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Why Ignoring Nepal Is A Bad Idea

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By Prerna Mukharya:

I am writing this at the Tribhuvan International Airport. I have been here for two hours and the airport reminds me of Nizamuddin railway station in New Delhi. It is the month of May and the temperature hovers around 34 degrees. There is no air conditioning here, since the country experiences good to cold weather most of the year. Here, the value of ₹1 is worth 1.6 Nepalese rupees.

Photo Credit: Prerna Mukharya

At the airport, about half of the passengers are carrying ‘special’ cards that allow them to work abroad. It has an uncanny resemblance to the flights from New Delhi – young men and women with fresh passports, little luggage, usually in groups of three to seven and with a leader, which allows most low-skilled labourers to travel from India to the Middle East in search of well-paying jobs.

The Nepalese are patient people. I would like to attribute this to their conditioning owing to the geography. Landlocked between India and China – and attributable to its relative size in comparison to its ‘biggest donors’ – this is a voice lost in the Himalayan mountains.

No, it does not feature in India’s daily news. No, Indians don’t make it to Kathmandu often. Surprisingly, the flights to Kathmandu from New Delhi are cheaper than those to Goa – and one can live luxuriously in the city at a cost as low as ₹3000. Tourists here comprise of hikers, hippie Americans, young students with shoestring budgets and few Indian families with their children on a summer vacation.

Sometimes it feels as if Nepal has learned to accept its fate. The Indian embassy boasts of a sprawling 45-acre campus – it resembles a university campus or a mini-city in itself. I believe it to be bigger than its American counterpart. This campus is close to the British embassy – colonial much, I wonder?

Nepal has seen a massive upheaval in its move from monarchy to democracy (in 2008) to a federal structure – and the more recent drama with various groups vying to amend its Constitution.

Photo credit: Prerna Mukharya

Its location between China and India and the more recent earthquake disaster in 2015 has led to Kathmandu becoming an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) hub of sorts. As one travels through its narrow alleys, a million two-wheelers and countless potholes later – out of nowhere, one reaches an area that doesn’t necessarily fit in. In Thamel and Patan, one will see security guards and namesake blockades to protect foreign officials, many of whom are from the West, and their cars with big stickers naming the INGO. It is intriguing to see the line-up of these not-for-profits from the UK and the US vying to do good in Nepal. The latter (Thamel) is a mini Chandni Chowk, 6-8-foot-wide lanes with shops on sides, hawkers and shopkeepers looking to make a quick buck.

The Indian government, by means of its strategy, accounts for about 60% of the money for Nepal’s infrastructure pouring into the nation. 60% of Nepal’s trade revenue is sourced from India, which includes a focus on infrastructure, transport and transit arrangements. I wonder if we track the social outcomes or impact created. I am told – no, not so much. That’s not a part of the mandate. The mandate restricts itself to giving money.

India has made leaps in terms of its brand value in the last two years, largely owing to its Prime Minister. But its soft power in the Kathmandu valley is not one to boast of, in spite of its investments. It is said that Nepal received aid from India much before the Americans came in – and yet there is an absence of a sense of bonhomie between India and the Nepalese. Officially though, India set up a little after the US missions camped.

My time spent moving from one meeting to another gives me a sense of privilege, given my life back home in New Delhi. I am no stranger to pollution and bad roads, but the narrow, extremely dusty alleys and the old 1990 Maruti 800-model cabs with no air conditioning is a humble reminder. People move around with masks covering their noses. In some places, they use these masks inside their shops and houses as well. It is a must-have for all those riding two-wheelers and cars. I noticed some young girls, wearing pollution masks in beautiful colours. It is a part of their lives.

Kathmandu is yet to go online as a city, with only a few startups. The big American players such as Uber or the Indian giants such as Ola haven’t bothered setting shop.

I meet with a senior development sector professional turned entrepreneur and enthusiast. He tells me his country is home to a sea of opportunities – and changes in both thought and action are happening. I am made to understand that Nepal is an untapped market – home to some great local vodka and some wonderful art.

Photo Credit: Prerna Mukharya

With numerous INGOs and millions of dollars pouring in, I assumed Nepal to be a location for fierce competition among national, international players and evaluation agencies. To my bewilderment, the answer is no. On paper, and based on my secondary research, I believe there exist a few think-tanks, but they are not part of an active online discourse or offline debate. Based on some 30 conversations with heads of various not-for-profits, headquartered in Kathmandu, I am told – “Well, we have so many NGOs, but we don’t have an ‘impactful’ think-tank as such. Yes, we have one which was funded by the government. But I’m not so sure anymore.”

One senior political economist, a Nepalese gentleman, tells me – “Don’t bother measuring impact here for these not-for-profits. They have tons of money, but they don’t need to create impact.”

I pause.

He continues, “They technically give us a lot of money to do their programs. A big chunk of that money also goes back to people from other country who come here to work. The workers from these foreign countries spend less in Nepal, but actually earn more in their own currencies. Also, why would you think they would want to track numbers? They don’t care. It is the American narrative.” He lowers his volume and hints that should a day come when there is unpleasantness between India and China, all governments will want some presence (and hence) influence in this tiny, largely Buddhist and peaceful country.

While taking in this comment with its pinch of salt, I am additionally surprised at how the development sector operates. Should there be an opportunity for a research evaluation, assessment or audit, the opportunity is mainly circulated within their pre-selected set of people. But what is shocking is how these opportunities are not put up online. They are released in newspaper dailies in the local language. You must be Nepalese, or registered in Nepal to participate. This, in spite of the fact that most INGO branch offices across the world circulate release opportunities online to ensure fair competition.

That cuts out any international players right there! Organisations headquartered in the US, UK engage in such unfair practices freely. I ask why they do not share opportunities to bring in international talent, experts online – and thereby ensure that the best practices prevail. “We don’t need” is what I am told. It’s a question of choice, apparently.

My last conversation is with the Nepalese airline staff as I stand in line. I ask if Kathmandu is the only international airport in Nepal. He tells me with a chuckle; – “They’ve been making two new ones.” I say that’s brilliant. But he jumps in – “Well, we’ve been hearing this for years now. Don’t hold your breath.”

The author is the founder of Outline India.

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Featured image for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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