Intended for reprint.
This is the second time I am visiting Nepal this year with the certainty of other visits coming up next year. Not as a tourist but as a writer and film maker. The main topic of interest for me is the situation of the Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and in the resettlement countries. But being in this beautiful country does not allow me to close my eyes for the everyday reality of life in Nepal. So after some months of observation and being a sideliner in the Nepali society it’s time to share some of my observations on this country.
First of all: I am totally in love with Nepal and I haven’t even been trekking in the mountains. My travels have taken me to the east Terai and of course Kathmandu. Nepal is an amazing country with beauty all around. But it’s also one of the poorest countries I have ever visited with all the social effects poverty brings. Secondly, I have deep respect for the religious nature of this Himalayan country even though I myself are not bound to a single religion of live philosophy. The problems in Nepal are of such an enormous magnitude that it is unimaginable that these can be solved in just a few decades. Seeing Nepal change in a socially more safe and less poor society is something that can not be achieved in just one life time.
That having said, it’s important to list the most important challenges that Nepal faces, so let’s have a go at that. This country suffers under a poor physical infrastructure like bad roads, not always and everywhere available electricity and telecommunications, bad fuel and gas distribution, terrible sanitation. All lacking even the basic networks that would meet the needs of the society. As far as organizational infrastructure is concerned the country is the contrary. For just about everything in life there is a multitude of governmental and non governmental organizations that try to mange things. The multitude is just too much for a flexible and efficient society. Nepal could do with much less red tape and government involvement in everyday life but to get to that point a very important thing would have to go through a major change: the mental infrastructure of the Nepali society.
Nepal is a young federal democratic republic that is basically run by a not so effective government that frequently changes it’s composition of the ruling coalition. Since the demise of the monarchy some years ago the country has been in a not so stable state of unwritten peace between the Maoist ex-insurgents and the rest of the political spectrum. The amazing situation exists that this is the only democratic republic being ruled by a totally communist coalition cabinet. A political experiment that is not only astonishing but also shaky to say the least. Up until today the sitting cabinets have not been able to effectively attack the fore mentioned challenges this society has. Let alone that basic requirements like safety en equal rights for all citizens van still not be guaranteed. But it would be totally wrong to put the burden of the lack of improvement in Nepal on the shoulders of the government alone.
Being an ex hindu kingdom Nepal is still in its core a very traditional society. That traditionalist mind of the society means that the downside of all countries on the Indian subcontinent still exist in all its gruesomeness. The position of women in society is still very problematic to say the least. Emancipation and equal rights might be on the political agenda, the Nepali society in general is not ripe for major changes in that area. Women still are generally submissive to the male part of society and for most the families of the husbands. They have no equal rights in many aspects of life. Violence against women, the handling of widows and victims of rape and trafficking is absolutely shocking. Another core problem of the inequality in this society is the caste system that still is in place in most areas of the country. The result is that there are many classes of citizens that do certainly not get the same chances in life. Jobs, relationships, education and respect are different for different casts. A system that is medieval and that blocks progress because of the disregard of the talents of so many people born in ‘lower casts’ depriving them of using their talents to the best of their ability.
Lack of education for many, the illiterate rate, the caste system, the traditionalist society, the inequality and the lack of a solid government that is able to bring continuity in policies hold the country in a paralyzing grip. The more than seventeen-hundred non governmental organizations from all over the world that work in this country can not ever change that. The real change has to come from a change of general mentality, a process that will cover generations to show real progress. As it is the Nepali society is frequently hijacked by all kinds of groups within that society that use the powerlessness of the government as a reason to inflict bhanda’s (strikes) that totally paralyze the countries economy. The country comes to a creaking standstill on the strike days that can be organized by whatever minority or interest group. It seems to me that the general public in Nepal believes that striking is the only way to influence the government but in reality it only pushes the country more back. The government can simply not change everything overnight and the desires of society can not be met easily. The problems are simply to many and to big to handle in the timeframe that governments usually think and act in.
Does that mean that Nepal is a hopeless case? No, not at all! In the past months I have met many young and older people that are doing everything they can to improve society in the area that they can influence. If and when the quarreling politicians sit together and agree on a joined effort to rebuild the country there will certainly be progress. To get there some things need to be done first. The re-integration of the Maoists in society (and army to keep the peace), the finishing of the new constitution that will come in place of the temporary poorly mandated constitution and a stable political constellation are the first steps to be taken. Everyone knows that, most certainly the intellectuals, journalists and politicians. But that first major step seems to be so huge to take.
The postponing of the new constitution, the uncertainty about peace with the maoists and the shaky government are signs that are not very hopeful for the short term. But maybe, just maybe, some people in ruling positions will wake up and become the change agents the Nepal needs so bad.
Alice © 2011
Alice Verheij is an independant Dutch writer / film maker currently working in Nepal.