Contemporary Concerns

The presumption is that as a category intellectuals, ceteris paribus, define their own agenda of issues that deserve study, reflection or speculation at a given historical juncture. Such an agenda is expected to articulate contemporary social, economic, and political concerns of a society discussed in research work, debates within universities and academia, in journals and periodicals and in the popular press. The purpose of the note is to propose what some of these intellectual concerns should be, and why.

Nepali Identity and Nepali Nationalism. While dwelling on a lot of peripheral issues, Nepal´s educated have tended to ignore matter related to the national identity. What is a Nepali identity? What makes it distinct? Has the evolution and manifestation of Nepali nationalism reflected the totality of our personality as a nation? Are we on the move towards a modern notion of nationalism; in a multi-ethnic context how can a polycentricpan-. Nepali nationalism be nurtured; how do we pro vide a democratic and developmental relevance to Nepali nationalism?

Events nearer home have amply demonstrated that the emotive content of nationalism alone is not enough to safeguard the existence and sustainability of a small nation state. The better we define the contours of our identity and broaden and consolidate Nepali nationalism, the better we will be recognized, as a confident member of our geo-political environment. Democracy has a way of bringing up, in the most unlikely ways, the issues that those in power would love to forget: the issues of real or potential conflicts; of unequal relationships both within and outside; of regional, ethnic and religious recognition or strife, and soon. A nation unprepared to recognise and deal with these problems is a nation doomed.

Neighbours. We cannot of course choose our neighbours. We can, however, choose the modes of our behaviour, determine the levels of our relationships and interactions with these neighbours, and indicate what we expect of them. The response of contemporary political pandits ranges from being intimidated and feeling subjugated and helpless, to outright rejection and paranoia. In a geo-political context as unenviable as Nepal´s, political brinkmanship is a luxury we can hardly afford. For a prosperous Nepal to emerge from its land-locked predicament it is sine qua non that we maintain a long-term, predictable, transparent and mutually beneficial relationship with our neighbours. Known political and economic irritants in relationships need to be ironed out. Matters of convenience and expediency in the past (the Indo-Nepali treaty of 1950, to wit) must be put under the microscope today, now that the people have become sovereign. A new relationship has to be defined.

Potential irritants abound, particularly with India, but the tendercy has been not to confront them. These issues relate to the unregulated open border, migration and citizenship, forced repatriation of migrants from specific areas, work permit, trade and transit, smuggling and terrorism, and so on. It is the intellectual´s burden to shift through the nuances, educate the public and the politicians, and lay the foundations for development of a national consensus.

Resources for Development: Water is Nepal´s primary resource. This is the received wisdom, and an established part of the harangue by the vendors of development these past decades. Here is a theme in which there is so much popular trust, and so little informed social, economic and political debate. This is an area in which both the politicians and professionals have done the greatest disservice to the nation. In spite of the Tanakpur barrage imbroglio, in spite of the lengthy wrangling on the Arun III hydropower project, a people-oriented and environment-friendly strategy for water and hydropower development is still not in sight. The intellectuals who could help shape a consensus on hydropower development have not been able to rise above petty political squabbles.

Liberalisation: After the land reform of the mid-1960s, regional planning of the early 1970s, integrated rural development, basic needs and decentralisation of the late 1970s-1980s, liberalisation is the new marching order. Like its predecessors, this too is an import item much coveted as the guarantor of a generous foreign aid. It is the mantra on which our politicians and planners are pinning all their hopes for the salvation of the nation and the poor. With these newly tinted glasses, our decision-makers see privatisation as the only road to prosperity. Their collective memory is lost on the fact that Nepal is largely a country of the marginal and small private landholder, the private businessman and petty trader, the unemployed and the under-employed, the seasonal migrant, and the mercenary soldier. How will liberalisation and privatisation affect at this level? What are the roles and obligation of the state, the supposed defender of public good? How will it ensure that growth and efficiency, the dedared virtues of liberalisation, also relate to equity; that a situation is avoided where the benefits are privatised and the costs socialised? Is privatisation always the substitute for an inept bureaucracy?

There are a number of other contemporary concerns which I feel deserve attention from our intelligentsia, not least of which is the system of education. Nepali schooling and higher education have suffered from unregulated privatisation. Quality education is increasingly a mirage as far as the poor are concerned. We continue to pay lip service to issues of gender but steadfastly refuse to analyse the linkages to development and build a legal and social commitment for action. The gravity of the Lhotshampa refugee situation seems to be all but lost on the Nepali intelligentsia even as the potential of similar crises from otheT quarters looms ever larger in the horizon. There are also broader global issues which have a bearing on our society and economy. The implications of GATT on Nepal's biological resources has by and large remained ignored. Neither has the issue of intellectual property rights excited our intellectuals.

Why have our intellectuals been so nonchalant to these contemporary concerns? Is it because these themes do not attract the resources as do client-oriented, donor-funded projects? Is it because the condition of ceteris paribus does not hold in the Nepali context, and that our intellectuals have been thoroughly co-opted?

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Himal Southasian