Nepal, my Observations

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A school under reconstruction post the 2015 earthquake, photo from a visit in  Feb 2017

I have been thinking to write my thoughts about this country Nepal. I have visited this country number of times for different purposes- treks, pilgrimage, family trip and just as a youngster with cash enough to explore a new country which suited my pocket.  Because of all these visits I have always been dove-eyed about this country. I have always appreciated warm, strong , welcoming Nepalese people and have been awed by the strength of the hill people.hey fly through the hills while we plain people huff and puff.  The tile and brick  building architecture, the streets of Thamel with all the gears- name any company from across the globe, the old ways of greeting people, the culture of following the old hindu calendar, the apparent harmonious presence of hinduism and buddhism and what not.

While a colleague here writes about the policy landscape of the country, I would like to reflect on seeing this country while traveling around on work.

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Durbar Square, Feb 2017

Most development work driven by grants: I am living in India, a developing nation or a middle income country based on which ever terminology one wants to use. I am looking at Nepal from a lens that is not developed but not really “under developed” as well. It was quite fascinating to see that the sizes of the budgets; to lay roads or water pipelines; for this country mostly comes from multilateral grants rather than their own tax payer money. Also the quantum of operating budget the government departments responsible for delivering basic services is too low. The 4 way junctions have boards saying ” From the people of Japan”, the main highways that act as arteries to the country is from Japan International Cooperation Agency, some water project in the hills is from a Norwegian fund, the main outer ring road of Kathmandu is from a world bank money and built by a Chinese company. Restoration of earthquake affected architecture is also supported by some Japanese funding.

Election driven by international aid: May be its my ignorance about LDCs, but this one came as a surprise to me. Yes, I have read about external funding of elections in Sudan, but I never expected this to be the case for Nepal. What will be the percentage of democracy that will pan out with a country’s election being funded by external agencies. These agencies are not answerable to any people of any other country too. This is influencing  the country’s fate at a very different level with no accountability or answerability by these agencies.

Tourist driven: For me it is interesting to find snickers, variety of international brand of beers, and many other international products find their way from Kathmandu, Pokhara and all the up to Annapurna Base Camp and all the villages that dot the trekking routes. The trails to treks are well paved, exactly they are all paved with well laid stones all the way to the camps. If given a chance they will pave it with the stones even up to the hostile peaks of Himalayas. Although tourism contributes to less than 5% of the economy, there is a heavy focus on this sector.

Upper himalayan region bias vs Terai region ( more like the plain regions): In India the development and attention of the governments usually is more to the plain regions than the hill regions. I always thought the reasons for this could be : logic of number of people reached with a given budget and easy of implementation. In the case of Nepal the focus is upper Himalayan  communities and the communities in the Terai region are neglected.  This challenges my understanding, and makes me wonder why? Few of the reasoning why this could be from what I observed are:

  • First one, Nepal and its image to the granting/aid agencies is that of the Himalayan country, so agencies want to fund the so called Himalayan areas , which are difficult to work in too. “A village nestled in some high hilly region, where some meaningful work got done” makes a pretty picture.
  • Second one, because the hills are what tourist get to, the government also wants to pay attention to the upper regions first.
  • The terai region people have little  representation in Kathmandu, in the government, in the aid sector. The number of aid agencies working in Terai region is far less than the ones working in upper Himalayan region.  Thus funds do not get channelized to this region.

Natural disaster distracting long term development work: Himalayas is one of the most volatile of geographies. Natural disaster of some form or the other keep happening all the time. The country has almost no contingency plan to address disasters if and when they happen. This haphazardness actually stalls and affects the other development work that should have been continues in spite of the disasters. The bandwidth allocation of work gets skewed with most of the money and human resource getting diverted to address effects of natural disaster and the other unaffected  regions hence suffer.

Aid sector is mature, but is driven by funders at every level: In a LDC its not a surprise that aid sector and INGOs are present in good numbers and almost work like governments and are mature in their operations. But the INGOs drive every aspect of all the programs they implement through local NGOs. There is very little capability with the local NGOs.They only do the job of taking orders and doing whatever is told to them by their funders.

Heavily primary sector driven : The country has almost very little secondary or tertiary sector. Most of their vehicles ( cars, trucks, bikes, vans ) come mostly from India and China and people end up paying almost 100% import duty on it.

Air pollution in Kathmandu

Air pollution in Kathmandu is just out of control: Kathmandu’s air is now rated one of the most highly polluted in the world. While on one side the city establishment is rushing to finish the 15 year old Melamchi water supply  project , on the other side the Chinese company is rushing to finish paving the outer ring roads. I keep wondering and worrying about  what is going to come of generation of toddlers who are born and raised in such dusty conditions early in their life.

In short, after visiting this country on work, I don’t know if I can still be dove-eyed about it all and enjoy the snow peaks like my friends who visit this country for its natural beauty and adventure sport. But, having visited the country enough number of times in my twenties, I would like to see it stabilize and achieve better living conditions for its people.

The complex terrain: environment vs development

The trimester is coming to its end and a lot of writing, submissions are happening. Sleepless nights and ill health always seem to go hand in hand for me in these times.

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Challakere Grassland, Chitradurga, Karnataka, India

As a part of a project, I am exploring environmental degradation and how it’s connected to poverty both as causation and also as an effect. While trying to understand this loopy relationship, on a friend’s suggestion, I looked at the Amrit Mahal Kaval of Chellakere ( 50,000 Hectares). This and similar such large patches of land were given to pastoralist by Mysore Maharaja some 400 years ago.

In 2012, a substantial part of this land (10,000 hectares) of it was allocated to three government establishments -DRDO, BARC, IISc for drone testing, enrichment of uranium and other scientific research respectively. And this was all done by the District Collector secretively without informing the involved Panchayats. And when the villagers got to fathom what was happening, it was quite late, constructions, building of compound walls had already begun. The villagers protested on two grounds – secretive transaction of land (that was given to them by the King 400 years ago) without their consent and second is the biodegradation of the grassland.

I am in complete agreement with their argument against secretive transaction without their consent. But in a documentary about the lives of these villages and how these nuclear/ government establishments will affect their livelihood – there were points made about how practices that are practices over generations will be lost, both culturally and biodiversity wise.  My questions regarding this narrative is twofold- what is 400 years of culture compared to 5000 years of culture we as a nation have gathered? Second being, where is the EIA that shows the negative impact on biodiversity by these establishments? And any sort of development activity will have a altering impact on environment. The civilizational transitions are not going to pause just because we cannot clearly articulate negative changes that it will bring along. An average human being today – let’s say a lower middle class person today enjoy the level of comfort that none of the kings enjoys 200 years ago. All of it is, courtesy environmental exploitation/ degradation/ utilization.

The fight on the Chellakere is legit if it were about non-involvement of the communities and their consent. May be had the communities been involved early on, the establishments could have had a way that was agreeable to both parties and the factories running. But the question that bothers me, especially regarding environmental degradation is that of – what is degradation and how is it different from use? Will grazing of cattle and pastoral activities not cause degradation- by loss in biodiversity and addition of GHGs? Is a nuclear enrichment plant the only way in which this area will get polluted?

The civil society that is helping these communities in staging a protest seem to actually be putting words in their mouth and articulate it for them. The civil society also is the one who is painting the picture for them. This is not an accusation, but an observation. As Leo Saldana ( in one of his talks to us in NLSIU) put it succinctly, the ones who have their stake in such matters are hardly lettered and in-articulate. In a state where even the articulate are victimized, what the in-articulate to do. In that case, the imagination and understanding of these people given this condition will never emerge to their own minds, let alone to the larger society.

The other possible pictures in my opinion is not vision-able for these villagers. Or is it that the state has betrayed so many of the vulnerable communities (by not keeping its promises) that the state has lost the credibility for anyone to believe what they paint?

 

Outsourcing governance- Is the new “inn” thing? – Parastatals

In the class on democracy and ecology, I have always had an alternate possition from that of the course instructor. While he upholds the constitution ( although he is not a lawyer, but still! ) above everything, I feel there have be changes in ways of state’s doing business in the context of the larger world.  While I had my reasons to question his point of views, I did agree to his reasoning in certain matters. One of them is the case of parastatal agencies.  The funny thing is when I did agree with him this time, he was unable to see it as he is tuned to believe that I wont agree with him.

Parastatal agencies , what are they? They are agencies that “aid” state in doing its job well by doing certain specific , specialized jobs that generic state can not be expected to do. For example an ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation)is a parastatal agency. At the same time a KUIDFC (Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development & Finance Corporation) is also a parastatal agency. And there exist other parastatal agencies that are neither an offshoot of government bodies, nor are non-governmental organizations. They are somewhere inbetween. They ( in the name of helping the state) play the role of state and also not stay answerable to the public that has elected its local representatives – councilors/ corporators / MLAs.  There is a requirement for a parastatal agency like a ISRO to provide and implement experitse, as it is a very specialized task. Whereas requirement of a KUIDFC does exist too, but to provide expertise through advocacy but not implementation. Why this distinction?

Because:

  1. The activities that KUIDFC plans/implemented are constitutionally mandated by the Urban Local Bodies to do it by themselves , on behalf of the citizens of the urban area. 
  2. Also agencies like KUIDFC are given the trump card to override these constitutionally guaranteed powers vested with the ULBs. (See image below , snippet from KUIDFC-Municiapl corporation contract).
  3. KUIDFC then takes loans from IFIs (International Financial Institutions) on behalf of the city corporation and further imposes the rules from the IFIs on the city and in this process also changing the laws and policies of the state.

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The KUIDFC atleast is a parastatal agency constituted by the state, they can be questioned at some point by the state.

There are other type of parastatal agencies that are set up by  influencial citizens “to do good” for the larger city. In the case of Bangalore one of them is Janagraha. Janagarha, one of the urban specialist NGOs is one example. Bangalore has a handful of such influenctial agencies. I have worked for one of them in the past ( I guess!). The point is all of them intend well, but why are they bestowed with powers that are mandated to the state bodies? Why are they given them without being asked to be accountable for the same?  The questions raised by the instructor were pertinent- why is  a Janagraha a signing authortity for the city plans that cities were supposed to put together under JNNURM?  And who funds these agencies? Do these organizations even know the landscape of politics and governnance? They do not engage with areas that are asthetically not apealign for them in their “citizen engagement assigment” they assign themselves. Like the BATF did not want to engage with the slum board as it ” is a political cesspool” while doing the City Development Plan for the BDA.

It definitely is not a bad idea to have parastatals help state in an advisory role, but they definitely can not be engaged to “do” things without being held accountable.

Also another intersting thing about Bangalore- there was a report commissioned under Kasturirangan on how the Bangalore metropolitan should be governend. But is not available on any goverment website but on archive.org.- https://ia801001.us.archive.org/18/items/DrKasturiranganCommitteeReportOnBBMP/Dr-Kasturirangan-Committee-Report-on-BBMP.pdf

Why???

That, that!!!!