Vidhan Rana, a research analyst at Whittaker Associates and member of our staff since January 2008, moved back to his home country, Nepal, after six years of study and work in the United States. He is going to continue his working relationship with Whittaker Associates and expand the work he has been doing with the Santi School Project, an organization that renovates schools in rural Nepal. This is his first report from the country that provides some background about Nepal and the changes he has witnessed.
Many American baby boomers and Europeans who visited Nepal during the 60’s and 70’s still remember it as a magical kingdom where Hinduism and Buddhism amalgamate into the daily lives of people. Kathmandu, its capital city, etched its name in Western popular culture as a place where ganja and hashish were abundant. Even until the mid-90’s, Nepal was considered one of the most exotic tourist destinations of the world and safe for tourists to travel. It possessed the allure of mysticism that attracted millions of people from all around the world.
Until 1990, Nepal was governed by its 200-year-old monarchy where the King was considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. A multi-party democratic government was introduced in the country in 1990 after a popular uprising. Many both in Nepal and abroad had great hopes for the country. Some said Nepal could become the Switzerland of Asia. During the first few years of democracy, the country did in fact take strides forward. However, things began to unravel when a then-small political party, claiming to represent the poor rural dwellers, declared civil war in the country. Their chief aim was to abolish the monarchy from the country and bring a Chinese-style, one party communist system of governance to the country. The party, which called itself the Maoists, had little credibility, and few thought they posed any serious threat. That was before the tragic incident in the Royal Palace in June 2001, when a love-crazed crown prince killed everyone in the royal family before turning the gun on himself. The king’s younger brother, a very unpopular figure in the country, ascended the throne, and the Maoists mission soon seemed possible.
With an unpopular Monarchy, many in rural Nepal joined the ranks of the Maoists and the civil war escalated. Nepal’s reputation as one of the safest countries for tourists suffered as the U.S. State Department and other governments began issuing travel warnings against visits to the country. Slowly, the political chaos started to drive its citizens abroad in search of a better life. Every year, over half a million Nepalese leave the country for foreign labor destinations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Due to the political instability, many college campuses became breeding grounds for political parties, and classroom disruptions become common. This led many parents to send their children abroad for further studies. I was one of them, along with my sister. Out of my high school class of 100 students, over 50 now reside outside the country – 40 alone in the United States. Few who leave the country for further studies ever come back.
The brutal civil war finally ended in 2006 when Maoists created an alliance with the other major political parties in the country to oppose the Monarchy. The alliance launched a non-violent uprising, and the Monarchy was toppled in a few months. Plans to write a new constitution were drawn, and elections were held in mid-2008 to elect a body responsible to write the new constitution. Nepalese started to regain some of their lost hope. But unfortunately, the country’s leaders failed us again. The constituent, which had a mandate to write the new constitution in two years, failed at its task. The prime minister of the country resigned due to this failure, but a new consensus government has not been elected and the country has been without a legitimate government for the last four months.
This limbo has had serious consequences in the country. The finance ministry has not even been able to pass the budget for this fiscal year which has already started. There are rumors that the government coffers do not have funds necessary to pay the civil servants. Without the necessary funds, road maintenance is at a standstill and other development projects have been pushed back.
With such a dire political situation, you would expect that the country to be in utter chaos. Yet, that is not the case. Despite an ineffective government, the private sector, especially the real estate, telecommunication, media, retail and finance industries, has developed tremendously in the country. Land and real estate prices have increased ten-fold or more in most urban markets. There are several newly constructed shopping malls and retail outlets in the capital city. You will find at least two different banks or ATMs on every street corner. People appear to have ignored the instability and the lack of governance around them. They have not just figured out a way to live their lives but have done their best to make it a good life.
During a visit to one of the new shopping centers, I found American Kraft cheese in a dozen different flavors. When I visited a new movie theatre, I was awestruck by the price of the tickets and by the superior interiors that would even put theatres in America to shame. The popular tourist destinations around the city are well-maintained and clean.
Surprisingly, the youth in the country are hopeful and innovative. They have not given up in frustration like many would expect. Some of my friends who have remained in the country have opened businesses, started non-profit organizations, and made many positive changes in the society. I have met friends who have a 9 to 5 job during the day and operate a business on the side. The resilience shown by the youth in Nepali people is truly remarkable.
This resilience on both personal and economic levels is encouraging for someone like me to see. Looking in from the outside for the last six years, all I saw was negative and discouraging news. When I started considering a move back to Nepal, many questioned my thinking. Some said that there is nothing to do in the country. But the situation is just the opposite. There is actually so much to do. There are improvements to be made in every field, and the opportunities are limitless.
Nepal is far from the only country that suffers from perpetual political turmoil and lack of governance. As I have seen in Nepal, I am sure people have the same resilience and the drive to improve their lives all around the world. All that is needed is a little hope and belief that things will be better in the future. This hope is all it takes create positive change.