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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.


Featured image for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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