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Blog Archive – 2019

How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?

January 11, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Every family has someone outside.” Conversations about Nepal’s dysfunctional economy invariably lead to its four million citizens, mainly young men, working abroad. (Some say they number seven million-- either way, a sizable slice in a population of 28 million.)

            Those workers are migrants to Arab Gulf States, Malaysia and India. Their remittances, supporting millions of families at home, form the unhealthy backbone of Nepal’s economy.

            One hardly gets beyond the alarming statistic when a culprit is identified –“The Arabs”. Maybe a suppressed guilt is behind Nepalis’ litany of hardships which “Arabs” and by implication Muslims inflict on their four million compatriots. “Look how Nepali workers are mistreated!” “Someone should protect them.” “Hundreds arrive home in boxes!” “No human rights there.”

            With no check on exaggerations and misinformation, prejudice continues unabated.

            There’s abundant sympathy for exploited countrymen, while any suggestion that conditions within Nepal could be responsible for the exodus is absent. Don’t overseas remittances actually help workers’ families? There’s no acknowledgment of the benefits of employment, anywhere. Consider how many businesses, from rental properties to food services, are sustained by families receiving remittances. Kathmandu has hundreds of low cost private schools enrolling children of overseas workers seeking a better chance for the next generation. Where are the anecdotes of returned workers investing what they’ve saved to lift themselves out of an otherwise hopeless cycle of poverty?

            All we hear are stale, decades-old, stories of “Arab exploitation”, stories that help conceal Nepal’s failure to take more responsibility for its citizens. Let’s be honest: workers look overseas for redress because of hopeless conditions at home.         

             Is it time for me to speak up? Having worked in Nepal for so long, I am viewed as a Tibetan-speaking American ‘friend’, not Arab or Muslim. Taking up the matter, finally, is not about defending Arabs or Islam; it’s about questioning this nation’s policies that allow prejudice against Arab people to distract from its responsibilities. As a ‘friend’, I call on Nepal to admit some liability for its hapless citizens. This country refuses to address fundamental structural problems, its neglect of industry, its shoddy public schools that even poor families are abandoning, its lack of agricultural support programs, its avoidable reliance on foreign aid.

            Much of what we read about Arab state policies is indefensible. Their excesses are embarrassing for many like me who share Arab heritage and faith. Visiting homes in the Middle East, I myself feel embarrassed seeing how some overseas employees are treated (however mild and however much in common with domestic workers’ treatment in USA).

            How can anyone defend workers toiling in extreme weather conditions without proper rest, food, medical attention or protection from harm? How can one not demand action against abusive employers?

            Fifteen years ago, with the collapse of an exploitative carpet manufacturing industry within Nepal (where nobody blamed Tibetan managers’ treatment of child laborers) Malaysia and Arab Gulf countries became a market for Nepal’s millions of jobless. Mainly young, poorly educated men, seeing overseas earnings as a solution to dim prospects at home, joined citizens from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan seeking work abroad. In desperation, they naively signed contracts that left them highly vulnerable and in debt.

            Despite obstacles and fears, migrating is the easiest (sic) alternative to hopelessness at home. (This applies to educated Nepali professionals too.) Traveling to distant lands for work is an established pattern, with departures increasing by the month.

            Ram is one of many who, working as drivers, cooks, carpenters, or plumbers earn as much as 150,000 Nepali rupees (about $1,500) monthly. A few expatiates operate cafes catering to other workers. After 3-4 years they return to Nepal and purchase a car to hire out, or they invest in a business, usually with relatives (also returned migrants). Few resume agricultural work however. Abandoned fields met Broughton Coburn revisiting a Gurung village after three decades; it’s a widespread phenomenon across Nepal, a result of villagers leaving for overseas. (Declining domestic production increases Nepal’s unhealthy reliance on imports too.)

            Yet, speaking with returned workers, I don’t hear tales of despair. Indeed, they report they learned valuable work habits abroad and express pride in having bettered themselves. Past sufferings seem of less concern than the corruption they face at home when applying for licenses or finding an affordable school.

            Migrants’ positive experience is unarguably not 100%. Some recount heartbreaking stories: they were beset by thieves who stole their savings (cash transported in a suitcase); they fell ill, exhausted savings, and returned empty-handed. Some die overseas--from heart attacks, in labor accidents or other mishaps, their bodies shipped back to a family burdened by debt. Some women experienced sexual abuse by employers or brokers. (To address this Nepal passed a law prohibiting women from working in Arab counties.)

            My colleagues, investigative journalist Devendra Bhattarai and filmmaker Kesang Tseten, were the first to report on the hardships of Nepal’s overseas workers and mistreatment by Arab employers. Perhaps because of their exposés, difficulties of migrant workers were widely publicized and some checks were instituted. But anecdotal accounts of “Arab” malfeasance still define the public’s view of Arabs and Muslims while Nepal itself remains unaccountable for its people’s hardships.

            “Hundreds return in boxes every month” is how one colleague opens a discussion of his country’s economy. My rejoinder about irresponsible government policies is met with silence.

            Few Nepalis forget the fate of twelve citizens working in Iraq in 2004; all were executed after being held hostage by extremists opposing the U.S. invasion. The shock those killings created in Nepal  led to anti-Muslim riots; for weeks Nepali Muslims (a long-established minority in the country) feared leaving their homes. The nation had known nothing as cruel, even during their recent civil war. That image of massacred Nepalis feeds persistent anti-Muslim feelings; it’s the prism through which they view any story about migrant workers’ hardships.

            In contrast the public here holds retains its amnesia over the role of Nepali UN peacekeepers in the spread of cholera in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The cholera strain, traced to Nepal through Nepali peacekeepers stationed in Haiti, killed up to 9,000 and sickened tens of thousands. (When investigators finally confirmed the link, the United Nations denied victims’ compensation, while the Nepali press hardly covered the issue.)  

            Prejudice against Arabs festers despite more recent investigative work by a leading Nepali news outlet. The Nepali Times has taken a more sobering look into Nepal’s migration crisis: first is joblessness at home; second, the government neither assists farmers to increase their yields nor helps develop markets for farm produce; third, policy planning does not include supporting manufacturing which would train and employ Nepal’s least educated. Workers’ problems, it notes, begin with officials demanding bribes for permits; applicants are next confronted by fraudulent Nepali labor brokers. Then, Nepal’s embassies in Gulf States offer no help. The Nepali Times series even suggests that the government may hope to avoid unrest among jobless youths at home by encouraging their exodus.

            Nepal’s unaccountability is endemic. Its avoidance of any responsibility is actually bolstered by a lenient and loyal foreign donor base. China’s disregard of Nepali ineptitude, noted in my recent article, is matched by other countries and aid agencies. Examples of failed programs due to corruption and incompetence on Nepal’s side are abundant, and commonly overlooked. Perhaps overseas employment should therefore be viewed as Nepal’s singularly successful aid program. END

Related: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/01/04/can-nepal-realistically-look-to-china-as-an-alternative-trade-partner/ and

https://www.asia-pacificresearch.com/nepals-economy-can-contented-tourists-match-desperate-migrant-laborers/5628213

[ How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes? ]

Alternatives For Nepal and China

January 04, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Three sturdy trekkers step out of a van and hoist top-heavy blue, green and orange rucksacks onto their backs. The two young women and a man then set out on foot, headed to one of Kathmandu’s backpackers’ hotels. I ask where they’ve arrived from; “Langtang”, replies one of the women and hurries on. (Langtang is a rugged, remote valley north of the capital popular with hikers). The trio is likely booked at a lodge in Nepal’s newly designated “Chinatown”. That’s a crowded strip of shops, hotels and cafes in Thamel, the low-end tourist quarter of the Nepalese capital.

            Those three young trippers, all Chinese, are part of an international community enjoying the rigors and glamour of Himalayan hiking. Fitted in climbing boots and North Face jackets, they’re hardly distinguishable from thousands of foreigners striding through Nepal’s middle hills to glimpse the spectacular peaks beyond. Although, it’s doubtful if they reflect on the other side of this seemingly impenetrable stretch of the world’s highest mountains. There, after all, lays the Tibetan province of China, their homeland!

            These tourists, along with (Chinese) Tibetans, most of them pilgrims, fly into Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport with other foreign visitors. Their flights originate in Chinese cities however, among them Chengdu, Kunming, and Zhengzhou. With numbers increasing annually, China is reportedly now Nepal’s second largest source of tourists. (China is Nepal’s second largest trade partner, too.) Yet these sightseers represent a minor, although personal, aspect of an established Chinese presence in Nepal.

            Chinese are also visible in Kathmandu’s business quarter. Here, enterprising agents search out products for export to China. It’s not uncommon to see visitors from Shanghai or Shenzhen negotiating with pashmina shawl wholesalers, with dealers in handcrafted wood, silver and brassware, and with distributors of exotic teas.

            Hotels catering to Chinese trekkers seem to be wholly Chinese- operated. Some ask how that’s possible given Nepal’s law against foreign ownership; although silent local partnerships are a common arrangement for foreign businesses here.

            Nepali shopkeepers find it increasingly hard to complete when Chinese operators pay above market rates. However, one hears few criticisms of the Chinese presence, certainly nothing comparable to hostility directed at Indian business interests.

             India and Nepal have a long and checkered relationship-- mainly positive. Nepal’s recently ousted line of monarchs originated in India. And Hinduism, Nepal’s dominant religion, is either indistinguishable from Indian Hinduism or is a fusion of Indian and ancient Nepali traditions.

            Being landlocked and without a manufacturing base Nepal became increasingly dependent on India-- specifically on Indian imports. Its southern neighbor with whom it shares an almost porous border (of 1,088 miles) is Nepal’s main source of electricity, fossil fuels and virtually all manufactured goods as well as fresh produce. This is facilitated by decades of Indian aid for the construction of roads and transmission lines linking the two countries. India has long been the gateway into and out of Nepal.

            Politically, India is a kind of mentor. Nepali opposition figures depended on India’s protection during periods of exile; once in power, newly elected leaders customarily make an inaugural visit to India for sanction and support. Nepal accepts its huge trade deficit with India and its cultural and political dominance as inevitable. But how long can this last?

            The danger of their imbalance was manifest three years ago when India subjected Nepal to a mean-spirited economic boycott. That happened on the heels of the traumatic 2015 earthquake. In support of the Madeshi people (a Nepali population who inhabit the southern border regions) with their strong cultural and economic affinity, India effectively sanctioned a punishing trade ban on the Nepalese. Anti-Indian feeling generated during that six-month period is still palpable, perhaps one reason Nepal would welcome a cross Himalayan rail route from China.

             Chinese economic interests in Nepal are not new and not confined to tourism. In recent years Chinese goods-- phones, an array of electrical and other household items, and clothing and fresh fruits, most entering by air—have become ubiquitous. Chinese products at prices competitive with Indian goods are everywhere, in village and city. But for China to become a real alternative to India, a land corridor is essential.

            For years we’ve heard rumors of a China-Nepal railway route. Today its’ possibility— forged through Himalayan rock and glacier –  is discussed in practical terms. Consisting primarily of bridges and tunnels blasted through the Himalayas from Tibet, it would meet roads approaching the northern frontier from the south. Given China’s engineering successes domestically and advances in its global Belt and Road Initiative, this project is a real option (Nepal would invest nothing). Thus far China seems tolerant of Nepal’s engineering incapacities and rampant corruption that undermined past construction projects. A December 2018 review of China’s economic interest in Nepal suggests rising investments in construction, transportation and tourism. Since 2013, it notes, “there have been 229 contracts signed between Chinese companies and Nepal, valued at $3.32 billion with $1.88 billion already closed.”

            Nepal sees China increasingly as an alternative to Indian domination. Chinese earthquake support was substantial yet low-key; residents still recall the quiet deliberation with which Chinese medical teams worked. This is addition to quake-damaged road repairs and temple reconstruction by China.

            As a major center of living Buddhism, a home to tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees created by China’s harsh anti-religious policies, Nepali’s view of China was negative in the past. That has clearly changed. The number of Tibetan pilgrims from China is rising, while other Chinese visitors show genuine interest in Nepal’s Buddhist institutions. Increasing numbers of Chinese are evident touring the Buddhist shrines of Bauddhanath and Swayambunath in Kathmandu Valley. And it’s reported that Chinese students attend lectures in Buddhism delivered by Tibetan abbots at monasteries here. We should not be surprised if Han Chinese will be found among acolytes taking vows and donning the red robes of Tibetan monk-hood.

[ Alternatives For Nepal and China ]


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