Why Don’t We Talk About Nepal More Often?
Indians rarely visit Nepal, even if flights to Kathmandu are cheaper than those to Goa, writes Prerna Mukharya.
I write this at the Tribhuvan international airport in Kathmandu, where I have been waiting for two hours now. The airport reminds me of Nizamuddin railway station in New Delhi. It is the month of May and the temperature hovers around 34 degree Celsius. There is no air conditioning here; since Nepal experiences pleasant to cold weather for most of the year.
About half the passengers at this airport carry ‘special’ cards that allow low-skilled labourers to travel from India to the Middle East in search of well-paying jobs. The scene is rather similar to that of Delhi airport – young men and women, with fresh passports, little luggage, usually in groups of 3-7 and with a leader.
‘The Nepalese Voice Lost In The Himalayas’
The Nepalese are patient people. I would like to attribute this to their conditioning owing to the geography. Nepal, landlocked between India and China, and relatively smaller than its biggest donors, is a lost voice in the Himalayan mountains.
No, Nepal 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 Rs 3000 a day. Here, one Indian Rupee is worth 1.6 Nepalese Rupee. Tourists here comprise hitchhikers, foreign travellers, young students on shoestring budgets and the occasional Indian couple on holiday with their children.
It sometimes feels as though Nepal has learnt to accept its fate. The Indian embassy boasts 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?
Upheaval in Nepal After it Became A Democracy
Nepal has seen a massive upheaval in the last decade, with its move from monarchy to a federal democratic republic in 2008, to the more recent drama with various groups vying to amend its Constitution.
Its location between China and India, and the more recent earthquake disaster in 2015 has led to Kathmandu being an INGO (International Non Governmental Organisation) hub of sorts.
In Thamel and Patan, one will see security guards and namesake blockades to protect foreign officials, many of whom are from the West. Their cars bear big stickers that name the INGO. It is intriguing to see the line-up of these not-for-profit bodies from the UK and the USA vying to do-good in Nepal.
The latter, Thamel, is a mini-Chandni Chowk, with 6-8 foot wide lanes with shops on sides and hawkers and shopkeepers looking to make a quick buck.
Nepal’s Solid Dependence on India
Around 60 percent of Nepal’s trade revenue is sourced through 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 globally, but its soft power in the Kathmandu valley, is not one to boast off, in spite of its investments.
It is said that Nepal received aid from India much before the Americans came in and yet there is absence of a sense of bonhomie between India and the Nepalese. Officially though, India set up camp in Nepal a little after the US missions.
‘Felt Privileged in Nepal’
My time in Nepal – that I spent moving from one meeting to another – gives me a sense of privilege about my life back home in New Delhi.
I am no stranger to pollution and bad roads, but the narrow and 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. Some wear these masks inside their shops and houses as well. It is a must have for all who ride two-wheelers and cars. I noticed some young girls, wearing pollution masks in beautiful colors. It is a part of life here.
Nepal Remains An Untapped Market
Kathmandu is yet to go online as a city. There are a few start-ups here, and American players like Uber or their Indian counterparts like Ola haven’t bothered setting shop here yet.
I meet with a senior development sector professional turned entrepreneur and enthusiast. He tells me his country is home to a sea of opportunity and the change in both thought and action is happening. I am made to understand that Nepal is an untapped market, home to some great local vodka and wonderful art.
With numerous INGOs and millions of dollars pouring in, I assumed that Nepal was a location for fierce competition among national and international players and evaluation agencies. To my bewilderment, it wasn’t. 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.
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.
One senior political economist, a Nepalese gentleman tells me, "Don't bother measuring impact here for these not-for-profits”. They have a ton 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 natives from their own country who come here to work. The workers from these foreign countries spend less in Nepal but actually earn more in their own currency. 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 influence in this tiny, largely Buddhist and peaceful country.
‘Only Nepalese Need Apply’
I took his comments with a pinch of salt. But I am surprised at how the development sector operates. Opportunities for a research evaluation, assessment or audit are usually circulated within a pre-selected set of people. What is shocking is that 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, despite the fact that most INGO branch offices across the world release opportunities online in order to ensure fair competition.
Organisations headquartered in the US and the UK engage in such unfair practices freely. I ask why they do not share opportunities online, so that they can bring in international experts and usher in better practices. “We don't need it,” is what I am told. Apparently, it's a question of choice.
My last conversation in Nepal is with a Nepalese airline staffer as I stand to board my flight. I ask if Tribhuvan is the only international airport in Nepal. "They’ve been making two new ones,” he says. When I tell him that’s good news, he chuckles. “Well, we’ve been hearing this for years now. Don't hold your breath".
(The writer is the founder of OUTLINE India. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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