Mountain-firm, never did it flag,
Never trailed, this, our martial sign.
At its creation, the world was rattled:
Two empires fell; never faltered
Timeless as the sun-moon in the sky
Ours it will remain, this, our
These lines, from the popular poem ‘Jangi nishan’ written by Gopal Prasad Rimal some six decades ago, are as significant to the Nepali psyche today as they were back then. Although the late poet Rimal did not get to witness the ups and downs of Nepal’s recent history, this country, in which he had such faith, has not turned out to be as tattered as many claim; in fact, it has matured into strength. Of course, the increased animosity between the country’s political parties has impeded the creation of a new constitution, the peace process has become protracted, and the political crisis has deepened, creating disillusionment among the Nepali people. Some despair and say that the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state, that the country is beyond rescue – that there is no hope left. There are also certain forces that take delight in encouraging such voices. But some questions need to be asked: Is this really the case? Are all of the things taking place in Nepal really producing only negative results? Is it impossible to guide the country through these rough times?
In fact, in looking for answers to these questions, a different picture emerges altogether. Although the political crisis is deepening and the political instability continues to prolong uncertainty, Nepal is not on a path to dissolution. Rather, it is poised to take a radical leap forward. The structures of the state have not weakened and are not necessarily faltering; most importantly, it is the people of Nepal who, having become more accustomed to transformations and upheavals, are proving to be the country’s strongest anchor. The Nepali people today look more than capable of both withstanding and steering the country away from the existential national crisis that so many fear.
It was stubborn Nepalis who did not allow the threads of social cohesion and tolerance to fray, even through the century-long rule of the Rana regime. The political history of Nepal has strengthened the nation just as much as its geographic diversity has. Political forces in the country have been successful in ending a decade-long violent conflict, and bringing the Maoists into the mainstream of peaceful politics. The erstwhile monarch King Gyanendra, who stubbornly refused to let go of the throne, exited from Narayanhiti Palace without any bloodshed. It took the Nepali people a century to get rid of the Rana regime, thirty years to uproot the Panchayat system, and a mere 15 months to chase Gyanendra out.
Perhaps one of the most important facets that need to be highlighted today is the growth of an impressive sense of belonging and unity among Nepalis. In addition, the number of Nepali youths focusing their energies inside the country has increased, while the telecommunications and education sectors have undergone a breathtaking transformation. People across the country are increasingly interested in purchasing local products, while many local handicrafts have found a place in foreign markets. More food traditionally considered ‘rustic’, such as dhindo and buckwheat roti, are also emerging as urban food brands.
As Nepal celebrates 2011 as Tourism Year, both foreign and, increasingly, domestic tourism numbers are high – a critical figure given that tourism’s contribution to the gross domestic product is projected at around 3.6 percent. It is estimated that if Nepal meets its goal of bringing a million international visitors to the country this year, a million Nepalis will benefit from employment opportunities and more than USD 625 million will be injected into the economy. In the first quarter of 2011, more than 115,000 tourists arrived by plane – perhaps not enough to fulfil the initial goal, but nonetheless representing a 12 percent increase over the same time last year.
Own two feet
Outside Nepal, it is no longer possible to count on your fingers the number of Nepalis working as scientists in countries such as the US and China. An equally large number of Nepalis have found success as entrepreneurs in these countries. Keshav Acharya, a senior advisor with the Finance Ministry, says, ‘This is an indication that Nepali youth are rising in their capabilities and their capacity to take risks.’ Remittances, which stood at USD 911.5 million in 2004, increased to USD 3.2 billion by 2010. During the first half of the current fiscal year, Nepal has already received USD 1.6 billion in remittances.
Still, there are indications that the rate of increase in remittances this year will be minimal, against the backdrop of a worldwide economic slump and political upheavals in West Asia. Fortunately, new generations of Nepalis, who are trying to find a new identity beyond the limits of ancestral wealth and occupation, are maturing in their search of a national transformation supported by economic prosperity. Chaitanya Mishra, a sociologist, says he considers it revolutionary that the youth are gravitating towards new means of production.
Although manufacturing industries are haunted by the spectre of strikes, revenue collection is increasing. Khem Raj Nepal, former secretary with the Ministry for Local Development, points out that ‘the rapid expansion in rural economic activities as a result of roads, electrification, communication and the people’s industriousness, has effectively insulated the economy against any disaster.’ He asserts that this new flurry of activity is in keeping with the Nepali people’s aspiration for a socio-economic transformation.
Another powerful force that upholds modern Nepal is the people’s collective civic consciousness. The surge in the number of women doctors, engineers, law professionals, teachers, etc, which has happened over a relatively short period, cannot be ignored. This broadening is reflected in the country’s laws, too. Nepal is among the few countries to recognise, for instance, citizenship based on the mother’s (rather than father’s) lineage; there has been a move to identify and secure fundamental rights for sexual minorities. Today, 33 percent of the members of the Constituent Assembly are women – still lower than it should be, but nonetheless notably high in comparison to countries around the world.
More broadly, Nepal’s judiciary has proven itself an important anchor in not allowing the state to deviate from its duties, no matter how chaotic the political situation might become. Permanent security mechanisms, such as the army and police, remain in their designated places despite facing widespread adversity from within and without. According to one political analyst, even if the political parties become defunct, these institutions will not allow the country to falter from its progressive course.
Recently, engineering students in Kathmandu conducted surveys for a midhills highway that will span the length of the country. Several initially uninterested donor agencies have seen the encouraging progress made in the construction of the highway and are today expressing interest in taking the responsibility for future construction. Subsequently, it was decided that the students would be given a larger share of responsibilities in other development projects across the country. ‘Our youth are very talented,’ says Madhav Belbase, an irrigation official. ‘If we show faith in them and give them the opportunity, they are capable of building the nation.’
This experience highlights not only the potential of Nepal’s youth, but also its largely unnoticed success in infrastructure-building. Until fiscal year 2007-08, road construction was allocated close to 60 percent of the total construction budget, with micro-hydroelectric projects receiving an even larger share. At the moment, for instance, a massive reservoir-and-tunnel scheme is being instituted that, once completed, will not only add an additional 421 megawatt to the country’s grid, but will also irrigate nearly 7500 hectares of land year-round.
In tandem with the development of infrastructure and technology, the agriculture, animal-husbandry and dairy sectors have also seen high rates of productivity. The far-eastern district of Sankhuwasabha is now exporting some USD 14 million worth of agricultural produce, including nearly USD 9.8 million of alaichi (large cardamom) alone. Likewise, Nepali fruit-farming is finally becoming commercialised, while the poultry sector in particular has emerged with significant promise. Experts are now saying that, with minimal work, it would be possible to not only meet the domestic demand for meat but also to export it to Tibet and beyond to mainland China.
Where once tourism and hydropower were considered the only viable foundations for Nepal’s prosperity, now animal husbandry is joined by cement production and floriculture. According to Sarbajit Prasad Mahato, director of the Department of Mines and Geology, limestone (the raw material for cement production, known as ‘clinker’) can be quarried from any section of the Mahabharat range that has road and electricity access. Of the 2.5 million tonnes of cement used in Nepal every year, internal production supplies about 70 percent. However, only between 10 and 15 percent of the clinker used to produce that cement is from locally quarried limestone. This offers a lucrative potential, both to supply the local market and, eventually, to export to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which do not produce any cement. There is also an increasing demand for flowers. Last year alone, flowers worth approximately USD 9.3 million were traded (in total), with demand rising by some 20 percent in the country and by 15 percent outside.
Finally, we come to the issue of education. According to the University Scholarship Commission, there are currently more than 720,000 students enrolled in universities across Nepal, with seven new universities in the process of being established. Of the 3064 higher-secondary schools that have received permits to operate, 2242 are community schools. Vidyanath Koirala, an education expert, says that Nepali students can be globally competitive due to the country’s SAARC-level curricula and quality of instruction. Although medical education started in Nepal just two decades ago, its quality curriculum and rigour of study has attracted students from the Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, among other countries. Around the mid-1980s, some 60 Nepali students were going abroad every year to study medicine; today, Nepal’s 15 medical colleges produce around 2000 medical graduates each year.
The Nepali people have aspirations for a rapid social transformation, and history has taught them to adapt, even to embrace change. Thus far, however, the political parties have failed to address the people’s aspirations, a result of their inability to embrace the drastically changed psychology of the people. However, change is an irresolute, driving force, and political parties that continue to see citizens as subjects rather than independent actors might be ill equipped to deal with its impact.
This is a translation, by Prawin Adhikari, of an article that originally appeared in the Nepali-language newsmagazine Himal Khabarpatrika.
~ Kiran Nepal is editor of Himal Khabarpatrika newsmagazine in Kathmandu.
~ Rameshwor Bohara is a reporter in Kathmandu Himal Khabarpatrika newsmagazine.