Nepal in Context

I failed to mention that I have been reading a couple of excellent books while I was in transit to Nepal and for the week my body adjusted to jet lag. Maya presented me with a birthday present: a couple of beautiful, black-market, silk ties off the streets of London and a book “The Telephone Gambit, chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s secret” by Seth Schulman. The book is an exhaustive, but condensed and very readable account of how Alec Bell stole the patent for the telephone from Elisha Grey….a fascinating “tale of romance, corruption, and unchecked ambition.” It is just out, but may already be on the bestseller list and most likely part of your Book Club’s reading list. This is the important story of how Ma Bell came into being, and Western Union never got beyond the telegraph. One of the author’s avocations, as a journalist, is reporting on the dark side of how science and technology advances, and Bell’s story offers great insight into that process. For example, the swindling of Elisha Grey calls to mind how Gutenberg, and five centuries later, the developer of DOSS who sold his rights to Bill Gates, both lost out on huge profits of their major contributions.

The other book I am presently reading is another piece of nonfiction called “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier, an Oxford economics professor and a former director of research at the World Bank. It refers to the 1 B people (of the 6 B in the world) who live in neither the developed nor the developing world, i.e., all those who live in failed states which are getting poorer, and of course, Nepal is a shining example. Even though I am not of an economist’s bent, this past year I vowed to read from this genre to get a better idea of what it is that I am witnessing in Nepal. I am also blessed with a nephew working in the private sector of the Development Field and had referred me to this book. Like I said, “The Bottom Billion” is referencing the population that are stuck in countries who fall into “traps” and fail to develop, while the middle 4 billion (including 1 B in China and 1 B in India) in the developing world were able to globalize their markets and are indeed developing. The top 1 billion people, of course, are in the First World (US, Canada, and the EU) which continues to grow richer. What Collier says is certainly apropos to Nepal—its development has been arrested by 5 of his “traps”: it is landlocked, lacking rich natural resources like oil and diamonds, highly dependent on its neighbors, emerging from a recent civil war. Interestingly, democracy is not a prerequisite for development and that it is often a set up for further instability. Foreign Aid also is often counter-productive as the waste inherent in “the giving” only serves to build up bigger debts without it necessarily fulfilling the needs. Nevertheless, since the election a stable government with friendlier relations with its neighbors appears to be emerging in these initial weeks and developed countries (even the US) are promising continued, if not increased assistance.

Nepal now has two years to draft and institute (hold new elections) a new constitution. This week the 601 member Constitutional Assembly will meet, reaffirm the nation as a Republic and begin their business. The “Five Year Plans” that the Maoists here are proposing (generating 10,000 MW of hydropower in 10 years compared to 605 MW per year presently) sound like the pie-in-the-sky targets of Mao Tse-tung, which almost always fell disastrously short of expectations. However, the authoritarian regime of Fidel Castro realized phenomenal successes almost overnight in a country much closer in size and population with Nepal.

It is interesting that Collier in “The Bottom Billion” has only one reference to Cuba and that is to present day Cuba’s economy as “stagnant.” Collier says nothing about the early days, before the “U.S. Embargo” left Cuba’s economy reeling. A Cuba which eradicated went from 1 to 4 medical schools in 5 years, eradicated TB, Polio, and other infectious diseases within a decade, and from 10% literacy to 100% in a generation. Today Cuba’s major export is medical doctors to the developing world. While doing disease surveillance with WHO in Ghana, I met and talked with many Cuban doctors in hospitals there, and they were excellent. (They were teaching and serving, not spying, not propagandizing, and not evangelizing.) Castro had the help of the Soviets, to be sure, but the Nepali Maoists are not reaching out to China first and foremost, but to everyone across the board for aid…and they are doing it in the right way: promising security, stability, business support, moderate politics (no totalitarian threats of nationalizing industries, promising to work with other parties), etc. Two weeks after the election the US Ambassador to Nepal Nancy Powell finally met with Prachandra, the Maoist leader, and promised continued US foreign aid to Nepal. She is being recalled to Washington to review our policy with Nepal…she is all but promising that the “terrorist tag” on the Nepali Maoist party will be removed soon. Over the coming year, it will be interesting to see what begins to surface from the inter-party wrangling and if development is going to happen.

Shortages: Food, Fuel, Water, Electricity
The headlines and photos of food riots in Africa, the Philippines and Bangladesh that we see in the Katmandu Post or the Himalayan Times here are as disturbing as they are foreboding. No rice riots in Nepal yet, but one of my friends here complained that the price has shot up almost 50% in the past two months. Moreover, there was a fuel riot in Katmandu right before I arrived. All petroleum comes into Nepal by truck from India (all of which is imported to India), so you can imagine that gasoline is horrendously expensive. The government has to subsidize the cost to make it affordable. Well, even the government couldn’t cover the $100/barrel crude cost +refining +transport & delivery, and so they tried to remove the subsidy….that lasted about two days as the people were storming the guards! As it is taxis, have to wait a minimum of an hour to get their tanks filled in Katmandu. My fare to the office is now $2 up from $1 last year (before the dollar was devalued here), but the cabbies around the foreign quarter won’t take a foreigner for less than $2.50! So I often walk a mile and catch the public minibus for 20 cents when I have the time.

Besides the escalating price of petrol, there is the problem of availability. This problem is compounded by fueling stations selling gas illegally to blackmarketeers! On our visit to the West last week, we would stop repeatedly for fuel even if we had ¾ of a tank left because we never knew when diesel would be available again. Finally, we bought three plastic gas tanks and through Som’s many connections, we were able fill up our vehicle, as well as add an extra 20 liters in the trunk. Som has two cell phones each with 500 recorded phone numbers. Time and again, he finds a way around a problem.

Rice production worldwide is up, but so is the price! Two weeks back, our driver pulled the van over to the side of a road while we were visiting some schools away from KTM. Unfortunately, he accidently backed over a two pound (1 kg) sack of rice that was being peddled by the road side, and we had to compensate the merchant. The merchant then carefully picked every grain from the mud, washed it off and repackaged it.
While riding over hill and dale making our rounds, I am always enthralled with the terraced rice paddies which stretch out as far as the eye can see, ascending up the slopes to the tops of mountains or until the angle of inclination increases beyond the capability to terrace. The paddy terraces are carefully plowed, carved, fashioned and maintained. If not, it is a set up for an avalanche of mud, which can take out houses and terraces below. One of the natural disasters in Nepal, far more common than earthquakes, is landslides, usually during the heavy rains of the monsoon season. We have several children in ANSWER whose families and homes have been swept away by landslides. These children, I am sure, are affected by Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, but you could never gauge it from their academic performance…they have taken life by the bootstraps!

I haven’t read a good analysis of the current food shortage, but every day the newspapers here carry stories and the latest reports on the issue. It is no accident that fuel costs and food costs are going up together. It is not just the higher transportation costs to bring the food to market that hikes the food prices, but also the need for petrochemicals to produce fertilizers and insecticides on the one hand, as well as the global cultivation of biofuels in lieu of produce which limits supply. Adding insult to injury, Global warming is playing havoc with weather patterns is yet another part of it. But Mr. Bush is not pointing the finger at biofuels (which is his darling) or global warming (which he defiantly minimizes), but squarely at India’s and China’s growing middle class as the major cause….as if no one but Americans and Europeans have any right to the world’s wheat and rice! “Let them eat millet cakes!”

Growing rice is labor intensive…especially the more common, wet-cultivated rice. It requires paddies to contain the rains or irrigation water from the rivers, so paddies preclude the use of heavy machinery. Rice is densely planted in one paddy and after about a month, the seedlings are transplanted carefully by hand to other paddies. Paddies must be hand tilled with a shovel, or plowed by oxen or small, two-wheeled cultivators which represent a mating of rototiller with tractor. Once mature, the rice is harvested by hand: a clump of rice stalks gathered in one hand and cut with a sickle in the other, then bundled together and tied with a couple of rice stalks, and set aside to be gathered up. To do this, a woven basket worn on the back with a headstrap is loaded up with the rice bundles so that it towers high above the brim, and toted back to the house where it is hand threshed, winnowed and sun dried outdoors. Finally, the rice is swept up, the little stones individually picked out, and the rice is finally bagged in gunny sacks and stored under the roof beside the house. Whew!

It seems that increased yields or efficiency have already been reached. Even worse: those areas where rice is most highly cultivated in the lowlands of SE Asia are to be the most impacted in the next 50 years by tidal flooding due to rising sea levels! Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam produce the most of the exported rice while India, Nepal and China essentially produce only enough to feed their huge populations. India and Nepal along with a few other countries are adding insult to injury: outlawing the export of their rice to insure that their own populations can be fed! Urban sprawl in the Katmandu valley, as elsewhere, represents yet another loss in rice production as another fertile valley is paved under.

So, the World food experts who championed rice for the third world initially because of its high caloric value, are now back-stepping as it seems that the green revolution has maxed out! These experts now contend that we need to start switching to other grains that can be grown more efficiently, sown and harvested by the world’s poorest while the rest of us enjoy rice and bread.

Another hardship placed on Nepalis these days is “load-shedding”. These are 4-hour blackout periods that are rotated across districts and wards of the cities in order to stretch the limited generated electrical power. Before the election we had two black outs a day—this means that we have only 8 hours of power each day since loading-shedding does not occur between 10pm and 6 am (when most everyone is asleep) but smack dab when power is needed the most: morning and evenings. Nepal with its raging rivers coming off of the Himalayan glaciers has the greatest hydroelectric potential of any country in the world, but what isn’t factored in is that the glaciers will melt away to nothing in the next 50 years. Yes, even those of Mt. Everest!). The sad fact is that Nepal is so underdeveloped even the limited amount that they have harnessed is more than sufficient to electrify the country. However, India has financed the lion’s share of the dam building in Nepal, and by international agreement bleeds off 90% of the generated power for India! The 10% share for Nepal is enough to meet about half its needs, hence we have load-shedding. Whenever I step into a cybercafé I have to ask, “When is the power going off?” to make sure it is even worth my time to start emailing. More times than not, I have had to come back later. I have two things I carry with me at all times these days, my cell phone and a 60-cent Chinese lighter for lighting candles with a built in LED flashlight for me to see well enough to thread my room key into the lock at the end of a dark hallway! I also carry a $3 Chinese version of the Swiss Pocket knife with two saws, scissors, multiple blades (all dull), and a bent corkscrew that always snags the inside of my pocket which makes extricating it an ordeal. I have lost the invaluable toothpick included, but it is still handy. I’d love the Swiss version, but I know that I would immediately lose it…Karma!

So many Indian cars, trucks, and buses are sold in Nepal, so many large hotels and businesses in Nepal are now owned by Indians, so much of the lobbying money comes from Indian vested interests that the indignation that many Nepalis feel towards Indians is palpable. In so many ways Nepal’s development is reminiscent of the pre-industrial West and in a similar way controlled (hampered) by its domineering superpower, that it is easy to imagine how our colonists must have felt towards King George III! After all my years in Nepal, it finally dawned on me to ask Bal (our co-director who is also studying for a degree that would allow him to become a stockbroker for the Nepal Stock Exchange) if non-Nepalis could own stock. It was reassuring to hear that only Nepalis with citizenship papers could own Nepse stock…until he explained that many of the Regulators of the Stock Exchange are big Indian bankers in Nepal!

Fuel, electricity, rice and foodstuff are not the end of it. Now as the hot season begins, the city wells are drying up. As they put out less and less water, and people are walking around trying to find a public well that is still putting out. Our children will be wearing dirty uniforms for the lack of water as laundering becomes a luxury item few of our families can afford! I keep telling myself that this is nothing compared to what we have done to Iraq’s infrastructure: many places in Baghdad have power two hours a day, people stand in line all day for a couple of gallons of rationed petrol, etc. It’s a sad commentary when we can only feel grateful not because we are so fortunate, but because there are so many so much less fortunate than we. So, this brings us to solving the problems, viz., to the Election in Nepal.