Nepali Times Asian Paints

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


H2O

Thursday, January 5th, 2017
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Pic: Kumar Acharya

Pic: Kumar Acharya

Sixty years ago, when Swiss geologist Toni Hagen walked across the length and breadth of Nepal he used to ask villagers what they wanted most. The reply was almost always: a footbridge. Rivers divided Nepal into an archipelago of isolated valleys, especially in the monsoon. Nepal’s trail bridge-building campaign is a success story which we will talk about some other time. But when Hagen returned to Nepal in the 1980s and again asked mountain dwellers what they wanted, the demand was for motorable roads.

Today there is scarcely a part of Nepal where an excavator isn’t in action digging a road. More roads have been built in the past ten years than in the last 60. Humla is the only district that is still not connected to the national highway network, and even that not for much longer.

If Toni Hagen were alive and once more asked villagers in the mid-hills of Nepal what is their most pressing need, it would most certainly be: water. The more arid western districts of Achham, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Pyuthan were always synonymous with water shortages. But in the past two decades areas never before associated with the lack of water like Ramechhap, Kavre and Dolakha are reeling under acute water scarcity.

As our reporter found out in a recent visit (page 14-15) water shortage continues to be the biggest worry in Nepal’s mountain villages. While erratic rainfall and drying up of perennial springs have had a severe impact on agriculture, water scarcity has also spurred out-migration from the mid-hills.

Entire villages are emptying as farmers sell their homesteads and move to Kathmandu, while city folk are migrating in the opposite direction buying up viewpoint property as investment. Many terraces are barren not just because there is no one to till them, but also due to the water shortage.

Most villages located along ridges have always suffered from lack of water as soon as the rainy season drew close to. This year, despite a healthy monsoon that ended late, even water sources located next to community forests have dried up. Desperate villagers (mostly women because the men have left) have to walk hours to fetch water. Vegetable patches have wilted. Children are dropping out of school to help carry water. Districts may have been declared open-defecation free, but there is no water in the latrines.

Many reasons have been put forward for this Great Desiccation. Across most of the 12 districts affected the 2015 earthquakes disrupted aquifers, drying perennial springs especially along the higher slopes. The haphazard construction of roads, and urban sprawl have also diverted natural recharge points for ground water.

It is tempting to blame it all on climate change because that lets the government and local officials off the hook. It was the state’s responsibility to provide alternative sources of water even before global warming made the problem worse. This was not a new problem: Nepal’s mid-hills have always suffered prolonged drought, flash floods and water shortages. Despite irregular monsoons and extreme weather patterns, the monthly rainfall graph across Nepal hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. If the total precipitation is the same, why are springs going dry?

Gigantic sponge

Global warming is melting the Himalaya, and glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. Water stored as ice along the Himalayan arc and on the Tibetan plateau is the fountainhead for 1.2 billion people from China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. But snow melt provides less than 20 per cent of the net flow of rivers that originate in the Himalaya, the rest are fed by springs. In fact, the Himalaya is not so much the water tower of Asia as a gigantic sponge that stores water under its mountains. That sponge seems to be going dry.

Whatever the cause, there are certain things that can be done immediately to reduce the water stress of Nepal’s villages. Some of these are featured in our reportage: farmers in Kavre are already harvesting rain from rooftops in underground tanks to tide over the family’s water needs till the next rainy season, collecting monsoon runoff in ponds so they recharge the aquifers. Besides making it mandatory for new buildings to be earthquake resistant, the government should also require them to have rainwater harvesting.

But, as we see in Kavre, much of this already is happening out of necessity. It is too late to blame climate change, we need to catch rain wherever it falls.


The power of one

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016
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When the stench from the Bagmati started getting too much to bear and the banks of Kathmandu’s sacred river became a garbage dump, many of us just covered our noses, averted our gaze and blamed government. Then, top bureaucrat Leela Mani Paudyal, led a citizen’s movement to collect trash every Saturday. In two years, Bagmati cleanup became a campaign that lifted hundreds of tons of rubbish. Paudyal is now our ambassador to China, but the momentum of his work continues.

Yet, there were those who accused Paudyal of tokenism. As Chief Secretary he should have solved the structural problem of urban garbage disposal instead of collecting the trash himself, they pontificated. Couch intellectuals wrote op-eds accusing him of (horrors!) trying to be popular.

Three years ago Kulman Ghising was sacked by the UML’s Energy Minister Radha Poudel for being too honest. When the Maoist Centre Energy Minister Janardan Sharma brought him back to head the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), Ghising stopped load-shedding in Kathmandu within three weeks. Capital hasn’t had power cuts for the past two months. As we reported in this newspaper last week Ghising simply stopped corruption in the distribution of electricity to favoured customers, and he would not have been able to prevail had he not got the political backing of Energy Minister Sharma.

We have become so conspiratorial in this country that even consumers who are now enjoying 24 hours electricity are cursing NEA Managing Director Ghising because (Oh, no!) he succeeded. It seems we are so disillusioned that many of us will believe the wildest rumours, doubt the most honest, besmirch the most righteous. We make sweeping generalisations about all policemen being corrupt, all bureaucrats being on the take, all politicians being greedy and power-hungry, all journalists being deceitful. And we believe our own misrepresentation.

To be sure, there is lots to be cynical about. Two million survivors of last year’s earthquake are facing their second winter under tarps. In the heart of Kathmandu the Rastra Bank building and parts of the Singha Durbar secretariat are still in ruins. Parliament has not conducted business for two weeks because of a political deadlock over the constitution, yet its ‘honourable’ members just gave themselves a hefty raise. It has become a national trait to blame others (the rival faction, the other party, the neighbouring country) for our own failings, we excel at playing the demanding victim and cannot bear to see our own kind get ahead.

Happily, there are many like Leela Mani Paudyal and Kulman Ghising in this country, quietly and honestly doing their work without undue regard for reward or publicity. The comedy duo Sitaram Kattel and Kunjana Ghimire (‘Dhurmus-Suntali’) put the government to shame by raising money and personally building a new village for earthquake survivors in Sindhupalchok. Last year, it was the tireless teamwork of Govind Raj Pokharel and Swarnim Wagle at the National Planning Commission that allowed the Needs Assessment Report to be completed in time so that the National Reconstruction Authority could be set up. Pokharel could easily find himself a cushy international position, and Wagle gave up a job at the World Bank to return to Nepal. Similarly, there are dedicated young innovators like doctors devoted to service like Bikash Gauchan at Bayalpata Hospital in Achham,  social media trailblazer Sumana Shrestha, politician Anusa Thapa, advocate Om Aryal, human rights activist Mohna Ansari, some of whom have been profiled in this issue.

For every kleptocrat heading a public sector enterprise, there is another with integrity and vision to take the organisation and the country forward. As the Melamchi tunnel nears completion after a 25-year delay, the water utility responsible for distribution is moving fast to upgrade the water supply network despite blatant interference from Nepali Congress politicians, as we reported earlier this month (#835). In the transportation sector, Sajha Yatayat has been revived to provide reliable and comfortable buses for Kathmandu and has prevailed despite a route mafia enjoying political protection and patronage. After decades of going nowhere, Nepal Airlines finally has political support from Minister of Tourism Jivan Shahi  of the Nepali Congress, himself a pilot, and committed former DDC Chairman of Humla.

There are many other men and women who have shown through dedication and determination that it is possible to build a better future for this country.


The electric age

Friday, December 16th, 2016
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Pics: Kunda Dixit

Pics: Kunda Dixit

As a journalist writing on environmental issues, being seen driving an electric car a decade ago was supposed to be a statement. Then, with chronic fuel shortages and last year’s Blockade it became a necessity. Now, with the next generation of battery-powered crossovers coming into the market, there is no need anymore to punish yourself to be green.

The early model Reva bug was the size of a Mercury spaceship, and it took the dexterity of a cosmonaut to get in and out. But it was pain we were willing to inflict on ourselves to forsake fossil fuels. The joke was on the drivers waiting for days in petrol queues at Sajha or Army pumps as the Nepal Oil Corruption ensured a never-ending petrol shortage.

Taking a Kia Soul eV on a test flight to Bhaisepati last week, it seemed that all the sacrifice of the past ten years was worth it. Here, finally, is a battery car that has all the comforts and perks of the latest SUV for a fraction of the price because taxes on electric vehicles have been slashed. Besides, if you are a climate denier and embarrassed in the Age of Trump to flaunt a green image, then the Soul eV looks exactly the same outside and inside as the fossil Soul. No one need know you have gone green. The car even has a virtual engine sound to fool neighbours.

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After driving tiny semi-experimental battery guinea pigs for a decade, it is good to see that environmental awareness and advances in lithium battery technology have propelled electric vehicles to go mainstream internationally. At the top of the food chain you have the high-caste Tesla S and X. In the mid-rung, Tesla is unveiling the Model 3 and the Toyota Mirai. The third tier is populated by the likes Chevy Bolt, Volkswagen e-Golf, Nissan Leaf and the subject of our review today, the Kia Soul eV.

The Soul is a four-door hatchback with a range of up to 180km, with an interior as spacious as a SUV with plenty of leg and belly room. The 109HP motor under the front hood is powered by 32.7kWh of lithium ion polymer batteries located under the rear seats. Like all electric vehicles, the torque is phenomenal especially when zooming off from stationary position.

Full charging with the supplied 10A plug takes about 6 hours, but the car is also equipped for a DC CHAdeMO which allows full fast-charge in 30 minutes. Kia is trying to install the first of these in Kurintar so you can charge your Kia while having lunch on the way to Pokhara.

To appeal to customers used to luxury crossovers and the finer things in life, Kia has added gimmicks like heated and cooled seats (even at the back), heated steering wheel (so you don’t need gloves in winter), keyless entry, full sun roof, mood lighting like in 787 Dreamliners, and an autohold so that you don’t slide backwards downhill on the Bhaisepati slope. (The Soul doesn’t have handbrakes!)

For those of you with fancy cars accustomed to envious looks from pedestrians, the boxy Kia’s goofy demeanour will be a bit of a let-down. This car doesn’t get wolf-whistles. But, hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and as long as the interior is comfortable who cares what other drivers think — let them wait in the petrol lines.

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Internationally, however, the Soul will face stiff competition from the Tesla Model 3 which is priced even cheaper than the Soul eV at $35,000, is sleekness personified, and has a 300km range. The Soul will also have to upgrade its battery to keep up with the range offered by next-gen Bolts and Leafs which are in the same price category.

After the Nepal government, in its infinite wisdom cut taxes this year, electric vehicles are suddenly more affordable. The Soul eV+ (with sunroof and other accoutrements) is priced at Rs 5.8 million and the standard Soul eV is Rs 5.6 million – compared to the Rs 8.5 million for the petrol Soul. Taxes for electric vehicles are now down to 23% while fossil fuel cars are still at 243%. Savings in petrol and the annual Rs 30,000 road tax also make the Soul very cheap to operate.

Hybrids like Prius and Insight never made it to Nepal, and Tesla won’t be here for a while. So, as the only electric car besides the Mahindra e2O (reviewed for comparison, below) currently available in Kathmandu, the Soul makes you swoon.

e2O adds doors

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Anyone who has been driving a Mahindra Reva e2O for a while knows the kind of contortions passengers have to make to get into the back seat. While most things about the first battery car in the Nepal market was perfect for Kathmandu, it was getting in and out that was a problem. Mahindra has solved this with the five-door e2O Plus which was launched in India last month and will soon be in showrooms here.

We have reviewed the e2O in this paper before and there isn’t much to add, except to highlight the new features in the Plus version. Speaking of doors, the other inconvenience of the standard e2O was that the hatch had to be opened to plug the car for overnight recharge. The socket is now outside to make it look like a refueling inlet.

Mahindra has made a wise decision to upgrade the e2O rather than convert its unpopular Verito model to battery, and which didn’t sell well at all. It has kept the aerodynamic silhouette while adding trademark Mahindra grille in front, redoing the rear end, and making the car look much snazzier.

The other important improvement is that the 72V lithium battery pack in the P8 variant which gives the motor a peak torque of 91Nm and 40 HP. The P8 therefore has a top speed now of an impressive 130km/h and a range of 140km, 20 km more than the standard e2O. Other additions are an anti-rollback and a REVive ‘limp home mode’ of 10km when the battery runs low.

The P4 variant is 40% less than the cost of the P8 but has a range of only 110km. Win some lose some.


The maximum pilot

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
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plane-1Capt Alexander Maximov exuded professionalism with every step and gesture as he did the pre-flight check of our Aeroprakt leisure aircraft at Pokhara airport one morning four years ago.

Although the Russian pilot used to fly MiG supersonic fighters for the Soviet military, you could tell that he felt more at home here – taking a flimsy, small, slow plane up past the highest mountains to treat thousands of passengers to the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

Maximov was a man of few words, but you could tell from the concentration on his face, the way he constantly scanned his cockpit instruments and the terrain outside, that he was in his element up here. Even from 12,000ft, he had to tilt the plane so we could see the summit pyramid of Machapuchre another 12,000ft vertically above us. Maximov once told me “Every flight is pilgrimage” because it reminded him of how humans paled into insignificance amidst the majesty and magnitude of these mountains.

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Maximov was with a tourist on one of his sightseeing flights  up the Seti on 22 May 2012 when, as he completed a 360 degree turn to gain altitude, he saw an unusual brown cloud of dust billowing below Annapurna 4. Captured on the plane’s wingtip camera, it is distinctly different from the puffs of white clouds and the icy cliffs.

picture-048The pilot immediately recognised this as a huge rockfall avalanche  and soon saw a turbid tsunami racing down the narrow gorge of the Seti below. Maximov promptly  radioed Pokhara and warned the air traffic controller who passed on the message to police and FM radio stations. He then flew back, following the flood back to Pokhara. Officials credit Maximov’s alertness and early warning to saving many lives that day.

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Avia Club
, the pioneering Pokhara-based sports aviation company that Maximov flew for had suffered another tragedy in 2013 when owner-pilot Stephan Shrestha, 35, was killed together with a Chinese tourist when his plane hit an electricity wire above the Peace Stupa.

picture-042The Club was beginning to recover from that loss, and had started air safaris on powerless ultralight gliders from its own air field in Lauruk near Pokhara. Maximov was piloting a Dragonfly aircraft with a Canadian passenger, towing an ultralight when something went wrong with the cable. Maximov lost control of his craft and it plunged into a paddy field soon after takeoff.

Nepal’s tourism industry has lost a devoted and professional pilot for whom flying in the Himalaya with the wind on his face was life’s greatest passion.

Watch video


 

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