Things shut down early in Kathmandu; this was a lone shop open at about 8 pm on Friday night. You can’t expect to go out and get dinner after a show. But you can buy newspapers at news-stands, some in English and some critical of the government. Nepal has a parliamentary system led by the CPN-UM (Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist) with the Maoist Centre coming in second and the Nepali Congress Party coming in third. It was a monarchy until April 2008, when the monarchy was abolished and King Gyanendra was “demitted” following a surprise electoral victory by the Maoists. This was following about 15 years of internal conflict, the last ten years of it quite violent. The country was said to “be at war with itself.”
The Patan Dhoka Gate
On Saturday people do not work. We walked around Patan Dhoka and saw families in festive clothes out for a stroll. Here is a young couple in a tea house with their baby daughter. The four men in the rear are going over copies of some kind of document together. On a different street we walked past a tiny tea house where five middle-aged women were sitting around a table in deep discussion. It was striking that they were not multi-generational and family; it was women age 30-40, having a meeting of some sort.
There is at least one good bookstore, near the Patan Dhoka gate, called the Patan Book Shop. And there are the remains of posters on the walls that appear to be warning people against interfering with elections, or at least with the practice of freely voting. The words “Election Committee” were in English up at the top of this poster.
Taxis and Tickets
We have had a great time getting tickets from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Monday, where we will go tomorrow just for the fun of it and to be in a different place. Getting visas to enter India on Friday was a separate project that involved going to an expediter near the Indian embassy and paying $75 each. It has also been a challenge to get tickets to Delhi and then from Delhi to Jammu in Kashmir. The Safeway travel agency down near the airport does not take credit cards, but this is the agency that is booking the tickets for the theater troupe. The Eva travel agency fairly near our guesthouse (I found it just when wandering around) does take cards, but had only one swipe machine shared among its several offices, and I had to go on a motorbike with the travel agent to pay for the tickets. But here is a picture of the assistant to the travel agent.
His name is Sudeep Lama. He will be 21 in a few days. He did not do well on his IELS (international educational level test of English, Math, etc); he got a 400 out of 1,000. Therefore he decided that he should apply to be a Gurkha. He says the British accept 300 young Nepali men every year to become Gurkhas, part of the British army. (In Prashant Jia’s book — see below – she says that many Nepalis serve in Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army.) But there is a test for that too, including a physical test in which you have to do sit ups, weight lifts, and running. It was a hot day when the test was given and therefore many Nepali boys did not do well on the running. In the meantime, he had spent all his energy preparing for the Gurkha test and not on the IELS and did not do well that time either. You are allowed to try three times, between the ages of 17 and 21, to become a Gurkha, and he will soon be too old. So he lives with his parents and they give him some money. He earns $45 per month as an assistant at the travel agency. He says “It is my destiny.” He also works as a coach for an athletic society in return for which he is allowed to use the gym.
Selling land to get a car
The complexity of scheduling and paying for tickets and visas put us into taxis quite a lot. One driver talked to us while we went out to the Safeway agency near the airport which had done our Delhi-Jammu tickets. He paid $20,000 for his car, which is what a car that costs $4,000 in India costs when it gets to Nepal, because of taxes, if you are going to use it for commercial purposes. If it is only for personal purposes, the cost is $16,000. The medallion that lets him use it as a taxi costs 500 R but he says you have to pay 1,000 to get one. To pay for his car, he sold some land that his family owned in their village: land for a car. “My father is very disappointed in me,” he said, several times. His father and mother were left with just a little bit of land for a garden. The driver got $6,000 for the land.
He then took out a bank loan, a seven year loan. He has now paid two years on the loan. “In five years this car will be mine,” he said. The government confiscates vehicles over 20 years old; in the newspaper today, it told about confiscations of old cars in other cities, and old school buses. They are sold for scrap. So with a car life expectancy of 20 years, he may drive it free for 13 years. His brother also drives it. The roads are mostly terrible so how a car can survive 20 years is beyond me. However, he drove us along one windy road through the city that he said had been paved only the day before, and it was beautifully smooth.
This driver, whose name was Kumar, was willing to talk with us about the government. So far everyone we have talked with says “corruption” immediately and then laughs or says they don’t pay attention to politics. But we were able to get a bit further with him. As we drove, of course, he pointed out places where the road was dug up, piles of bricks and pipe were lying around, and yellow tape ran from one barrier to another to keep cars from falling into holes. This project was started two years ago and just stopped, the money’s all gone! But also: there is now electricity, and two years ago there was not electricity in the middle of the night. And water is coming — there will be pipes coming down from the mountains bringing water that you can drink. That’s what many of these big pipes are for, that you see lying along the road, along the fresh ditches. He points out the road we are on, with its fresh asphalt. Schools? The schools are terrible. There are not enough good teachers. Whenever they can, people send their children to private schools but they are very expensive.
Labor unions? He said that there are many unions but they belong to parties, and there are twelve active political parties right now. For example, there are taxi drivers unions. They do not talk to each other. (There is a General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, https://www.gefont.org/ associated with the CPN-UML.) Taxis are supposed to — according to the government — use their meters, but the price on the meter has not changed in seven years and it is too little, impossible to live on what you make on the meter. So they go to the government and ask the government to raise the price on the meter, and the government says “Yes, we’ll think about it,” and then nothing. So he is not active in the taxi drivers union.
The government is pretty good right now, he says. Fifteen years ago it was terrible. This was when the war was going on and the Nepalese army was killing people and the Maoists were killing people. Now the Maoists are the second most powerful party in government. But the government is unstable. So they can’t get anything done. But it’s pretty good. When he votes, he says, he votes for the king.
We are reading a book we bought at Dixit Bookstore near Padan Dacca: Battles of the New Republic: A contemporary history of Nepal, by Parashant Jha. Although it was published in 2014 I am counting on it to bring me up to date as much as possible.
Corruption: an example, with punishment?
In the March 1 Kathmandu Post there was an article on page 2 about “activists” of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal. These two activists – men — stopped their motorbike in an intersection (a “chowk”) and intercepted Gokarna Sapkota, the legal officer at the nearby cancer hospital, as he was returning from a hairdressing salon. They poured diesel on him. He was able to escape by running. The assailants also got away. They are being tracked. An investigation is under way to determine whether or not the assailants lit a match or made any other attempt to kindle a fire. If they only dumped diesel, but did not light it, perhaps the event should be considered a threat. Pamphlets with the name of CPN Chitwan were recovered from the incident, explaining why Sapkota should be punished. Evidently he was unfairly promoted to a post at the hospital and used a vacancy to hire some people in an irregular manner. This party is a 2014 split from another Maoist party. It is registered but has no representation in parliament. Its base is in the far west of Nepal in an area often cut off from the rest by monsoon and snow. It achieves its goals though direct action and banda (strikes).
I include this story because it struck me as such an extreme and desperate response to what looks to me like petty corruption. In my world, irregularities in promotion and hiring happen all the time; if they attract attention the person may get fired or shelved off into a position where they have no power any more. But there is a process that can grind along slowly and take care of things, as long as there is someone to set it in motion (and complain or file a grievance or write a #meToo message). The culprit typically does not have to fear having diesel fuel thrown on him while crossing the street. However, if there are no alternatives that can be trusted — well, I can understand why something more direct might be necessary. But there must have been a discussion in the planning stages about whether or not to light a match.