A View of Kathmandu After the Earthquake- The Opinion Pages, The New York TimesÂ
Preparing to be prepared, Kunda Dixit
Unnatural disaster, EditorialÂ
Not if, but when, Kunda Dixit
70 years later, Naresh NewarÂ
The lesson from the Everest tragedy is to spread the benefits of mountaineering to other areas ofÂ Nepal and ensure thatÂ mountaineering fees go for the welfare of high-altitude workers
This is the year of anniversaries: the 200thÂ year of some of the fiercest battles in 1815 in Kumaon during the Anglo-Nepal war, and the 100thÂ anniversary of the heavy loss of Nepali lives in Gallipoli in 1915. There are also triumphant anniversaries like the 60thÂ of the first ascents of Kangchenjunga and Makalu, two difficult mountains which always tend to be overshadowed by the first Everest climb in 1953. And last week was the tragic first anniversary of the avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall that killed 16 people on 12 April 2014.
In last weekâs coverage in this paperÂ of the Everest avalanche, Om Astha Rai pointed out that mountaineering cannot be made completely failsafe. In fact, it is the inherent danger of climbing that pulls people to peaks. Nepal has dozens of the highest mountains in the world where the technical difficulty of climbing is compounded by objective dangers of avalanches and rockfall, which in turn are multiplied by altitude and weather. It is the spirit of adventure that pushes explorers like George Mallory to the limits of the unknown. They donât philosophise about why they put themselves in harmâs way to climb something that âis thereâ, they take it as a given.
Most people find mountaineers âcrazyâ or âsuicidalâ. Who in their right mind would willingly expose themselves to such mortal danger, discomfort and pain? Yet, there are other rules than those made at sea level that govern mountaineering, there is a different morality 8km high on the mountain. The ethics of climbing forces mountaineers to keep their egos in check, look out for others in trouble even if it means risking their own lives, ambition has to take a back seat if they are to return to climb another day. Itâs not by chance that the vocabulary of mountaineering is so militaristic: expeditions assault mountains, they need logistics and strategic planning, and like soldiers, climbers put their lives on the line to conquer peaks.
However, it has been clear for some time now that things are not quite what they should be on the worldâs highest mountain. The over-commercialisation of the Everest industry, a free-for-all caused by regulatory failure and bungling in Kathmandu, and the race to the top of the Third Pole has led to dangerous overcrowding on the mountains. Many climbing clients of expeditions have very little technical experience and/or altitude acclimatisation and have to be literally pushed to the top, endangering not just themselves but also fellow climbers.
In 1996 a traffic jam on the summit ridge of Everest caused fatal delays, forcing many climbers to bivouac in a blizzard in the Death Zone. Eight climbers died. In April last year, European climbers going Alpine style had a brawl on the Lhotse Face with Nepali rope-fixers, where the root cause was a clash of civilisations between high-altitude guides who earn their living from the mountain, and clients who do it for sport.
Last yearâs Everest avalanche may have looked initially like a natural disaster, but it was caused by the inherent injustice of Nepali mountaineering today: the most-poorly paid high-altitude porters and route-makers are exposed to the most dangerous parts of the mountains for the longest period. Expeditions now pool a part of their budgets to pay ‘Icefall doctors’ to open up a route through the most dangerous part of the climb to Camp I.
The free-market laws of supply and demand now make the rules on the mountain, not the challenge of pitting human beings against the forces of nature. As climber David Durkan argued last week in this paper, no one wants to stop the Everest expedition industry since it is a source of livelihood for so many, but we should question the disproportionate danger that the porters and guides are forced to put themselves through while being paid the least and getting meagre insurance compensation if they are killed or wounded.
Instead of addressing overcrowding on the South Col route up Everest, this year the Nepal government reduced fees substantially. It needs to correct this, spread the benefits of mountaineering to other areas of Nepal and ensure thatÂ a more substantial portion of mountaineering fees go to the welfare of the workers who lay their lives on the line to get clients to the top.
More equity on EverestÂ Om Astha Rai
31 Nepali children lost their fathers David Durkan
Aftershocks of the Everest avalancheÂ Om Astha Rai
Dangerous businessÂ Editorial
Extreme Everest Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller
A dangerous place to work Â Jon Gangdal
Kesang Tseten’s new documentary investigates the disappearance of Nepal’s foremost anthropologist 20 years ago
In 1995, Nepal’s pioneer anthropologist and crusader against the caste system vanished without trace. As with many such mysterious disappearances, there have been conspiracy theories but no plausible explanation. And no sign of the man.
Now, documentary maker Kesang Tseten has tried to piece together clues from Bista’s early years in a Chhetri family in Kathmandu,Â his fieldwork as an anthropologist, his work in Jumla which brought him in direct confrontation with locals, and then re-tracing Bista’s last steps in January 1995. Tseten has retrieved archival audio and film, interviewed family, friends and contemporaries for a gripping cinematic portrayal of the man.
Tseten tells the story through Bista’s friend and colleague, Basanta Thapa the former editor of Himal magazine. Thapa starts and ends in the holy Indian town of Haridwar showing a faded black and white picture of Bista to sadhus in a futile attempt to find him. Haridwar was where he was rumoured to be last seen.
The young Dor Bahadur was a rebel, we find out, and had serious disagreements with his father about Brahmanical rituals. But he kept his outrage in check to conform to his family status. It was only after his first book, People of Nepal came out in 1967 and he was tagged as an ‘anti-national’ that he became radicalised.
He railed against Brahmanism, seeing it as the root of Nepalâs underdevelopment. The seeds of his book Fatalism and Development began germinating in his mind, and Â Bista admits in an interview with American anthropologist Jim Fisher that he knew the book would be controversial. In fact, he says it was his intention to provoke a debate and shake things up.
His thesis was that âBrahmanical brainwashingâ made most Nepalis fatalistic, they accepted their status because they were told it was pre-ordained in a previous life or by a divine power. The caste system thus destroyed the initiative in citizens to carve out their own destiny.
Needless to say, such beliefs brought Bista in direct confrontation with members of his own family, the royal palace (for saying that Nepal’s kings were descendants of Magars) and upper caste elders in Jumla where he retreated in 1991 to build a model caste-free commune in the village of Chaudabisa.
Tseten travels with Thapa to what remains of the Karnali Institute in Jumla. This is where Bista wanted to put his theories into practice to prove that eliminating the caste hierarchy could help a community develop. He was soon the victim of a vicious slander campaign in culturally conservative Jumla. There was a backlash against his attempt, for instance, to stop the custom of ‘jari’ payment when a local inter-caste couple eloped.
Despite his dogged work in remote Chaudabisa and his popularity among poor villagers, Bista made enemies in Khalanga Bazar. He had taken in an intelligent young local woman under his wing, educating her with the hope of giving her a future. His enemies seized upon this, publishing in a local paper that he was having an affair with her.Â It was a week later that Bista flew down to Nepalganj, got his friendâs grandson to meet him in Kohalpur with his passport and camera, changed his mind about taking those items, and got on a bus to Chisapani and was never seen again.
We won’t be giving anything away when we say that Tseten doesn’t find Dor Bahadur Bista. But there are hints: Bista’s last words to his friendâs grandson: “One is born alone and dies alone.”Â A long shot of the windy cliffs near ChisapaniÂ bridge.
The cinematic craft here is classic Kesang Tseten, the director lets the story unfold through interviews, locales and talking heads of a cross-section of Nepalis describing how the caste system affects their everyday lives. Bista disappeared before the conflict began in 1996, a revolution to end ethnic discrimination. The film shows us Bistaâs sparse room in Jumla, and we learn the heavy irony of how the Maoists trashed it and burnt all his books.
The caste system has eroded since the last two decades, but there are still incidents like the one of aÂ Dalit youth who could not put up with a Janajati girl forsaking him because of his low caste and pouredÂ acid on her face.
Tseten shows us an archival clip of Bista burying a time capsule in a Jumla school in 1994 with instructions to open it in 100 years. What does it say? We will have to wait another 80 years to find out.
Shunyata Films, 2015
Directed by Kesang Tseten
1 hr 22 min
Dor Bahadur AliveÂ Salil Subedi
Reconciliation is not possible without truth and justice for the relatives of those murdered and disappeared ten years ago.
Last month, the Supreme Court ruled on a writ rejecting provisions in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act that would have allowed pardons in heinous crimes committed during the conflict, and those already being heard in the civil courts.
The bloodshed of the ten-year Maoist insurgency was accompanied by massive human rights violations by both sides. State security forces perpetrated most of them (summary executions, torture, rape, and forced disappearances) mostly on innocent civilians they suspected to be Maoist sympathisers.
The Maoists, too, âexterminatedâ âclass enemiesâ after gruesome torture that included dismemberment, disembowelment, crushing bones of victims with boulders and logs, gouging out eyes, burning and burying people alive. There were also many murders that had nothing to do with the war, as the conflict became a convenient excuse to settle personal scores.
The Truth and Reconciliation Act would have allowed many of these crimes to be classified as conflict-related and under the purview of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission to Investigate Enforced Disappearances (CIED). But since neither side lost the war, the parliamentary parties and the Maoists became part of the Nepali state after 2006. While this has made many elements of the peace process (like the integration of the armies) easier than in other post-conflict countries, it has also allowed the two sides to collude in letting bygones be bygones so that they donât have to be accountable for conflict-era crimes.
The latest egregious example of this is that while the ruling NC-UML coalition and the opposition Maoist-Madhesi alliance canât agree on anything to do with the constitution, they had absolutely no problems dividing up the leadership of the two Commissions between themselves.
Both former-ambassador Surya Kiran Gurung in the TRC and former justice of the appellate court Lokendra Mallik at the CIED are decent people who may not blatantly flout the principles of transitional justice and contravene Supreme Court verdicts. Even so, the way the two have been going door-to-door calling on their political mentors and the chiefs of the security forces since their appointment doesnât send a very encouraging signal about their independence.
The Supreme Court verdict of 26 February shook up the political establishment, and the ghosts of the dead have come back to haunt the security forces. Their carefully laid plans to evade the long arm of the law has suddenly unravelled. While the army and police are not saying much, the verdict has sent shock waves through the Maoist ranks. Their splinter groups came together this week to warn that the Supreme Court decision goes against âthe spirit of the Comprehensive Peace Agreementâ and they threatened that it could âtake the country back to warâ. And just so the message is clear, they want to terrorise the people with successive nationwide shutdowns in April unless they get political guarantees against prosecution for war crimes.
The main agenda of the Maoist-led 30 party alliance is supposedly ethnicity-based federalism, but the rump Maoists are using it to shield themselves from war crime trials. More puzzling is why the Madhesi parties are tagging along to protect the Maoists. After all, it is not their fight.
The other mystery is the hush from the internationals who, as erstwhile champions of transitional justice, pumped millions into NGOs tracking war-time human rights violations. Inconsistency, insincerity and geopolitical expediency has silenced them all. The need to protect the process has become more important than doing the right thing.
Even if the top parties come to an agreement on federalism and on the five disputed districts, therefore, it is unlikely that there will be a consensus on the constitution because the real issue here is transitional justice. Proof of this is how UCPN(M) Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal has repeatedly sabotaged efforts by the Madhesi Front leader Bijay Gachhadar to push what should have been a perfectly reasonable compromise formula to break the deadlock on federalism.
By putting a spanner in the works of the transitional justice mechanism, Dahal is letting down tens of thousands of his own cadre and their relatives as well as ordinary civilians who were tortured, executed or disappeared by the Royal Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and the Nepal Police between 1996-2006.
It is important to remember not to forget our past because if we do, we may repeat the horrors. Not to purse justice may send a message to misguided revolutionaries and the state that they can once more get away with crimes against humanity. Only the relatives of the victims have the right to forgive, but we as a nation should never forget.
On Wednesday morning at 7:45 a Turkish Airlines Airbus had a near disaster while landing at Kathmandu Airport. But in blocking the only runway of Nepalâs only international airport, it has unleashed a real and unfolding disaster on the country.
It has been four days since the airport was shut for all international operations, more than 80,000 people have been stranded in Kathmandu and inbound airports. For a country so dependent on tourism and movement of migrant labour, the loss to the economy has been colossal.
On Thursday afternoon, an Indian Air Force C130J Hercules aircraft landed on the northern half of the blocked runway with the recovery kit. Other airlines have loaned spare wheels.
An Indian team that managed to lift the nose of the Airbus 330 jet has not been able to move the heavy widebody to clear the runway. Although the nose of the plane has been raised and rests on a truck bed, the body of the plane is resting on two under-wing airbags and the wheels in the main undercarriages have been replaced. Although the plane was moved by 2m on Saturday morning, the wingtip and tail of the plane are still blocking the runway. Crew is trying to drag the plane into the parallel taxiway and then move it to the east helipad.
Domestic flights have been able to operate, but only with smaller aircraft. Buddha Airâs ATR72, for example, needs more runway length which means it hasnât been able to fly some trunk routes. Nepal has now been cut off from the rest of the world for four days.
A Turkish technical team is arriving in Kathmandu from Istanbul Saturday morning in a small jet. But it is not clear what it can recommend that hasnât been tried already. Other more drastic options had been put forward: to dismantle the wing and tail section of the plane to remove the runway obstruction. But even this would have taken days.
No one yet has an estimate of the daily losses to the economy from the airport closure, but the hardships for individual passengers has been staggering. Nepali migrant workers are running out of money and have been sleeping on the floors of airports in Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi and other airports. Tourists coming to Nepal at the start of the spring trekking season have been stuck in Hong Kong, Dubai, or New Delhi. Doha alone has 3,000 stranded Kathmandu-bound passengers. One of Nepal Airlines jets is in Bangkok another in Dubai.
A major international conference on hydropower has been cancelled, trekking trips have been scrubbed, many international marriages postponed.
âMaking another approachâ
The Turkish 726 Airbus 330-300 aircraft had been flying all night from Istanbul with 224 passengers and 11 crew on Wednesday morning. The airline had just trained its pilots to carry out the RNP-AR (Required Navigation Performance -Authorisation Required) approach in Kathmandu, which is a more precise satellite GPS-based landing compared to the steeper VOR-DME landings. Qatar, Korean and Druk also use this approach, which allows jets to land at under 1,000m visibility, compared to 3,000m earlier.
On 4 March, visibility in the early morning was at below minimum and 726 circled over Simara for an hour before making an approach. It had to pull up at the last moment because the pilot coldnât see the runway. âRunway not visible at decision height,â the pilot told Kathmandu Air Traffic Control when asked about the reason for the go-around.
The plane carried out a standard missed approach procedure, turning west and climbing to 10,500ft and then 20 miles south of the airport. By this time, the crew must have been calculating how much fuel it still had on board, and needed enough for a diversion to Dhaka or Lucknow. The captain opted for an immediate second try.
Tower reported visibility at 3,000m but added casually: âVisibility at 1,000m on southeast of the runway.â By the time the plane was at 5,600ft and 3 miles out a patch of fog had started moving in over the threshold. For some reason, despite poor visibility the pilots decided to go ahead and land.
Passenger accounts speak of an extremely hard landing â20 times more violent than normalâ. The plane veered off the runway to the left, the nose gear collapsed and the Airbus 330 came to rest between taxiway D and E. The grass was soggy with previous two days of rain, and probably saved the plane from careening towards the terminal building and exploding along the way.
Photographs and videos of people coming down the evacuation slides that morning show fog so thick that it is hard to see the planeâs tail from even 15m away. Why the pilot decided to go through with the landing, and why the ATC did not warn of the fog patch are questions that will need to be answered.
Pictures from the crash site taken on Friday show that progress has been made in lifting the plane. But at press time on Saturday morning no one could give a reliable estimate of when the runway will be cleared. Hurdles, literally, remain.
Then there are the longer-term issues of expediting alternate airports. Bhairawa and Pokhara expansions are still two and three years from completion. Kathmandu airport, designed for traffic projects 20 years ago, itself needs urgent upgraded.
Even if the airport reopens this weekend, there will be bedlam at a terminal that is chaotic even at normal times. There are plans to allow landings and takeoffs for 24 hours to clear backed-up flights, but runway lights have also been damaged, the tarmac itself needs to be repaired, and two of the baggage belts are unserviceable.
Even if the Turkish Airlines plane is removed and flights resume, the crisis at Kathmandu airport will not be over.
The opposition may have to go along with its show of force on Saturday, but should try to get it done with minimum fuss to resume negotiations on the constitution.
SaturdayâsÂ show of force at the centre of Kathmandu will prompt many to ask who are behind it, and why. Letâs try to simplify it for you: The NC-UML formed a coalition government after winning the 2013 elections. After trying in vain to come to an agreement on disputed issues in the constitution, the Constituent Assembly missed itsÂ 22 JanuaryÂ deadline. The NC-UML led government then tried to use its numerical strength in the CA to push the agenda to a vote.
The UCPN(Maoist) and Madhesi parties, still smarting from their election defeat, tried to make a distinction between their ârevolutionary mandateâ and the âelection mandateâ. This is their way of saying, âwe lost but we still want to have our sayâ.
The CA has been inÂ limbo for over a month now, there have been no negotiations on the constitution draft. The Maoist-Madhesi opposition alliance is determined to go through with its self-described âmake or breakâ protestÂ on Saturday. Itâs a risky thing to do, to make public turnout the only indicator of its future existence as a force to be reckoned with. The Maoists have issued a threat to their own cadre that those who donât show up on the streets will be punished. They must be pretty desperate if one political rally is going to be a life-or-death issue.
In the run-up to Saturday, the Maoists have threatened to go on warpath, unleash another bloodbath, and warned of an Armageddon. “Prachanda, give us the order, we will pull the trigger,” the newly-revived YCL shouted on the streets this week. They have used insurgency-era terminology to designate their top leaders to head the Eastern, Central and Western âCommandsâ to prepare logistics for the protests. Their message to the people is: âWe lost the election, but if the NC-UML donât agree to our demands and give us a share of power we will kill a whole lot of you again.â It is like brandishing a gun and holding the Nepali people hostage.
As a warning, the opposition has used the excuse of the location of the land revenue and mapping offices in Kaliya and Simara to try to foment unrest. This is playing with fire. They are warning Kathmandu that they are willing to unleash ethnic discord as a political pressure tactic.
From what we can tell, instead of galvanising public anger, the call to the streets has frightened the people about the possibility of anarchy. It has convinced even those who were pro-federalism that the whole formula is fraught. If a national trade artery can be blocked for a week on a political pretext, imagine the kind of blockades we will see in future disputes between provinces. This public mood must have seeped into the consciousness of opposition leaders who have been touring the districts to prepare for the agitation. They must have also seen that the fire they set could easily spread across the Tarai and spiral out of control.
To be sure, the last 12 months of the Koirala-led government has not exactly been a scintillating success. Despite the list of âachievementsâ he presented this week, the prime minister has fumbled and not shown enough statesmanship to bridge the gap on the constitution with the opposition. Its governance record has been patchy, and even the improvement of the investment climate, for which Koirala tried to take credit, happened mainly because of the proactive role played by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, the NC-UML have backtracked from their demand for a CA vote, and they have put the process on hold. This was the demand of the Maoist-Madhesi alliance on 22 January, so we see no discernible reason why they should push through with their agitation now. It is time for them to reciprocate the gesture.
The opposition has positioned itself into a corner, they cannot backtrack from the streets without losing face, so they must go ahead and try to paint the streets red for a day. Our advice to the Maoist-Madhesi combine would be to go through with their protest if they must, get it over with minimum fuss, and get back to the negotiation table. If there is one option left, that is it.
Lengthening the fuse Editorial
Show of strengthÂ Om Astha Rai
Reluctant Madhes Navin Jha
Simara simmersÂ Shyam Gupta
We have a joke that Nepal has six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down. Indeed, Nepal is the most vertical country on earth, the terrain rising from 150 ft above sea level on the border with India in the south to more than 29,000 ft on its northern border with China, all within a horizontal distance of only 80 miles. It is this altitude variation that gives Nepal its stupendous scenery, and one of the highest per capita potential for hydropower generation in the world. But you wouldn’t know it visiting Kathmandu today â the capital is suffering 12 hours of daily power cuts.
There are other signs of governance failure. Every day, nearly 1,500 young Nepalis fly out of Kathmandu airport to find work in the Gulf or Malaysia, and as many walk across into India. Twenty percent of Nepal’s population of 30 million is working outside the country. One in every five people in Qatar is from Nepal, there are 600,000 Nepalis working at gas stations and plantations in Malaysia, and at least 2.5 million are migrant workers in India.
A Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006 pushed the country’s economic development back decades. Eight years after a ceasefire was signed, Nepal has gone from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, and held two elections for truly representative elections to a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.
The Assembly missed its 22 January deadline on drafting the new constitution after the opposition led by former Maoist rebels resorted to vandalism and chair-throwing to prevent a vote on the draft.
The ruling Nepali Congress and its coalition partners have tried to press home the advantage of their two-third majority in the Assembly to put their draft of the constitution to the vote.
The hope is that this issue will be settled in the House and not on the streets. For once, Nepal’s leaders need to rise to the occasion, see beyond their petty personal interests, and behave like statesmen and not party bosses.Â Successive public opinion polls have shown that most Nepalis don’t really care about what kind of federalism of form of government the country has as long as they donât have to migrate to find work, and have affordable quality health care and education.
The peace process has allowed some former guerrillas to join the national army, investors are just waiting for the politics to stabilise, and one last bit of work remains: writing a new constitution.
The former guerrillas swept the first election in 2008, but the Assembly failed to agree on a new constitution and was dissolved. The Maoists lost the second election in 2013 and are now in the opposition with their regional allies from the plains bordering India. The main point of disagreement is over whether or not Nepal should be a federal republic, and if so, how future provinces should be demarcated and named.
The Maoists and their allies want 8-10 provinces named after ethnic groups which traditionally live in those areas, whereas the centrist parties in the governing coalition propose only 6 provinces with more neutral, geographical names. The Maoists accuse the Nepali Congress of being status-quoists out to protect the privileges of ‘high-caste’ groups from the mountains who have traditionally ruled Nepal, whereas the ruling coalition feels the Maoist formula will lead to ethnic strife and the disintegration of the country. Then there is the royal-right RPP-N that wants to restore the Hindu monarchy, and has been emboldened by its strong performance in the last election, and the rise of the BJP in India.
Despite seemingly intractable differences over federalism in the new constitution, the top leaders of the main political forces have narrowed their differences in the past year. They have also made compromises on other disputed issues such as whether to have a presidential system or retain the current parliamentary model. So, what is holding things up? Power and vanity.
The politicians are stuck not so much because of their ideological differences over the constitution, but because of disagreements about who should lead the government after the constitution is promulgated. The negotiators, who include at least six former prime ministers, are putting the cart before the horse and have squandered their public support. In marathon closed-door meetings over the last few months, they have tried unsuccessfully to come up with an acceptable power-sharing agreement. And that is what is really holding up the constitution.
Despite a ruinous war and the fecklessness of politicians, Nepal has taken dramatic strides since 1990 in reducing poverty, and meeting the United Nations targets for health and education. The key to this achievement has been grassroots democracy that brought up elected local leaders accountable to the people. We know what works, Nepal is living proof that decentralised democracy delivers development.
What the new constitution needs to ensure is that the grievances of groups traditionally excluded from political decision-making are given a voice through genuine political devolution, past injustices are redressed and no one is left behind. A democratic and inclusive constitution would guarantee that.
Luckily for us, Nepal’s two giant neighbours India and China although politically poles apart, both want Nepal to be stable and prosperous. They aren’t really competing for influence or a strategic foothold here. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Kathmandu last week bearing promises of more trade and aid. Indian Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi’s visit in August last year reset bilateral ties and unlocked joint hydropower projects that were stuck. For the first time in decades, Nepalâs investment climate is looking upbeat.
Nepal is at an important crossroad in the coming week. One turn will keep the country bumbling along on the path of continued instability, fractious politics and economic decay. Another will allow us to forge a deal on the constitution, fix the politics and catch up with the rest of the world.
Seeing Nepal’s enormous potential for wasted natural resources and human capital, there is reason to be a short-term pessimist. But one canât help being a long-term optimist about Nepal.
Solutions from within Editorial
The people matter Editorial
Better late than neverÂ Om Astha Rai
Sky won’t fall but that’s not the pointÂ Damakant Jayshi
Taskless force EditorialÂ