Nepali Times

Vacuum in the villages

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Nepalis are paying a heavy price for the absence of local elections

As Bhim Neupane walked up the dusty trail to the village of Katunje he greeted women carrying oversized loads of fodder grass, asking how the children were doing in school. He stopped at the tea shop, and was welcomed warmly with smiles and namastes. He stopped to speak to farmers and asked about their water buffaloes, whose individual names he seemed to know by heart.

That was in 2000, and Bhim Neupane had been re-elected chairman of Kushadevi VDC. He told me then: “People are now aware, they are able to plan and work together to improve their living standards.”

Fifteen years later, I was walking again with Bhim Neupane along the same path, which is now a motorable road. VDCs were dissolved by Sher Bahadur Deuba government in 2002, local bodies across Nepal have had no elected councils since. Even so, Neupane is approached by families who want citizenship papers certified, and he is still asking them about their water buffaloes.

Bhim Neupane (left) talking with a local.

Bhim Neupane (left) talking with a local.

After visiting Kavre, Dang, and Rupendehi in 2000 to meet elected village leaders like Neupane, it was clear grassroots democracy was finally delivering development. Cynics who said democracy was a luxury for a poor and illiterate country like Nepal could not have been more wrong.

To be sure, national level politics was a mess back then, as it is now. The Maoists were impatient for regime change, their bloody insurgency had entered its fourth year. Local elected officials were their first targets, and by the end of the conflict three-fourths of the 3,900 VDCs across Nepal had been destroyed. Kushadevi’s VDC block which also housed a health post and training centre was bombed twice, and the Maoists killed charismatic and respected local leaders like Krishna Sapkota in 2002. Sapkota was tortured and decapitated, his head displayed in the village square to terrorise others. Neupane stayed in Kushadevi through it all.

Today, there is little sign that there was ever a war here. The VDC has been rebuilt, Kushadevi has prospered because of proximity to Kathmandu. Bhim Neupane surveys his scenic village from a hilltop, and says: “This is what local democracy can do, we made this happen.”

Indeed, it was during his two five-year tenures as VDC chairman that Neupane upgraded government schools, added a 10+2 campus, rehabilitated health posts, built 50 km of roads that today provide access to markets for Kushadevi’s dairy and vegetable farmers. He brought drinking water to far-flung wards, irrigation for off-season vegetables, and Kushadevi was lit up at night
with microhydro power.

The VDC also stood guarantee for insurance so farmers were not ruined if the costly animals died. “Buying a buffalo was a gamble, but insurance reduced the risk and it lifted many farmers here out of poverty,” Neupane recalls.

Across Nepal, VDCs have been run by an unelected club of the three main parties and a government-appointed secretary. But people still turn to charismatic chairmen like Neupane for leadership and advice. Villagers in Kushadevi have given up on the government, and now take their own initiative when something needs to be done.

“Nothing has been built here in the last 12 years,” says Laxman Humagain, a Kushadevi native. Kathmandu-based quarry tycoons have bought off entire mountainsides to feed the capital’s construction boom. Families have been displaced, springs have gone dry as excavators claw at the slope and tipper trucks groan through clouds of dust. Neupane says the quarries would be strictly regulated if there was an elected village council.

Neupane gazes out to the east at folds of mountains in fading shades of blue, and says wistfully: “We were elected then, we were accountable to the people, and there was a sense of collective destiny. Without elections there is no accountability, and people have no motivation to work together.”

Kunda Dixit in Kavre

All politics is local, #560

Think nationally, act locally, #702


Irreconcilable truths

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

“You just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.”

Seven years ago this week, Kathmandu saw hundreds of thousands of people massing up in the streets against a king who wanted to turn the clock back to the era of absolute monarchy. From the other side, the Maoists were busy exterminating ‘class enemies’. Democracy was being squeezed from both the extreme left and extreme right. But what the Maoists could not achieve with ten years of war and 17,000 dead, was achieved in 19 days of peaceful pro-democracy street protests that forced Gyanendra to step aside.

Whatever the glorifiers of violence and apologists for brutality may say, April 2006 represented a moral victory for peaceful political struggle. It proved that in this day and age one needn’t kill a whole bunch of people to bring about political change, even to remove a state that perpetrates structural violence.

The Maoists are not the type to say sorry, or admit that their ideology is obsolete and counterproductive. The question is how do we deal with the post-war legacy of violence, the simmering anger among survivors and relatives of victims, so as to help the healing process. How should we handle reconciliation in the aftermath of a conflict that neither side lost, and both want to forget?

Wars leave scars. The deep wounds take decades to heal. Twenty years later Rwanda is still trying to come to terms with the abhorrent atrocities of its genocide. What helped was that the Tutsi leader who took over avoided retribution against Hutu mass murderers. South Africa took a similar step by naming and shaming rather than trying apartheid era crimes. Nelson Mandela’s famous maxim was to “forgive, but not forget”.

In Spain, an amnesty pact between Franco and the leftists protected a fragile democratic transition. But 40 years later, a survivor who is taking his torturer to jail told the New York Times this week: “I agree with the idea of reconciliation. But you just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.” Bangladesh and Cambodia have shown that sooner or later war crimes have to be addressed.

‘Reconciliation’, ‘transitional justice’, ‘truth’ may sound like donor vocabulary, but survivors everywhere need closure. They need to know what happened to relatives, why they were killed and by whom, and justice must eventually be served to prevent the wounds from festering. Every country takes its own path, and Nepal’s road to reconciliation should be much easier because ours wasn’t an ethno-separatist or religious strife, but a class war. There is much less bad blood, relatively less of a sense of revenge, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for truth and reconciliation.

Collusion between former enemies had led to the tabling of a bill in parliament on Wednesday to set up commissions for truth and reconciliation and disappearances. The NC and the UML were glad to let the Maoists take the flak for obstructing the bills, but they weren’t pushing it much either. The Maoists, in characteristic fashion, blocked task force negotiations on parameters of the bills, while stalling parliament proceedings to protest delays that they were primarily responsible for.  But all four main political groups are responsible for Wednesday’s bill to whitewash their past.

It is now meaningless to ask which side perpetrated a war crime. Both sides are now the state, and it is the state’s responsibility to deliver truth and justice to the families of Krishna Adhikari, Maina Sunwar, Dekendra Thapa, the Doramba 18, the Kotbara 35 or tens of thousands of others. Without truth and justice, these questions will remain irreconcilable.

The Kumari story

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

When Nepal opened up to the outside world in the 1950s and the first early tourists started coming in, they were mandatorily required to photograph cremations at Pashupati, monks in Boudha and monkeys on Swayambhu. The other must-see was the Kumari Temple, and the living goddess of Kathmandu soon became a subject of enduring fascination for foreigners.

Many articles, books and films have come out about the Kumari, including From Goddess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Royal Kumari written by former Kumari herself, Rashmila Shakya in 2005.  The latest book on living goddesses is British travel writer Isabella Tree’s The Living Goddess, which was released in Kathmandu this week.

Gqy__The_Living_GoddessBecause it is written by a journalist, The Living Goddess is heavy on research and interviews as it delves into the cultural history of the tradition of the living goddess. There is not a lot of it that is new there, but Tree digs deeper to investigate the symbolism and faith that has allowed the Kumari tradition to evolve and survive several regime changes in Kathmandu in the past centuries.

Tree goes back to the history of the Malla dynasty in Kathmandu Valley and the Shah kings from Gorkha who conquered them in 1767. The Kumari tradition may have emerged as a Mahayana Buddhist practice, but is inextricably tied with the Devi-worship of Hindu kings and the emergence of Kathmandu as a centre of tantric beliefs and rituals. For Prithvi Narayan Shah to arrive at Hanuman Dhoka Palace on the day of Indra Jatra and touch the feet of the Kumari was a dramatic public relations move, and attempt to ensure that the Valley that he had finally conquered would accept him as king.

As Tree explains, the Kumari then came to embody the Nepali nation. The health and mood swings of the living goddess could portend epidemics, earthquakes and the fall of rulers. The book lists instances where premonitions have come true: King Tribhuvan died in 1955 six months after the Kumari reportedly refused to put a tika on his forehead, his son King Mahendra died when he failed to pay his respects to the Kumari in 1971, the Kumari’s hair was unruly and couldn’t be tied properly into a knot during the first People’s Movement of 1990 and apparently the caretaker could only successfully tie it after King Birendra decided to become a constitutional monarch, or that three weeks before the royal massacre of 1 June 2001 the Kumari had broken into rashes.

In the great political churning after the royal massacre, king Gyanendra’s rule and the Maoist conflict, the Kumari’s royal links became the reason that its accepted religious role started being questioned, human rights activists said the Kumari tradition was ‘child abuse’ and even filed a writ in the Supreme Court in 2005 to have it discontinued. Tree interviews activists, priests, former
Kumaris and concludes that allegations of mistreatment and abuse of the young girls are mainly based on rumours – just like the false belief that the husband will die if an ex-Kumari marries.

There are obvious reforms that can be made into the practice, the Kumaris should be allowed to lead more normal lives with better education, but Tree makes a convincing case for keeping a tradition that has come to be the symbol of the unique cultural heritage of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation. After all, it even survived the transition from monarchy to republic and the dramatic
instance in 2007 when both the King and the Prime Minister came to pay their respect to the living goddess at the Kumari Chen.

Indeed, cultural preservation is not just about renovating temples, it is also about preserving the rituals and festivals.

Isabella Tree will be speaking at the Cultural Studies Group Nepal at 9 AM on Friday, 4 April at Shanker Hotel , Lazimpat.

Read also
Life after the living goddess, #569

The prime minister and the Kumari, #368

WasimZaman, 65

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

News that among the nine people brutally slain by the Taliban at the Serena Hotel in Kabul on 20 March was Wasim Zaman came as a shock to the many friends the Bangladeshi population expert had made in Nepal.

Zaman, 65, was the Central and South Asia head of the United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA) based in Kathmandu from 1999-2004 and was popular among government officials in the region and his large Nepali and expat social circle in Kathmandu. After retiring from the UN, Zaman had joined the Kuala Lumpur-basedInternational Council on Management of Population Programmes, which had a project in Afghanistan.

Thursday’s attack came two weeks before Afghanistan’s presidential election and four of the dead were foreigners. An Afghan journalist with Agence France-Presse, Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two small children were among the others who were killed execution style by the assassins. The Serena Hotel has several layers of security, but the gunmen smuggled tiny pistols past the
guards and waited for the restaurant to fill up for a Afghan new year dinner before shooting people as they sat on their tables. Another Bangladeshi person was also among those killed.

“My father was devoted to the welfare of human beings all his life,” his daughter Fariha Zaman told a Bangladeshi news service from New York, “he was killed while trying to serve the people of Afghanistan.” His three daughters live in the US, while his wife is in Kuala Lumpur.

Zaman was back in Kathmandu last year for a regional South Asian consultation to prepare for the UN’s Special General Assembly on Population and Development later in 2014. In an interviewwhile in Kathmandu he expressed worries that funding for population activities in South Asia was drying up.

Before joining the UN, Zaman was a journalist with Dhaka Television and a correspondent for the Bangladesh Observer.

Kunda Dixit

Horse behind the cart

Monday, March 10th, 2014

It has become the hallmark of political horse-trading in Nepal that the protagonists put the cart before the horse. It happens over and over again, just after the people have taken tremendous risks to reassert their trust in the democratic polity in 1990, 2006, 2008 or 2014 the honourable members of the elected House proceed to fritter it all away.

It is happening again. At a time when the political parties and CA members should be working overtime to finish writing the constitution in eight months time, they are taking to the streets to free cronies in the guise of ‘students’ who were caught red-handed with weapons in a taxi at 3AM on the streets of Kathmandu.

When they should be debating state structure, type of government, election rules, justice in wartime atrocities, and citizenship they are busy haggling over who should take credit for promulgating the new constitution. Write the damn thing first!

Because the last Constituent Assembly ran aground largely over procedural issues weren’t sorted out beforehand, this time the parties in their wisdom decided that they should first agree on the rules. Oh boy, did they underestimate their ability to find solutions.

Four months after elections, the committee set up to draft rules of the House is deadlocked and its term has been extended twice. The committee has decided to send the matter ‘upstairs’ for a political resolution. Needless to say, these prolonged gridlocks have once more spread disillusionment and hopelessness among the voters who showed up in large numbers last November to elect this body.

The stalemate in the rules drafting committee concerns issues like whether it should be the President or the CA Chairman who should ‘certify’ the new constitution, whether or not cross-party caucuses can be formed, and if party whips should take effect during CA debates.

As expected the parties are divided according to perceived advantage certain rules would give them. The most egregious disagreement is between the NC and the UML over who should formally authenticate the new constitution with the NC insisting that it is President Ram Baran Yadav’s job, while the UML wants its very own House Chair Subhas Nembang to be the one. It is hard to believe that this is such an intractable problem that it needs weeks and weeks to resolve.

The disagreement over the formation of caucuses of women, Dalit or Janajati members is slightly less whimsical. Here, the NC and the UML are on the same side, and it is the UCPN (Maoist), Madhesi and smaller parties who are for caucuses: not for any grand ideological reason but because cross-party alliances would weaken the two main parties. The NC and UML are also in favour of parties being allowed to issue whips to CA members to vote along party lines. The UCPN (M), quite hypocritically, says no whips because its members vote en masse anyway.

There was much hope that Sushil Koirala was a behind-the-scenes consensus builder. He is supposed to be clean and has no hidden agenda besides the protection of democracy. But three weeks after being sworn in and one foreign junket later, the man is being defied by dissidents within his own party and openly disparaged by the UML and the opposition.

He seems to be in no particular hurry to nominate the remaining 26 members of the CA who are supposed to be lawyers, demographers, or social scientists in order to complement the technical expertise needed in the CA to write a proper democratic constitution. Koirala possibly doesn’t want to open that can of worms because it will lead to another bout of CA members being bought and sold.

It’s time the Prime Minister showed statesmanship, hitched the horse to the front of the cart, and started cracking the whip.

Saving Brazil’s blonde monkeys

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

The Golden Lion Tamarin is rescued from the brink of extinction in Brazil’s rainforest by protecting what is left of its habitat.

Deep in the rainforest of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, there is a sudden rustle in the canopy high above. There are flashes of orange in a golden blur against the dappled sky. They look like birds, but are actually a family of the endangered Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys foraging on the tops of the trees.

Golden Lion Tamarin

Luis Paulo Ferraz peers through a pair of binoculars and identifies the family, he knows the individual juveniles and their parents by name. As the Executive Secretary of the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, it is his responsibility to protect this marmoset species which has been rescued from the brink of extinction.

The frolicking Tamarins remind Ferraz, who spent three years in Nepal in the early 2000, of the red panda that are also canopy dwellers in the Langtang National Park. “There are similar challenges to saving them,” he says, “if you want to save the flagship species you have to save its habitat and in
doing so you preserve a lot of other living things.”

The tiny squirrel-sized animals are endemic to southeastern Brazil, but only 5 per cent of the Atlantic rainforest that used to be its habitat remains today. The species nearly became extinct, its numbers plummeting to less than 200 in the wild 30 years ago. Today, thanks to a model conservation effort, they have rebounded to 1,700 but cling to shrinking forests north of Rio de Janeiro. There are another 500 Tamarins in zoos around the world, and there is a program to reintroduce some of them back into the wild in Brazil.

The threat to the blonde monkeys isn’t as much from predators or poaching, but loss of habitat. What remains of the rainforest is fragmented, and the animal’s gene pool is shrinking. And while the Amazon gets all the attention and resources, funding to save the coastal jungles and the pressure on land is a serious problem.

“If it is so difficult to fundraise for the Tamarin, imagine what it must be like to raise money to save frogs,” says Ferraz, who says the monkey is an umbrella species who protection will help protect what is left of Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest.

The Tamarins are now on Brazil’s R$20 currency notes, and conservationists are lobbying to get the monkey nominated as the official mascot of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The Association needs to generate awareness so that it can raise money to build migration corridors for the animals to connect the fragmented Atlantic forest. A new highway now threatens to cut the Poco des Antas Biodiversity Reserve in half, and there is a proposal to build forested bridges above the road so the Tamarins can pass.

That is a stopgap measure, but the real good news may be Rio state’s decision to plant millions of trees and save more of the Atlantic rainforest and the Tamarin’s habitat.

Says Ferraz: “In Brazil, and Nepal, the challenges are the same: how to use the celebrity status of the flagship species to save enough of the habitat to protect the ecosystem and preserve biodiversity.”

Watch video:

Twin Otters down

Monday, February 17th, 2014

The rugged Canadian plane has been the workhorse of Nepal’s domestic aviation for four decades, but has suffered terrible attrition. The hardy Canadian-built DHC-6 Twin Otter was designed for flying in the challenging environment of countries like Nepal with rough and short airfields carved out of mountain sides. Pilots say the plane handles well, needs minimal maintenance, is built to last, and can take a lot of punishment. Which must be why Twin Otters are affectionately called ‘Land Rovers with wings’.

However, even a plane like this doesn’t tolerate careless and reckless flying. Because it has been built to operate in difficult terrain and extreme climates like the Canadian Arctic, or the high mountains of Papua New Guinea it has seen more crashes than other types of planes.

Of the 844 Twin Otters built since 1965 by de Havilland Canada, 263 have crashed with a total of 1,423 fatalities among passengers and crew. For comparison, of the 673 Beechcraft 1900s built, 33 have been written off.

Map credit: Kiran Maharjan

In all, 25 Twin Otters have operated in Nepal of which 16 have crashed. Nepal Airlines (formerly known as Royal Nepal Airlines) has lost 70 per cent of its Twin Otter fleet since it started operating the aircraft in 1972. The state-owned airline has owned 12 Twin Otters in the last 43 years, of which only one is airworthy today. Of the other four that haven’t crashed, three are sitting engine-less in the hangar in Kathmandu and one has been leased to Yeti.

The plane that crashed on Sunday on Masine Lek of Arghakhanchi district with the loss of 18 lives was registered 9N-ABB and was one of the two first Twin Otters that Royal Nepal Airlines introduced in 1972 to replace its World War II vintage DC-3 Dakotas.

Even before Nepal Airlines, the Royal Flight service had bought an older model Twin Otter with registration 9N-RF9, which came to grief less than a year after entering service. Later, the Nepal Army also bought a Twin Otter (RAN 26), which also crashed in Jomsom in 1983.

Much has been made of the fact that the plane that went missing this week was 43-years-old. But Twin Otters are so sturdy that the unpressurised plane can fly safely as long as its maintenance and flight protocols are strictly followed. Some of the fleet of amphibian Twin Otters flying for the Maldivian Air Taxi, for instance, are more than 45-years-old.

Of all the crashes of various models of aircraft in Nepal since 1955, 90 per cent have been what is technically known as CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) in which a disoriented or careless pilot flies a plane into a mountain hidden in clouds. In fact, none of the Twin Otters that have crashed in Nepal have gone down primarily because of a technical malfunction. Nearly all have been due to human error.

Nepali pilots have won international praise for effortlessly landing short takeoff and landing aircraft on precarious runways like in Lukla or Talcha. However, the fact that so many of the crashes have happened on takeoff or final approach shows that the training and experience pilots should have to fly in the challenging operating environment of the Himalaya need to be re-evaluated.

Except for the crash on a flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu of a Necon Air HS-748 in 1999, there have been no major mishaps on trunk routes to and from Kathmandu in the past 30 years. It is the extreme difficulty of flying in the mountains in bad weather that makes travelling to remote area airfields so dangerous.

Aside from topography and weather, there are other factors that have contributed to Nepal’s dismal air safety record. Overloading aircraft due to corruption of ground staff has been the reason for at least one Twin Otter crash and has been cited in crashes of other aircrafts in remote areas.

But it is not just flying that is dangerous in Nepal, the country’s rate of highway accidents is one of the worst in the world. Modern technology needs a strict adherence to rules on operational safety and maintenance, something that is glaringly lacking in Nepal. Rules are routinely broken, shortcuts are the norm, bravado and macho-ness are on open display on the roads. These traits can be disastrous when manifested in the cockpit.

Combined with other factors like ageing equipment, cash starved airlines cutting corners on spares, and cut-throat competition, it is not surprising that Nepali operators have been blacklisted by the EU.

Given that so many disasters are due to pilot error and CFIT, it should now be mandatory for all domestic planes to only fly VFR (Visual Flight Rules) without exceptions. Planes must be required to have Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning systems on board, de-icing equipment, and weather radar.

But even with these additional safety measures, nothing can save us from carelessness. There is no excuse anymore for the criminal negligence and the loss of more lives.

Nepal Airlines Twin Otter crashes

1973 Lukla Skidded off runway 0 9N-ABG
1984 Bhojpur Hit mountain 15 9N-ABH
1991 Lukla Unstable landing 0 9N-ABA
1995 Kathmandu Crashed on takeoff 2 9N-ABI
2000 Dhangadi Hit mountain 25 9N-ABP
2013 Jomsom Unstable landing 0 9N-ABO
2014 Argakhanchi Hit mountain 18 9N-ABB

Other Twin Otter crashes

1970 Royal Flight Jomsom 0 9N-RF9
1996 Lumbini Jomsom-Pokhara 18 9N-ACC
1999 Skyline Bagmati 10 9N-AFL
2000 Shangrila Pokhara 18 9N-AFR
2002 Yeti Lamjura 3
2002 Yeti Lamjura 3 9N-AFD
2002 Skyline Surkhet 4 9N-AGF
2006 Yeti Jumla 9
2006 Yeti Jumla 9 9N-AEQ
2008 Yeti Lukla 18 9N-AFE
2010 Tara Lamidanda 22 9N-AFX

Read also

Flight safety in the monsoon