Nepali Times Asian Paints

THINK NATIONALLY, VOTE LOCALLY

Monday, May 8th, 2017
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Editorial cartoon

It is only now becoming clear how close Nepal and its democracy had come to a fatal plunge last week as the executive and the judiciary faced each other off at the edge of the cliff. Showing a singular lack of appreciation of what they were  doing, the coalition led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and prime-minister-in-waiting Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress arm-twisted (some say, tricked) one-fourths of Parliament into signing an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sushila Karki.

Never before in Nepal’s turbulent history, not even in the bad old days of the absolute monarchy, was the judiciary dealt such a severe knock. The fact that two alpha males of Nepali politics went for a constitutional instrument of last resort just because their fragile egos were dented, exposed just how shallow their commitment to democracy is. Going against every principle of the separation of powers, the executive branch got a lapdog legislature to hound the judiciary.

Deuba was willing to sacrifice his country, the future of our democracy because his feelings were hurt. The Supreme Court had ruled in favour of Nabaraj Silwal and against his nominee for police chief, Jaya Bahadur Chand. Prime Minister Dahal himself had no love lost for Chief Justice Karki because of her rulings on wartime crimes, and allowed Deuba to shoot himself in the foot. But by blatantly undermining a judiciary which has played an activist role on transitional justice cases, the coalition elicited sharp criticism from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) among others.

The Supreme Court ruled on a writ petition on 30 April to reinstate Chief Justice Karki. Since then, both the coalition partners as well as the judiciary have pulled back from the edge – probably with the intention of not letting the dispute disrupt the first phase of local elections on 14 May. Parliament has been suspended till after elections and the impeachment motion shelved for now. The Chief Justice, for her part, has reportedly said she will not hear any more cases till she retires next month.

This unnecessary crisis had added another element of uncertainty to local elections, but now that both sides have pulled back voting will go ahead in three of the six provinces on Sunday. There is considerable anticipation among Nepalis that the first local body election in two decades will finally usher in an era of development and inclusion.

This is the first election under the new constitution and the new village and municipal councils will have far more decentralised decision-making on local revenue generation and budget than the VDCs and DDCs ever had. The nearly 4,000 VDC boundaries were designed for an age when Nepal was largely roadless and there was poor connectivity. The Maoists decimated elected VDC representatives during the conflict, and Deuba during his second tenure as prime minister cancelled scheduled local elections in 2002. Now, the new 481 village, 246 municipal 17 metropolitan councils have the economic and political autonomy to use their economies of scale to fast-track development.

We have seen how the three-party political syndicate in the absence of elected local bodies has pocketed development grants, plundered rivers and forests with political protection over the past decades.  There is now a danger that the politico-criminal nexus that profited from the lack of grassroots accountability is now fielding candidates for village and municipal councils. Combined with the enhanced decision-making powers of local councils, this could spell disaster.

Our only hope is that people at the local level are far more aware of who the crooks are, and will  judge wisely when they enter the voting booth on Sunday.


Lady Justice

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017
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Pic: SHAHIDUL ALAM / DRIK / MAJORITY WORLD

Pic: SHAHIDUL ALAM / DRIK / MAJORITY WORLD

The impeachment process against Chief Justice Sushila Karki by the governing coalition this week has plunged Nepal into another political crisis, thrown impending elections into doubt, and may even lead to a constitutional void in January 2018 if those polls cannot be held.

The main responsibility for this act of utter irresponsibility lies with the Nepali Congress under the leadership of its three-time prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba who wants to be prime minister again when (or, if) Pushpa Kamal Dahal steps down. Deuba had no love lost for Chief Justice Karki despite the fact that she was close to the Koirala clan while growing up in Biratnagar. In fact, Karki’s husband Durga Subedi was a member of the team that hijacked a Royal Nepal Airlines plane carrying a stash of cash to Kathmandu, landing it in India to use the money to fund the party’s pro-democracy campaign.

It is indeed this country’s great misfortune that a party that was once a respected member of the international social democratic movement, led several successful pro-democracy campaigns, one whose leaders have sacrificed their lives for an open society, the rule of law and the separation of powers, should be the one that is dealing this unprecedented and possibly fatal blow to Nepal’s democracy.

The latest sign that the NC has abandoned its remit was that party General Secretary Sashank Koirala (son of the great BP) said last month that “the judiciary should be answerable to parliament’. A cabal within the NC was getting increasingly irritated by the fact that one of their own was, as Chief Justice, passing judgments in the Surpeme Court against the party’s interests.

The NC was conspicuously muted in its criticism of Lokman Singh Karki’s abuse of authority after his appointment in 2013. It was only when the former CIAA chief started hounding the top political leadership last year that Parliament lodged an impeachment motion which the NC reluctantly supported. But since then, several verdicts by the Supreme Court have directly challenged the party, the latest being Karki’s ruling to stay the appointment of Jaya Bahadur Chand as police chief and the appointment of Nabaraj Silwal to the post.

Chief Justice Karki may be accused of overstepping her jurisdiction or overlooking Silwal’s own qualifications, but there were strong indications that Chand was being promoted over more experienced colleagues due to direct intervention by Sher Bahadur Deuba. Silwal’s writ in the Supreme Court was being heard on 2 May, and it seems to be no coincidence that the impeachment motion was registered late in the evening of 30 April so that Justice Karki would automatically have to step down.

But Sushila Karki did not go meekly away. Her last verdict, an hour or so before the impeachment motion was lodged up the road in Parliament on Sunday, was to find three ex-IGPs guilty in a kickback scam involving the purchase of armoured personnel carriers for Nepali UN peacekeepers in Sudan. She had showed similar gumption last year, at a time when most politicians were cowering and the media had been silenced, by ruling against the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki. In fact, the Supreme Court acted even while Parliament waffled on carrying through with the impeachment motion.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the same Parliament that started an impeachment motion against one Karki (Lokman) has now tried to hound out another Karki (Sushila). Yet the background to the two impeachment proceedings within six months couldn’t be more different. One was notorious for the abuse of authority that he was supposed to be vigilant about, the other was a fearless, independent and incorruptible judge who was the embodiment of Lady Justice in Nepal.

Other factors were also at play to hasten the impeachment motion. Deuba just couldn’t handle the fact that a woman his party was close to was standing up to him. His fragile ego was hurt, and he might have believed rumours that Karki was hauling him in for contempt of court. There were also several other verdicts on corruption cases that the Supreme Court was ruling on before Karki retired in June that would have been damaging to the party.

Deuba found a willing partner in Prime Minister Dahal, who had been alarmed by a recent Supreme Court order to arrest Bal Krishna Dhungel for his complicity in a war-time murder case. And the Nepal Army could have been spooked by her ruling on the Maina Sunar murder in which several officers were implicated.

Clearly, Karki had ruffled a lot of feathers. It may just be that she was too honest and too impervious to threats and intimidation for the corrupt political cartel that runs this country to tolerate. The executive and legislative branches have now brought down the remaining pillar in Nepal’s democracy that was still standing upright, the judiciary. Now, there is only the press left.


Horror story of a climate calamity

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017
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The novelist Amitav Ghosh published his most recent non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, before Donald Trump and his merry bunch of climate refuseniks assumed power in Washington. Yet, the key message of his book about the nature of empire in an age of globalisation that is driven by populism and climate denial is eerily prophetic.

The Great DerangementClimate change negotiations like the 2015 Paris Agreement threaten the global power status quo, and voters in some western democracies are convinced that this will result in an erosion of their power and wealth. Global disparities have widened in the post-colonial world. But to attain true climate justice, industrialised countries would need to cut their emissions by 80-90%, something that is politically untenable for petroleum addicts.

Since he was so accurate in predicting how climate denialism in America could lead to someone-like-Trump, we have to believe Ghosh when he draws a parallel between the carbon economy and militarism. The irony is that while the political-corporate complex in Washington backpedals on the environment, the American military sees increased instability around the world due to global warming. It is addressing the new challenge of ‘green security’ through greater surveillance of environmental activists and an ‘armed lifeboat’ mentality.

‘Corporations and energy billionaires’ are funding research to sow confusion about anthropomorphic climate change so that the corporate media underplays the dangers of warming by trying to be ‘balanced’. Such false equivalence has parallels in the way the US media covered Trump during the election campaign last year. Ghosh wrote these lines at a time when a Trump victory was not even a remote possibility: ‘The denial and disputing of scientific findings has become a major factor in the climate politics of the Anglosphere.’

Ghosh sees the laissez-faire philosophy of the pursuit of individual happiness that underpins Anglo-Saxon cultures as central to the climate crisis. Although he may be accused of extrapolating a bit, there is merit in the argument that ‘the rate of climate denial tends to be unusually high’ in the US, UK and Australia. It is the Anglosphere that is driving the global carbon economy of the anthropocene to protect the western ‘way of life’. Ghosh acknowledges that official denialism in these countries exist in direct contradiction to a growing citizen’s movement and global environmental activism.

The grip of fossil barons on the new US administration is so strong that it has failed to see the potential to make money from renewables. Under public opinion pressure, the Nordics are weaning themselves off petroleum: new car sales in Norway will be 100- per-cent zero emission by 2025, and one breezy day last July Denmark produced 140 per cent of the electricity it needs from wind farms and exported the surplus to neighbours. China has discovered that ‘green’ is not just synonymous with environment but also with ‘greenbacks’, and is already the world’s largest exporter of wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaics. Under Trump, America risks being left behind in the global race for green energy. India, for its part, will soon be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is relying on what Ghosh calls the ‘politics of attrition’ – the argument that the poor are more used to adapting to hardships than the rich. Ghosh forces us to think about the links between a world burning hydrocarbon energy to provide carbohydrate energy for 7 billion humans.

The less compelling chapters in The Great Derangement deal with Ghosh’s somewhat intricate attempt to unravel why novelists do not write about climate change. He asks: Where is the fiction about the facts of global warming? Readers may question why this navel gazing is even needed, except for an esoteric class in Contemporary English Literature. Ghosh admits that he himself has failed to incorporate in his novels the geological scale of the changes humans have wrought during the anthropocene. ‘The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,’ he writes, ‘intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world.’

Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama-era gains on climate action show how fast politics can move. Global warming is also much more rapid than scientists predicted, with the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere crossing 406 ppm this month. Perhaps Ghosh needs to bring out a new edition of The Great Derangement, because however dire his prognosis, it has already been overtaken by events.

In 1998, after India conducted its first underground nuclear bomb test, Ghosh wrote a slim volume of non-fiction titled Countdown on how fallout from a full nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would contaminate the Himalayan icecap, turning rivers that irrigate half of Asia radioactive. A future update of Derangement could look at the accelerated deposition of soot from coal and diesel burning in the subcontinent, hastening the melting of Himalayan glaciers in Asia’s water tower.

List of climate change books


Second chance

Thursday, April 6th, 2017
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It is hard to believe that it has already been two years since an earthquake devastated Central Nepal, leaving nearly 9,000 people dead, more than 2 million homeless and a country in a state of shock. Although the loss of life and destruction was tragic, Nepal got off lightly. Only 14 of the country’s 75 districts were affected, the frequency and duration of the shock waves meant that concrete structures were spared, and 25 April 2015 being Saturday saved thousands of school children.

2 years earthquake

There were important lessons we could have learnt about preparedness for the inevitable Even Bigger One. Post-earthquake reconstruction provided the perfect opportunity to reverse the out-migration of young men. Political parties had the chance to prove that they had the welfare of Nepalis foremost in their minds. The aftermath of the earthquake should have shaken us enough for parliament to finally set up the Disaster Management Authority to deal with future calamities. We squandered it all.

Relief and rescue could have been better managed if there were elected local councils accountable to the people. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope that we may have elections on 14 May for village, district and municipal bodies. But as the second anniversary approaches, there isn’t much more to add to a similar editorial we wrote last year in this space on the first anniversary.

The only difference is that the lack of urgency on the part of the state is even more glaring. Mired in politics and competition to take credit for relief, political parties have cancelled themselves out – leaving the people to largely fend for themselves. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has been bogged down by the NC and UML taking turns to oust and induct their own chiefs.

The NRA headed by Govind Pokharel got off to a fine start in 2015, and won the confidence of donors. But after it came to power, the UML replaced him with its own flunkie. Pokharel was recently reinstated, but he is being made to jump through hoops by political appointees within the NRA.

The agency has become a convenient lightning rod for blame, to let a lethargic government machinery off the hook. The NRA has only a coordinating role, and needs a nod from the Ministry of Finance for every paisa; all reconstruction work is coursed through other ministries where there is little coordination. In a candid interview last week, Pokharel told us that this was not the NRA he had envisaged in the 2015 Post Disaster Needs Assessment report. We endorse his call for the NRA to be able to manage its own funds.

And speaking of funds, Nepal has actually received less than a third of the $9.38 billion the NRA estimated it needed to rebuild homes, public buildings and infrastructure. Of the $4.1 billion pledged by donors in 2015, only $2.73 billion has actually materialised (most of it in loans). This is not even enough for the housing grant of Rs 300,000 per family, which itself is inadequate to rebuild. The NRA has come up with a new affordable design, but there seems little interest.

The main takeaway on the second anniversary is: International help has fallen far short of pledges and is much less than the amount actually needed, a lot of it is not going through the NRA, and (as in other spheres of development) the government has failed in coordination.


SOUTHERLY WIND

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017
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Only in Nepal perhaps does the leader of the fourth-largest party in parliament who was just installed as Deputy Prime Minister sit on the asphalt in protest. Photographs this week show Kamal Thapa with a befuddled Nepal Army bodyguard behind him confronting riot police who later fired tear gas and baton charged supporters of his RPP.

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Thapa was there to challenge the Election Commission refusing to accept his party’s manifesto that calls for the restoration of a Hindu monarchy in Nepal. It was no coincidence that the RPP protest this week came right after the dramatic power consolidation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP in state elections last week, and the installation of a saffron chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. It just went to prove that there must be some truth to the apocryphal adage that when it rains in New Delhi a politician in Kathmandu unfurls an umbrella.

After the BJP came to power in 2014, there has been an epic struggle between Modi’s advisers in the PMO and the Indian foreign policy establishment for policy and control. Some of that is also a result of strained relations within the BJP, particularly between Modi and the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. This tension has sowed some confusion about Indian policy on Nepal for the past three years.

Indian visitors in Kathmandu have sent conflicting signals while meeting Nepali leaders on issues like Nepal’s secular, federal and republican constitution. The external affairs bureaucracy in India with its intelligence agencies have been the architects since November 2005 of Nepal’s peace process that is now culminating with the constitution. The weakening of the secular Congress-Left could mean that the ascendant Hindu-Right shakti peeth in New Delhi will try to reboot its policy on Nepal.

The new Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the high priest of the patron deity of Nepal’s former royal family in Gorakhpur. He has been disparaging about Nepal’s secular constitution, and has openly spoken about restoring the Hindu monarchy. Other BJP advisers have also made no secret of their antipathy to a secular and republican Nepal.

Political infighting in Nepal, the intractable confusion over amendments to the constitution, and some would say even the five-month blockade of Nepal in 2015 were a manifestation of secular leftists and Hindu revivalists working at cross-purposes in New Delhi’s corridors of power. Kamal Thapa and the Khum Bahadur Khadka faction of the Nepali Congress appear to be just foot soldiers in this proxy war.

Nepal’s cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity is Nepal’s national identity. How Nepalis want to define themselves should not change just because there is a new power balance in New Delhi.


HUNGER FOR CHANGE

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
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Nepal’s poverty rate may have gone down, the Human Development Index may have improved, but five km from the centre of the nation’s capital, two-year-old Buddhi Maya is dying of hunger in her mother’s lap. She is severely wasted, weighing half of babies her age.  Her parents migrated to work in a Kathmandu brick kiln from Dang to pay off a debt from the Poverty Alleviation Fund to buy two goats. A scheme designed to reduce poverty has pushed the family to starvation.

The plight of Nepali overseas migrant workers gets a lot of attention, but what of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers like the Biswakarma family? Desperate and destitute, they move to the cities to earn enough to feed their families and repay debts, but instead get caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Then there is the story of Shambhu Kumar Ram in Saptari, whose death last year got much media attention. The 14-year-old probably died of a combination of medical problems and opportunistic infections exacerbated by malnutrition, but it exposed a whole raft of issues that all tracked back to poor governance, deficient service delivery and the gross negligence of the state in protecting citizens.

Both deaths were probably preventable. Stunting has been nearly halved in Nepal in the last 15 years, but in that time the proportion of stunted children has stayed almost constant at 15%. The direct cause of preventable child deaths may be hunger, but it is a result of an uncaring state, a dysfunctional health service and the lack of a social safety net. The buck stops at public officials who don’t give a damn, who are trying to remove a competent Health Minister to make way for bhagbanda politics.

To change this, we need the three elections envisaged in the constitution. The first is local elections which haven’t been held for 20 years and are now slated for 14 May, and will install elected members of village, district and municipal councils. This will re-instill accountability in those who hold public office.

Unfortunately, the fate of local elections still hangs in the balance because of obstructions by Tarai-based parties which want amendments to the constitution be passed first. Local elections are held even in totalitarian states, and there should be no connection between a future federal setup and voting for village and district councils.

The amendments could be more important for the other two provincial and federal elections, and can be sorted in the weeks ahead. For now, our strong recommendation is that we go ahead with local elections and cross the other bridges when we get to them.


The clever metalsmith

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017
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Akal Man Nakarmi (pictured below) passed away last week at age 71 virtually unnoticed by a nation preoccupied with the constitution and elections. Self-effacing and shy, it was just like the man to slip away quietly without letting anyone know.

akal man nakarmi

His first name and surname described him accurately. Akal means ‘clever’, and Nakarmi is the Newari occupational name for traditional metalsmiths. He was clever with his hands, could work on iron, copper and bronze and shape them into anything as if it was wax.

I first visited Nakarmi’s family-owned workshop called Kathmandu Metal Industries in Chhetrapati with his partner-in-innovation, Swiss engineer Andreas Bachmann, in the 1980s. We walked through a warren of narrow alleys where the sun never shined. We stooped through a low door and entered a courtyard strewn with transformers, turbines and tools.

Nakarmi’s ancestors crafted copper and iron utensils, forged statues of deities. Bachmann and Nakarmi had been working on using the same lost-wax technology to make bronze Pelton turbines for micro-hydroelectric power generation. At one point, there was such high demand for these Peltric Sets that Nakarmi’s workshop couldn’t keep up with demand.

Within a decade there were more than 3,000 micro-hydro plants all over Nepal. Farmers rushed to install them with soft loans from the Agriculture Development Bank, which tried to do for electricity what it had successfully done with indigenously-designed biogas plants.

A whole section of Nakarmi’s workshop was devoted to an assembly-line for the Multi-purpose Power Units (MPPU) which converted traditional water mills by upgrading the wooden paddles with more efficient curved metal blades and ball-bearings. The systems not just processed food, it also produced power through an induction generator. Within a decade, nearly half the 30,000 or so traditional ghattas (pictured below) in Nepal had been converted into MPPUs and were even exported to Bhutan, Ladakh and Sri Lanka.

ghatta 1

Bachmann and Nakarmi produced a monograph in 1983 in which they provided meticulous drawings to show how traditional water mills could be upgraded and upscaled for rural electrification and agro-based industries. The MPPU kit came in three easy-to-assemble modules. Farmers could not just grind corn, but run threshing machines, saw mills and lathes during the day time and have electricity at night.

Nakarmi won the Rolex Award  and the Right Livelihood Award, but he kept quiet about them.  He preferred to work away in his workshop right till the end of his life. “All I did was use indigenous knowledge of Nepali farmers, and I just made the system more efficient by adding ball bearings and shaping the paddles,” he told me once.

ghatta 2

Nakarmi never spoke long enough to expound on his philosophy for life, but if he did perhaps it would come closest to the ‘Small Is Beautiful’ concept put forward by E F Schumacher in the 1960s: small, decentralised and self-contained energy systems that do not waste resources, do not damage the environment, are cheap and can be built and maintained locally.

Schumacher showed that human civilisation can reduce its ecological footprint with the use of appropriate and benevolent technologies that do not waste the planet’s finite resources. The path ahead for humankind, he said, was to do a lot with less. Nakarmi did not talk about it, but he designed practical solutions and set an example for the world long before we had even heard of peak oil or climate change. If we had heeded Nakarmi perhaps we would not have to suffer power cuts for so long.

Today in Nepal, we have moved into the age of national pride projects. Soon, there will be high dams on Nepal’s major rivers that feed power to ever-rising consumer demand in the cities and maybe even for export. Grid power has replaced many of the micro-hydros and MPPUs that Nakarmi helped build.

But for a time, during the innocent early days of development when Nepal was still dark, Akal Man Nakarmi was a beacon of light that showed us the path to eco- and people-friendly development.


 

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