entirely wrong either. Later that day, as we passed through more villages, I asked them the same questions. What did they think of the elections? Did they think there would be any change? What did they of the Maoists? Most places, people refused to say who they voted for at first. But as we conversed, and as my foreign friend snapped picture after picture on his digital camera and showed them the result on the small LCD display to their unbridled amusement, they became more forthcoming. Yes, we voted for the Maoists, they said. We want a change, they said. And by the end of the day, I had hit upon the one thing that Nepalis wanted most of all: change.
Barack Obama’s mantra of change swept America just recently, but before Mr Obama’s messianic prophecy of ‘Change: Yes we can!’ the Maoist party is far-off Nepal was promising change, just like every new political party does everywhere. Nepalis wanted what anyone who has suffered long and hard wants: a change in the status quo. After being devastated by a decade long civil insurgency, the only thing normal Nepalis wanted was a change, from a state of unrestrained violence, murder and mayhem to something akin to peace, some semblance of order where a normal hardworking man is able to put food on his family’s table.
But I must clear something up first. When I talk of normal Nepalis, I mean those living outside of Kathmandu. I believe that everyone who lives in Kathmandu, lives in a bubble. A safe opaque bubble that shields them from the desperate poverty and the horrible inequity of life in the rest of Nepal. As a resident of Kathmandu myself, I know exactly what this bubble is like. Even during the heights of the civil war, when people elsewhere were being abducted, murdered and raped, we in the capital could sleep peacefully in our warm beds, knowing that there would never come a banging on the door in the middle of the night. It was only until I started to travel outside of Kathmandu, that I saw the horrible disparity of life inside and outside the capital.
This is not to say that life in Kathmandu is a cake walk. Kathmandu is by no means easy. There are acute shortages of petrol and cooking gas, 16-hour power cuts a day during the winter, even no water in the taps. Even though the world is composed of more than 70 percent water, there are desperate shortages of water. Then how much harder must life be outside of Kathmandu?
So what happened to the promises of change? Unfortunately, the Maoists turned out to be like everyone else. Grubby powerhungry despots, desperate for their share of the pie. Since the Maoists came to power, instances of dacoity, kidnappings and crime have risen exponentially. The tarai is now patrolled by militant factions of groups that broke from the Maoists when they went mainstream. Journalists are regularly abducted and murdered for daring to report on atrocities committed by these militant groups. And the status quo still remains. Life is more abject that ever, if not, more so. The change that was so promised has been rudely denied.
I didn’t vote for the Maoists. Maybe it reflects my own middle-class sheltered upbringing but I never agreed with their methods. I voted instead for the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninists), the party that I thought were the most moderate, neither right-wing Congress nor left-wing Maoist. So why did most of Nepal vote for the Maoists? Despite the terror they spread, the abductions, the killings, the threats and the propaganda, why did normal working-class Nepalis choose to vote for the Maoists? I think it was because they were the only party that wasn’t based out of Kathmandu. For too long, Kathmandu has dominated Nepal. So much so, that some old folk even refer to Kathmandu as Nepal.
Kathmandu has the largest concentration of everything: roads, schools, hospitals, teachers, doctors, everything. If you travel from Kathmandu to Pokhara or Dharan, the two second largest cities, the difference is enormous. But I’ve realised that that is how it works in third world countries. The gap is not just a gap, it is a chasm. There is one between the cities and villages, another between the rich and the poor and even one between religions. Which is why the Muslims voted for the Maoists, as my old friend opined.
When the developed world thinks of developing or underdeveloped countries, they think in terms of poles of extremes. That there is poverty, that it is unclean, that diseases run rampant, and that people are oppressed. That is almost exactly how people in Kathmandu think of those living outside of Kathmandu. Despite the worsening state of the capital itself, it is always the dominant view that it is worse out there. And unfortunately, in most cases, they are right.
What we need is decentralisation. It is the single most important factor in Nepal’s path to development. That Kathmandu not be a tumour in Nepal’s choked artery. From east to west, what we need is a decentralised governance system. The Maoists had the right idea, in trying to adopt this type of government, but they made a mistake, trying to fragment the country along ethnic lines. Dividing a country along castes, religions and ethnicities will further compound the problem. Nepal is already divided into five developmental regions. All of those five need equal importance. Importance doesn’t equate to equal financing, some regions need more and some need less, but it needs to be fair and aimed at development. Kathmandu can never have enough schools and hospitals, but they are needed elsewhere. The push for infrastructure needs to come from the government. Instead of squabbling over seats in the cabinet like they are doing now, they need to formulate an integrated development plan, that takes into account all of Nepal, not just Kathmandu. And there are some issues that need immediate attention, like famine. In western Nepal, food shortages push more and more lives closer to the edge, while the government fights among itself.
It is time that we in Kathmandu break out of our bubble. We have been blinded by our complacency for too long. And it is not just us but our government and the people we’ve elected that need to do the same. Think beyond immediate gratification. We have lived too long as a nation of hedonists, doing only what provides instant pleasure, instant relief: burning tires to protest, throwing bricks to release anger and calling for lockdowns at the slightest infraction. For Nepal to progress, to lift itself out of the dark dank hole it has dug for itself, we need to look beyond the hills that surround beautiful Kathmandu. We need to look towards the rolling hills of the west, the lush green tea fields of the east, the craggy mountain faces of the north and the endless fields of the south. Only then can we truly progress.