Nepali Times

ï»żSocieties in black and white

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Veins curl in a gnarled arm like the bark on an old tree trunk. A refugee girl’s bright, alert eyes are windows to a homeland she has never seen. A transgender person posing for a formal portrait looks confidently straight into the lens. A victim of an acid attack, her face horrifyingly disfigured, is a testament to the depth of greed and injustice in our world.

Photo:Jan MĂžller Hansen

Photographer Jan MÞller Hansen denies that he goes out deliberately seeking these images of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. He says photography is all about telling a story, and the stories of those living in the margins of society represent real drama. And Hansen, a diplomat-photographer tells those stories of the excluded and voiceless through stark black-and-white images.

“You can get closer to the person with black and white, the images are more powerful because there is no colour to distract you,” Hansen explains, “you can concentrate on the texture, features, tone and dynamic range of the image.”

He is self-taught, and what started out as a hobby has now become a powerful way to document and show the reality of the dark underbelly of our societies. When posted in Bangladesh, Hansen ventured into the teeming slums by the railroad tracks, the shelters for victims of acid attacks, the metal-strewn beaches where supertankers are beached to be dismantled for scrap.

“The life of a diplomat can get a bit boring with expats and clubs, and photography was a bad excuse for me to meet people I would otherwise never get to meet, connecting with them and telling their stories,” Hansen says.

When Hansen was posted to Nepal, he was happy to be back in a country that he knew well from a previous stint 20 years ago as a volunteer. But this time, he was returning with his new hobby, and whenever he has some free time from his work at the Danish Embassy, Hansen is off with his camera bag, taking pictures along the recycling shops along the Bagmati, refugee settlements, abandoned cement factories, or brick kilns.

One of his most striking and pictures is a long shot taken at Pashupati of a mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby. The picture won‘s 2013 Photo Award on Documentary (People’s Choice) and is the kind of photo that Hansen says “hits you in the gut”.

A mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby.

A mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby. Photo: Jan MĂžller Hansen

Photo: Jan MĂžller Hansen

Photo: Jan MĂžller Hansen

Through black and white pictures, Hansen puts the physical frailty of human beings in vulnerable situations in sharp contrast to the uncaring, unfeeling, unjust world around them. But even amidst all this squalour and suffering, you see the triumph of the human will, the spirit of survival.

A Pakistani refugee attending school in Kathmandu.

A Pakistani refugee attending school in Kathmandu.
Photo: Jan MĂžller Hansen

Hansen just contributed to a ‘Refugee Stories’ exhibition of black-and-white portraits of urban refugees in Kathmandu from Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Somalia. What comes across from those portraits are not despair and hopelessness, but stories of families focused on finding a future.

Jan MĂžller Hansen (right) with Kunda Dixit. Photo: Milan Poudel

Jan MĂžller Hansen (right) with Kunda Dixit.
Photo: Milan Poudel

“People ask me why I am always negative,” Hansen says, “I am not. The people in my pictures may be poor but they have a lot of dignity. And they all have stories of survival.”

Kunda Dixit

Read also:
The first day of Dasain
Forget us not 
State of statelessness

Setopati’s one year

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Success of digital-only portal indicates that online media has attained  critical mass in Nepal

The biggest surprise about a new portal a year after it started is not that it has 400,000 users per month, but that it is a shoestring operation run out of an improbable hole-in-the-wall office in Jhamsikhel.

Ameet Dhakal with his technical manager at the Setopati office in Jhamsikhel earlier this month.

Ameet Dhakal with his technical manager at the Setopati office in Jhamsikhel earlier this month.

When asked how many people are logged in to at that moment, founder editor Ameet Dhakal whips out an iPad to confirm that more than 465 people all over the world are reading the portal even as we speak. We notice that Dhakal’s iPad has seen better days, its touchscreen is cracked and taped up.

“We don’t have deep pockets, we have no pockets,” quips Dhakal. “I could have bought a new tablet, but this one still works.”

Indeed, in the brave new world of digital media is turning everything on its head. It has shown that you don’t need massive investment, there is no gestation period for startups, and journalists can be their own bosses.

Dhakal had worked before in The Kathmandu Post and helped start Republica but quit after differences with publishers. He joined up with like-minded editors like Narayan Wagle and Yubaraj Ghimire to launch Setopati on 1 April 2013.

Having seen the potential for online media in Nepal in their previous job, and convinced that they didn’t want to work for anyone anymore, Dhakal and Wagle decided to start a Nepali news portal with serious, exclusive and investigative content in longform journalism format.

“If we had started a newspaper, we would never have got this kind of readership within one year,” says Dhakal, “and all journalists need readers.”

Whereas a popular story in the print media would be read by 20,000 people at most, Setopati’s most read story by Kamala Thapa about her botched delivery at a maternity hospital got 325,000 readers and nearly 24,000 shares on Facebook. A profile of heart surgeon Bhagwan Koirala by Binita Dahal was read by 125,000 people in the first week of publication.

“I could never have got that kind of readership when I was working for Nagarik,” Dahal, who used to be a Setopati reporter and is now with BBC Nepali, said.

With the number of Facebook users approaching 4 million and 400,000 on Twitter, Nepal now has a critical mass of online users. Low startup costs mean that new portals are sprouting all over the place. Mainstream media also have digital editions, although in many cases their sites are just dumping ground for print content.

Ameet Dhakal with his iPad.

Ameet Dhakal with his iPad.

Setopati has tried to ride this digital wave, and has managed to prove wrong a lot of assumptions about online media. Says Dhakal: “Setopati is proof that you don’t need multimedia content or light sensational news to attract readers.”

Even the readership breakdown indicates that Setopati users in the diaspora are more high-brow than other popular entertainment and gossip-driven portals. The Gulf countries and Malaysia are not among Setopati’s top ten countries: it is Nepalis in the US, Australia, UK, South Korea and Japan who login most frequently.

The most pressing challenge for the portal is to make the venture sustainable. There is virtually no advertising on Setopati, including from Google Adsense since the portal is in Nepali. Dhakal is planning on launching an aggressive marketing drive to cash in on the eyeballs, and perhaps even a voluntary subscription model in future. He doesn’t rule out accepting donor funding.

Says Damakant Jayshi of Panos South Asia and Dhakal’s former colleague at Republica: “Setopati is refreshing, it is doing what Nepali language journalism sorely lacked: perspective and analysis. It is a must-read portal for me, but needs to expand its coverage.”

Setopati spent its first year maximizing readers, which it did successfully. The reason Setopati hasn’t spent resources on augmenting content with video and images is because of low bandwidth in Nepal, Dhakal explains, but all that could change with the spread of 4G enabled mobile platforms. “We want to earn our readers, not buy them,” he adds.

The name ‘setopati’ (which means whiteboard) came about by chance as the original team was at a brainstorming retreat and discussing possible names for the portal, as it turns out, on a whiteboard.

But perhaps the most telling measure of’s success is not the surprising number of readers it has amassed so fast, but that it has so many copycats with names like ‘ratopati‘ and the soft porn site ‘nilopati‘. Imitation, after all, is the best form of flattery.

Dangerous business

Friday, April 25th, 2014

It is time the government set aside a more substantial portion of the fees it earns from Himalayan climbing to the welfare of workers who lay their lives on the line.

Tragic as it was, the avalanche disaster on Mt Everest last week that took the lives of 16 Nepalis was not wholly unexpected. The danger of seracs calving off the hanging glacier on the West Shoulder has been well known. Below it, the Khumbu Icefall is a treacherous gauntlet that early climbers deemed impassable.

Scaling mountains that jut out nearly 9km into the stratosphere is dangerous business at the best of times. But that danger is often forgotten when the business motive takes over. Professional climbers and those whose profession it is to help climbers reach the top are fully aware of the perils.

There are ‘subjective’ dangers in mountaineering: lack of training, inexperience, ambition, overconfidence, carelessness or recklessness. Lately, the pull factor of the world’s highest mountain has attracted woefully unprepared climbers to its slopes who not only endanger themselves, but also put other climbers in harm’s way.

‘Objective’ dangers, on the other hand, are related to weather, avalanche or rockfalls, earthquakes, and lately, global warming. Alpinists weigh all the factors and take a calculated risk. Sometimes expeditions are called off when objective dangers are deemed unacceptable as in 2012 when a team leader concluded that the Icefall was too hazardous.

It is when expeditions become over-commercialised, the mountain is oversold, there is too much money at stake, that the tipping point is breached. The occupational hazard of working on the mountain then becomes a losing gamble, as commentaries in this edition by veteran climbers note.

It’s not that the workers on Mt Everest don’t know that they are exposed to more risks than their employers, they have accepted it as a part of the job they have to do. It’s just that they have long felt that although their remuneration has improved it is still disproportionate to the dangers in their line of work. Outside Magazine, for example, calculated that being a high altitude worker in the Himalaya is 12 times riskier than being a US soldier in Iraq.

There is a pall of gloom in the Khumbu region this week, almost every Sherpa household has lost someone who was related, or a friend. The government has reacted surprisingly swiftly to raise compensation levels, but it will still be difficult for families who have lost their main breadwinner like Ash Bahadur Gurung.

There have been rumblings on the mountain in recent years as employer-worker relations have frayed, and anger boiled over last year as commercial mountaineering and alpine-style philosophies collided on the Lhotse Face. Rope-fixers employed by commercial expeditions saw a direct threat to their jobs from small teams that don’t hire high altitude guides. Because the mountaineering industry pays well by local standards, the jobs are much sought after despite the risks. And with all the focus on Sherpas, the exploitation of heavy-lift low altitude porters is often forgotten.

Although some expeditions which lost workers abandoned their climb, others want to go ahead. they are being intimidated by militants in the group which have put forth demands of a political nature. Neither the government which has already collected more than $3 million in fees this season, nor the workers in other expeditions, want to lose their income.

We may need a Mt Everest moratorium this season to draw the world’s attention to the critical role of Nepali workers in climbing the world’s
highest peak, and out of respect for the dead.

But the disaster on Everest also draws attention to other Nepalis forced to work in hazardous conditions building stadiums in Qatar, as female household help in Kuwait, or as security guards in Kabul. The Nepali state can’t seem to provide safe and decent jobs within the country, nor protect its citizens from the clutches of ruthless recruiters.

Given this, it is not surprising that the state has been caught off guard by the scale of the tragedy on Mt Everest. The government needs to urgently address overcrowding with a new pricing policy on the world’s highest mountain, and to ensure that a more substantial portion of the earnings from this sector goes to the welfare of the workers who lay their lives on the line to get clients to the top.

Read also:


Taking chances on Chomolungma, DAVID DURKAN

A dangerous place to work, JON GANDAL

Infographic: Working in high places, AYESHA SHAKYA

“I still call him everyday.”

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.

LEADING BY EXAMPLE: As VDC chairman of Kushadevi of Kavre, Bhim Neupane inaugrates a microhydro plant on Gudgud Khola in his village in 2000.

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.

Last week, 12 years after VDCs were dissolved, he was hiking up the mountains to explore the possibility of homestay tourism to augment income of villagers.

“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