The doctrine of development is the dominant religion in Nepal today and its jargons the most audible liturgy. Even in remote hamlets, the word “bikas” promises a hope of salvation matched in fervour only by messianic religions in their earjy phases.
What exactly constitutes development is a question as old as philosophy. Ancient Greeks as well as ancient South Asians have debated loud and long about the nature of the “good life”. The essence of this debate also lies at the root of all development thinking today, although attention is focused mainly on the means of achieving an advertised lifestyle rather than on the necesssity or the desirability of the end product.
One thing that development has meant in the Himalaya is change – rapid transformations not only in the physical surroundings but also in thinking, values and expectations. Change is inevitable, but it is its rapidity and pervasiveness that is worrisome. This modern phenomenon – only partly, described by words like “development” or “modernisation” – has put tremendous strains on perplexed Himalayites and their delicate social fabric.
Today´s changes in Nepal, unlike those of the past, involve the very metamorphosis of Nepali society. In the past several millennia, Nepalis have seen changes affecting their loyalties and identities. Inter-regional wars and dynastic succession have occurred with almost monotonous regularity, but they resulted only in the transition of “managers”.
But what is taking place today strikes at the root of age-old tradition and culture. A key actor in this modern drama is western technology, which brings its own software of socio-cultural values and imposes new demands on behaviour. Western technology was brought into Nepal by the wrong people for a wrong reason. In Europe, the social carriers of technology were the rising mercantile class who used it to enhance production.
In Nepal, however, it was her autocratic shoguns – the feudal Ranas – who first introduced it as an element of luxury.
Electricity was first generated in 1911 at the ´500 KW Pharping Power Station south of Kathmandu Valley barely two decades after the alternating current motor was invented. It was used to illuminate Rana palaces and the houses of loyal retainers, without charge. The motor car, which made its appearance about the same time, had to be dismantled at the Churay foothills and portered over the passes and reassembled in Kathmandu. It then carried- the Ranas out for a joyride in a few kilometres of Valley roads.
A narrow-gauge railway was built in 1927 from the Indian railhead at Raxaul to Amlekhganj 43 km to the north. A ropeway was built about the same time from Bhimphedi to the capital. All this would seem ´like a productive use of technology – if one ignored the end-use, which was to ferry building material for the burgeoning industry of the day -construction of opulent stucco palaces for Rana offspring. The banishing of the mechanical inventor Gehendra Sumshere by his cousin the Rana Prime Minister showed that technology was an appendage to power, feared by the powerful and certainly not meant to empower the powerless. Without an entrepreneurial middle class, there was no manifestation of a social will to enhance production through the use of technology.
Whatever the reasons for its introduction, technology soon acquired a social life of its own in Nepal. Today, the country´s socio-system groans with discomfiture as a complex set of physical as well as metaphysical changes are demanded by the use of seductive western artifacts. No one academic discipline can describe such transformation, sq infer-disciplinary measures must be used. One such way is to re-examine the ancient South Asian concept of “dharma”.
“Dharma” is often mis-translated as “religion” in English. Instead, it implies a correct lifestyle, or living in harmony with one´s nature in a world of perpetual change. “Dharraa” formed the basis for public policy in the past. It was a ruler´s duty to up-hold it, and as such it implied maintaining harmony among the myriad elements of a complex society. Such a truly holistic approach can better synthesise societal goals and values than approaches based on “development economics”. In fact, a policy measure enforced on a “dharma” basis might find readier acquiescence from even those hurt by the policy.
A life of “dharma” can be expressed as a lifestyle in harmony in the three spheres: the philosophical, the social and the environmental. Technology´s advent has brought some disharmony in all three areas.
In the social arena, technology has fueled rising expectations on a mass scale. Traditional institutions designed to allocate privileges are under tremendous stress and are increasingly unable to cope with revolutionised aspirations. Social institutions like representative democracy and the market economy that are designed to handle such demands are still at a formative stage.
In the environmental sphere, the disharmony between what nature can provide on a sustained basis and burgeoning wants have become a visible problem. Where our relations with nature used to be “flow-based” and sustainable, the advent of technology has changed them into a one-time-only exploitation. Saw-milts and trucks make it possible to manipulate nature- to a degree unprecedented in the history of Nepali society. Meanwhile, the newly imported philosphy of neo-classical economics deems any future beyond a decade as valueless.
The present “dharma” of development, with its over-emphasis on the open pursuit of want-satiation, has already come up against physical limitations in the form of a deteriorating environment. It is also straining the social fabric with unrest; and the nation´s philosophic life has begun to show signs of disarray. A harmonious blance between man, nature and technology may be struck only when the question of why we do what we do and how much of it we should do, are effectively addressed.
~ Dipak Gyawali Is a power engineer trained In the Soviet Union who, as a Fulbright Scholar, recently studied resource economics in the United States.