Travels in Nepal: The Sequestered Kingdom
Charlie Pye-Smith Aurum Press, London 1988, 12.95 Pounds
Review by Miriam Poser
The title of this well-written book is very misleading. It is only marginally a travel book; it is chiefly about the impact which foreign aid has had on Nepal. In the preface, the author writes, "The assumption is that aid helps to alleviate poverty. I hope this book goes some way towards showing that often this is not the case." With examples from diverse projects, he makes his point. Along the way, Pye-Smith provides a delightfully earthy and non-condescending account of the problem-laden country and its resilient people. The British travel writer and environmentalist has clearly met the right people and asked the right questions. The result is an updated "from the inside" look at a country. The book is critical, unsentimental and thought provoking.
The book begins with a brief account of Nepali history, its bureaucracy and present day politics. Getting into "development", the author points out that Nepal seems to have been carved up for the foreign aid agencies: Khumbu for the New Zealanders and Austrians; the far west for Canadians; Rapti, Mustang and Gorkha for Americans; Dhading for Germans; the Kosi Hills for the British, and so on.
Pye-Smith´s first trip was to Khumbu. He writes about deforestation and the various schemes there, including the Hotel Everest View fiasco and the dam on the Bhote Kosi at Thami which was washed away a few months after it was completed when a glacial lake burst upstream. Work was scheduled to begin again, but there had been no attempt to assess the demand for electricity in the area noT how the hydro electric plant would help the environment. The local population had neither been consulted about, nor asked to support, the project.
The author also describes the Resource Conservation and Utilisation Project (RCUP) — amply criticised in the pages of this magazine — funded by USAID in the Kali Gandaki Valley. RCUP, says Pye-Smith, ultimately "floundered in a mire of bureaucracy" and wasted huge sums.
Pakhribas, a British agriculture project in eastern Nepal, is one of few efforts
that Pye-Smith praises. It was begun in 1973 as a training programme for retired Gurkhas but soon evolved to encompass 8,000 farming households in the Kosi Hills. Pakhribas provided high quality seeds, kept chemical fertiliser use to a minimum, restricted pesticides and weed killers, and employed local women. Both farm production and household income increased. The success is attributed partially to the fact that all the aid money went directly from the British Government to the project rather than get held up at the ministry and filtered off to Nepali government departments. Lest he be accused of nationality bias, Pye-Smilh is quick to criticise two other British projects, the Dharan-Dhankuta highway and the Kosi Hills Area Rural Development Pro¬gramme (KHARDEP).
At Jiri, just east of Kathmandu, the author visited a lift irrigation scheme built three years before by the Japanese. No water had yet been diverted, and the only benefit so far was to the Japanese firms and contractors. Nothing Nepali was used in the project at all.
Parks and wildlife conservation are tackled in a chapter about the Tarai, which points out that the poor people who live next to a park are worried about their next meal, "not whether their grandchildren see a tiger", Pye-Smith also reminds us that one of the differences between a developed country and a developing one, such as Nepal, is that the former destroyed its wildlife habitats long ago, and that much more than conservation, vital though it is, must be considered when plans are made.
A section on the little known tribal group, the Chcpang, encapsulates the problems resulting from inequitable land holdings and the poverty and debt enslavement, Jairaj Senghai, the "yellow topiitd Brahman of Shimthali" must
have been doing well out of usury, says the author. "I love these people," says the Brahman. "My heart beats with their hearts." And this is what the author has to say, "I think he genuinely meant it, and I also believe the Chcpangs looked on him with a certain affection. Debt bondage, which is slavery under another name, kindles an odd form of reciprocal love."
The author is always quick to note ironies that abound in developing Nepal. It strikes him as outrageous, for example, that the annual salaries of expatriates who work in Nepal could be as high as U$75,000, while the Prime Minister earned NRs4,000 a month (it must be a bit more now). A Newar trader in Birganj was doing a booming business in commodes — the sit-up variety — because it was catching on as a status symbol for the rich.
At a library at the Vajra Hotel in downtown Kathmandu he comes up with all sorts of odd tidbits of information. For example, he locates an obscure treatise on "The Use of Bamboo in a Rai Village in the Upper Amn Valley". The list includes stools, sieves for washing wool, trays for winnowing rice, baskets, combs, animal muzzles, fish traps, bows, arrows, hen baskets, spoons, pipes, chhang and tongba straws, mats, animal mangers, dokos, flutes, roofs and walls.
Pye-Smith writes with wit and charm as he incorporates a mass of detailed information in the most readable form. He includes accounts of experiencing vertigo on the climb to Namche Bazaar, conversations about cricket, discussions on current Nepali politics, and impressions of everything from Tarai towns to tasting paart, although he can´t recall what it is called. Miriam Poser lives in New York and treks in South Asia.