Beneath the majestic Mount Everest and the awe-inspiring Himalayan ranges lives a people who share a tragic history of royal family massacre and decades of civil strife. A country that ranked amongst the most corrupt nations in the world (Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2017), in which a quarter of its 30 million citizens live below the poverty line (UN Human Development Report 2016).
Yet these people do not receive the same international media attention and profiling that other developing nations in Latin America, Africa or Eastern Europe receives. Whenever Nepal is mentioned, the average person thinks of Everest, rustic mountain villages and hardy porters who carry the tourists’ heavy backpacks.
My journey into understanding this country and its people started when I made a last-minute decision to go on a trip to Nepal with two other friends, guided by sons of the first-generation Gurkhas who served in Singapore in its founding years.
Gurkhas (or Gorkhas in Nepali) are Nepalese soldiers who come from central Nepal and the eastern hill villages. Their greatness as loyal and brave fighters were first appreciated by the British when they were defeated with heavy casualties in the invasion of Nepal in 1815. In the years that followed till today, Gurkhas were recruited to serve in the armies of the UK, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and other countries.
The ones that came to Singapore sent their children to the local schools. Two of them, who spent their early childhood and teens in Singapore, were my guides in this ancient Kingdom’s cities and hills.
Destroyed by Earthquake and Politics
From the point we landed it was clear that Nepal was ‘third world’ with poor infrastructure. Kathmandu was a dusty, grimy town full of slow or abandoned construction and the worst pot-hole filled roads I had ever came across. Many parts of the city were still not rebuilt from a devastating April 2015 earthquake — the deadliest in 81 years for the region.
Nepal is heavily reliant on foreign aid and has been a recipient for more than 60 years now. Yet the country has struggled to develop and remain one of the poorest in the world. Over 70% of Nepal’s people lives off agriculture, but this contributes to only 33% of its GDP. ( Trading Economics)
The blame for this rest squarely on one word: corruption. Endemic corruption and a legacy of social caste systems prevent Nepalese citizens from equal opportunities in education, business and jobs.
The problem is compounded by extreme political instability which deters foreign investments. Nepal was a monarchy until 1990, when democracy was introduced under a constitutional monarchy. A decade later in 2001, a horrific massacre during a royal party in the King’s palace left most of his family dead, and two decades of political turbulence followed. Since then, Nepal has been changing Prime Ministers on average once a year; sometimes twice.
Different conspiracy theories are whispered behind closed doors on just what really happened during that bloody palace shootout and who really controls the nation’s power structure now. The official version is the Crown Prince got high on alcohol and hashish and shot his family, including the King and Queen, due to their opposition to his marriage. According to my Nepali friends, alternative theories have been sharply suppressed ever since, openly and covertly, so most folks are wary of talking about it in public.
The political events and changes prior to and after the massacre is enough to fill a book, so it will not do the country and its people justice to try and summarise it in a short paragraph here. But based on my casual discussions with the locals, they seem to prefer the monarchy era as the King was perceived as benevolent. He met and talked to his people regularly in the field outside his palace, and economic development was far more stable during his reign.
Helping or Hurting?
One of my guides is both intellectually and academically well-qualified, having grown up in Singapore and studied in one of the best schools here. As a conversation starter during our tiring hike through the hills he asked us a classic English vocabulary conundrum. “What is the difference between ‘self-dependent’ and ‘independent’?”
The professional writer in me took almost a day to figure out a contextual answer. The philosopher in me can’t help but think about how coincidentally, these two words resonate with the Nepalese situation right now.
Let’s use ‘self-reliant’ instead of ‘self-dependent’ as a synonym to distinguish between the two contextually. Nepal is neither ‘independent’ nor ‘self-reliant’ right now.
Economically, Nepal is heavily reliant on India and China for the importation of processed goods, having no real manufacturing sector or technology of their own. Ironic given the vast labour and land the country has. Being a landlocked highland, the nearest seaport — Kolkata, which handles practically all of Nepal’s sea freight, is also in India.
Infrastructure wise the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which incidentally, makes it a proxy contest for political influence between east and west, since Nepal lies between China and India. This point was brought across by an on-site guide who showed us around the earthquake destroyed Kathmandu Durbar Square — a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As we walked into the old royal palace he said with a wink and grin that one half of the compound was being restored by Chinese President Xi Jinping and the other half by Trump. The former was distinct in brick red and the latter painted white…In such a fashion, the buildings being restored were quite literally split down the middle.
The effectiveness of foreign aid for the country is controversial, but the general consensus leans towards inefficacy. Why? This article tells the story in its barest honesty: “But the bigger question is, given the number and kind of incestuous evaluation that the donors do — the same guys do the project and almost same kind of guys do the evaluation…aid has done less good and more bad in Nepal.”
There is no lack of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Nepal wanting to help. But again they often do more unintentional damage than good based on their western idealism and the corrupt pockets aid money tends to fill.
“The worst thing about donors’ money is that it has weakened civil society voices. NGOs are now seen as communities of dollar harvesters. The government is getting more corrupt. So where is the zero tolerance to corruption that the donors have been advocating for? Shouldn’t they be accountable for that or at least make those whom they provide money accountable? It will end up in chaos if this continues and the trust of people in the NGOs will continue to decline, which eventually will weaken the voices of the civil society,” said Dipak Gyawali, author of ‘Aid, Technology and Development — The Lessons from Nepal’.
At a micro level, my guide tells us that women’s rights has been an area of strong advocacy amongst NGOs in Nepal. However, this movement often causes domestic disputes within Nepalese families as village women awaken to ‘independent’ thinking but lacked economic ‘self-reliance’ and education to make wise choices; sometimes landing the family into debt due to micro-finance. It was an interesting point of view which I wasn’t surprised to hear from my intellectual and well-educated friend cum guide. I realised a few days later as we grew closer that he was also speaking from personal experience…
Don’t Mess with the Truck Drivers
Just one narrow, hilly and treacherous road with big pot-holes connect the capital city of Kathmandu with the cities and villages to the east and west within the mountain ranges and valleys. Trucks ply up and down this busy and jammed mountain highway everyday, moving goods down south from China and northwards from India.
Life is cheap in Nepal, literally. I’m told by my guide that a truck driver is fined as little as 10 thousand Nepalese Rupees (US$93) by law for a fatal accident. On the other hand, if the victim survived, the guilty party is obliged to pay his medical fees for life. His brother was involved in an truck accident, in which the driver allegedly tried to reverse his truck backwards after the initial collision to crush his brother’s automobile in order to minimise his financial liability from the incident.
I could not verify from official sources if the Nepalese law for truck accidents indeed worked that way, but another local did confirm this piece of gritty information and said sullenly to me, “Don’t mess with the truck drivers.” We joked that truck drivers made the best and cheapest assassins in the land.
Jokes aside, my guide also said that Nepal actually has some of the most conservation and environment friendly laws in the world, introduced mostly during the reign of the former King. However, it is one thing to have the laws written down, it is another to enforce it given the corrupt and broken governance structures.
Up in the villages, logistics recedes to a much more primitive mode, relying on mules and human labour to carry basic goods up the hilly slopes and rock paved steps that have been built over centuries by villagers.
We passed a vegetable seller stoically carrying his two baskets of produce up the hill, stopping by each tourist lodge to sell them. Our guide tells us that this mobile hawker will usually not have money to eat until he has sold his vegetables for the day. So he must keep going until his baskets are empty.
If Nepal does have one blessing, it is its rich soil and flora. It endows its inhabitants with excellent conditions for agriculture and an abundant source of wild vegetables and edible plants. We are told that with sufficient diligence and knowledge, Nepalese villagers has survived famines just by foraging alone.
Wild Marijuana and Hippies
There was a time when Nepal was regarded as a land of exotic cultures and mystical spirituality. In the legendary Kathmandu Guest House, famous politicians, celebrities, and writers have stayed here and praised the country’s rugged beauty and nature. There is even a ‘The Beatles Hallway’ named after the band who stayed here. According to a plaque at its entrance, many books about Nepal were written by their authors in the hotel’s beautiful garden.
In Durbar Square there is an old squarish temple about four storeys high that is famously dubbed “Hippie Temple”. Here in the 60’s and 70’s foreigners rested on its stone steps as they got high from cannabis and hashish, purchased from ‘Freak Street’ just down the road (so dubbed also due to the number of tourists slurring from the intoxicants sold in the shops). Legend has it musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Bob Marley, all made pilgrimages to Nepal. Today Marijuana still grows wild in the hills but that sense of liberty and oriental mystic has long gone. (Note: Marijuana has been made illegal in Nepal since the mid-70's)
According to a local friend Durbar Square is not even a shade of its former majestic beauty before the 2015 earthquake. Despite collecting a hefty fee of about US$10 from every tourist for viewing the inner compounds, restoration work has been painfully slow and almost non-existent in some parts even though more than three years has passed. Coupled with widespread deforestation visible all over the hills and valleys, one wonders if Nepal could ever fully regain its former glory as a place of beautiful nature and cultural heritage.
Lee Kuan Yew on Nepalese Walls
I noticed a picture of Lee Kuan Yew high up on the walls of my Nepali guide’s home. I asked him why. He said all Gurkhas who had served in Singapore during the time Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister, including his father, had a picture of him on the walls of their homes.
That night, five of his friends gathered in his home to drink and reminisce about their childhood growing up in Singapore. As the late night wore on and faces turned red, they confided their disappointment at how their own country has lagged so far behind in progress.
All said and done, I asked them at the end of the evening to sum up their hopes for their own country. One of them said he wished that a strong and wise leader could emerge to lead the country out of their downwards spiral. The rest nodded silently in agreement.
Perhaps that picture of Lee Kuan Yew, a man who led a post-colonial tiny island with no natural resources from third world to first in 30 years, was symbolic of their inner hope and wait. I carried a 12kg backpack for a mere four days in their mountains. 30 million Nepali people have had to carry the weight of their country’s economic and political burdens for over 40 years…
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.