27 March, 2009

Waiting for rain

Sushma Joshi
In about forty years time, the monsoon may be the only source of water for much of the Indian subcontinent's one billion plus people

“Are you eating meat again?” says my nephew to me disapprovingly each time he sees me eating fish or chicken. “Don't do that. You'll get bird flu.” My nephew is five years old. He is brought up by parents who are both vegetarians. His mother is pretty cool about childrearing -- she decided that he should make his own choice about meat or no meat, and that forcing children to follow a certain path would certainly lead to them doing the exact opposite. So the upshot is that besides a few brief episodes of rebellion when my nephew was in his terrible twos, when he stuffed his face with chicken at wedding feasts and embarrassed his parents, he seems to have accepted, voluntarily, the lifestyle of a committed vegetarian.

After opening a FAO website in which they talk about how many liters of water is needed to produce one hamburger (2400 liters, as opposed to 25 liters for one potato), I realised maybe my nephew may know more than I do. Sometime in the past, I had lived in an environmentally sensitive co-operative house during college in the USA. The people who lived there were religious about not eating meat, and some so were extreme they would even make their own vegan chewing gum. So for a few years I was an enforced vegetarian, coming to learn that a vegetarian had less of an impact upon this fragile earth. Cattle require more water than plants to grow. For a few years, I was not only healthier but had a lighter footprint upon the earth.

This winter, Kathmandu, besides its usual shortage of drinking water, had zero rainfall over four months. That winter rain was crucial to plant winter crops. Without rain, how will the farmers grow their wheat and barley? Friends of mine disagree with me about my perception of global warming. I'm being overanxious and overly dramatic, they think. When I say that we may have to move to agriculture that requires less water, they accuse me of being bourgeois and restricting water access to the poorest of the poor. But even the bourgeoisie have no control over rainfall and cannot really turn rain on and off like KUKL -- and without rainfall, how can the farmers grow water intensive crops?

Our collective longing for rain the past few weeks was evident. Facebook was full of profile messages of people longing for and waiting for rain. We knew the planet was warming but we didn't know it would hit us this fast.

Scientists have already predicted that the melting of Himalayan glaciers, which act as fridges to keep water frozen till the spring, will impact river flows during springtime. In about forty years time, the monsoon may be the only source of water for much of the Indian subcontinent's one billion plus people. The dramas of those predictions are already coming true for many people who depend on rivers and rainfall to irrigate their crops.

For diehard traditionalists, the lack of water has provided the perfect platform to prove their own theories. During a recent conversation, one man told me that three factors -- the collapse of the Machindranath chariot, the enraged Indra Jatra committee who turned the Kumari chariot in the counterclockwise direction, and the nine days of missed pooja at Pashupatinath were all responsible for the dry winter we've had so far. Therefore, he opined, we really need the monarchy back. Not only that, he said, but the lack of basic necessities like water and electricity was something that people couldn't do without, but freedom of speech and the media could be dispensed with. So therefore, he said, he was willing to take his pick of an autocracy which provided basic necessities over freedom of speech, and he challenged me to prove that people wouldn't make this choice. Also, he said, without guarantee of private property rights and a stable middle class, democracy couldn't really flourish. Benin has democracy but Singapore doesn't, but which country would you pick to live in, he challenged me.

I really had no answer to all this except to say that basic necessities and freedom of speech were not mutually exclusive or opposing categories, and could co-exist together. But his point, of course, is well taken. As environmental conditions get more extreme and people start to face more and more shortages of basic needs, how will this affect our political landscape? Will we move towards a more autocratic regime that may be able to guarantee at least some modicum of basic needs like water and electricity? And if so, how can we guarantee that the present urgent need to institute a democratic system goes hand in hand with leaders who recognize the need for, and are capable of delivering on, basic services?

But the government is not the only one we can turn to as we face the challenge of a hotter planet. As the planet warms, we as citizens of democratic countries must think more and more about what we can do about water shortage, and our own responsibilities and obligations to a broader world.

Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental groups working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as climate change, writes in the Harvard Business blog that many key water intensive industries, including “technology, beverage, food, electric power/energy, apparel biotechnology/pharmaceuticals, forest products and mining,” will be affected by water shortages. She recommends that companies start to measure their water footprint, and to elevate water as a governance priority for executives and board members.

Companies, like households, can do a lot to minimize their water footprints. In particular, it may be time for us to start selling those Pajeros and putting the money back into water harvesting tanks which store rainwater from the monsoon for the dry winter months. Hotels, schools and other businesses that use water intensively should, by regulation, have to have a water harvesting tank built for their own water needs. I'm sure all the apartment buildings of Kathmandu will protest when their budget for elegant Italian bathroom tiles goes down but maybe they don't really want elegant Italian tiled bathrooms with no water, do they? Perhaps in the long run the tank may make sense.

As for my nephew, he's already designed a house that has six solar panels (one for computer, one for lights, one for water pump, one for tv, and one for hot water), a natural gas mechanism that lights the cooking stove, a solar car which runs on solar batteries, a windmill to generate electricity, a scarecrow to scare away naughty crows, and a fan to keep away ghosts. Oh, I forgot to mention the scary mask for keeping away big bad ghosts. Needless to say, the last three are his favorites.

“Do you know that by the time you are my age, there will be no more petrol and much less water?” I ask him. “I know!” he answers, jumping up and down at his ecologically sound model. If a five year old can understand this, how come we have so much trouble?

Posted on: 2009-03-27 19:58:01 (Server Time)

13 March, 2009

You are now Madheshis

Sushma Joshi
Of all the groups who have blocked our highways, the Tharus are one group who need to be heard more than anybody

Blocking highways has become the de facto way to exhibit political protest. Everyone gets up in arms about this; perhaps we have no one to blame but our political leaders who started this method of guerilla warfare to bring attention to their presence and issues. Highways appear to be easily blocked in Nepal. More importantly, disrupted highway traffic garners immediate attention. Did I hear somebody say something about putting highway blockers in prison? Now that would be a good way to start civilising Nepali methods of protest (next should be a one year prison term for those who burn toxic tires, and who release carcinogens in the air, pollute densely populated areas, and contribute to global warming.)

But wait -- don't just put these highway blockers into prison yet. Because of all the groups who have blocked our highways, the Tharus are one group who need to be heard more than anybody. Dispossessed by both Pahadis and Madheshis, it is no surprise that the Tharus are not taking kindly to being lumped in with the uber term of Madheshi. An indigenous group (or groups) of people with their own languages, ethnic identity, history, cultures, and a sense of being an integrated political unit shouldn't have to suffer the indignity of being lumped into a group which may have seized their lands, put them at the bottom end of a foreign caste hierarchy, tied them in debt bondage, and delegitimized their political identity by seeing them as simple pawns of a larger political game.

The Muluki Ain of 1854 put the Tharus at the lowest rungs of Hindu untouchability. And the groups who identify as Madheshi, along with the Pahadi, were able to take advantage of this by appropriating lands that the Tharus had traditionally cultivated because the Tharus didn't have a concept of private property or land ownership. The next step was to tie them in debt bondage through loans and then using labor as repayment through a chain that spanned generations. King Mahendra's highway and malaria eradication brought a further wave of Pahadi migrants to the Tarai, dispossessing the Tharus further.

Till 2000, many Tharus from Western Nepal were indentured labourers or Kamaiyas to both Madheshi and Pahadi families. The government declared them free on 17 July 2000 -- unfortunately the rehabilitation of former Kamaiya was done in a dismal pace and the land and citizenship cards promised to them never materialized in many cases, forcing families to return to former employers.

One corollary of the way the Nepali state has always marginalised Tharus manifested in a recent historical moment. During a research project conducted via the UN, I was part of a team that documented a systematic disappearances campaign from one Tharu village. The army officer in charge was well-known in that area and he would pick up and disappear Tharu farmers and locals with no apparent cause whatsoever. The Tharu people picked up had no affiliation with political parties and were not politically involved, leading observers to conclude that rather than following orders to politically repress opponents, the army officer may simply have been exercising his impunity.

In another case we documented, a Tharu widow had been accused of gaubadh -- killing a cow, which is a punishable offense in Nepali law. The neighbour's bull had died and he accused her of witchcraft and cow-murder. Interestingly, the woman had just converted to Christianity, which may have been a reason for the neighbourly dispute. The neighbour filed a case against her with the intent to seize her land, but he was thwarted when both the courts and the Maoists gave a verdict in her favor. Despite winning the case, however, it was clear that she faced an extreme amount of ostracization based on both her ethnicity, religion as well as widowed status. It would require not just a win at the appellate court but an entire overhaul of the Nepali Constitution to make her feel part of the community.

The Tharus make up 6 to 7 percent of the Nepali population -- a not insignificant number. With 26 major subgroups (with Dangaura Tharu, Rana Tharu, Chitwan Tharu, and Katharia being the four largest) and different dialects, the Tharus may not be as integrated as they seem, and putting aside 6 percent for Tharus in all governmental and administrative positions may be difficult to implement. What is possible to implement is their demand that they be considered a separate ethnic group, a position that is not difficult to understand.

What is clear is that the Tharu andolan is a legitimate andolan of indigenous people (not just a plot of the UML to destabilize the Madheshi movement and make inroads in the Tarai), one of many which we will see as grievances and demands of minority groups rise to the surface. How the Nepali government deals with the Tharus will be a test case of how the Nepali state will deal with its indigenous groups. It will also be a test of how we go about a federated Nepal.

Police harassment against Tharus has been on the rise since their agitation. Going house to house to beat up Tharus, unfortunately, is no different from the army officer who went around disappearing people with impunity.

What the Tharu andolan has also brought to the attention of Nepalis is that these ordinances being passed are by-passing democratic discussion and process. The government passed an ordinance on inclusivity, which should have been a progressive act, but it did it without telling the Tharus they were now Madheshis. Now that's a definite no-no. Having a 600 member CA Assembly makes no sense if all important decisions, from disappearances to inclusivity, is being decided through a small clique of decision-makers. After all, the whole point of democracy is to make governance open to the public.
Posted on: 2009-03-13 20:08:18 (Server Time)

08 March, 2009


Sushma Joshi
The Kathmandu Post, 02/27/2009
I laughed out loud when I read this news story: China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage lodged a protest when the auction house Christie sold two bronze sculptures—the head of a rat and a rabbit—at US$36 million.

According to an AP report: “"Christie's obstinately went on with the auction of the Summer Palace relics, going against the spirit of relevant international conventions and the international common understanding that cultural relics should be returned to their country of origin," the administration said in a statement.”

China, which has flouted every law in the international lawbooks, from human rights to environment, from labor standards to media freedom, from ethical standards of treatment of prisoners to copyright, is now evoking international law to shame Western pirates! Isn’t that ironic? But now we know. Even China, it appears, is willing to quote international law when expedient.

China gets furious when Yves St. Laurent makes a pile of cash selling stolen Chinese art—but China doesn’t get upset when it makes a pile of cash pirating Western art. All the Mona Lisa on tea-trays—shouldn’t China be paying a royalty to Bill Gates for that? I heard he owns the rights to that image.

Our own Maoists seem to have learnt this pick-and-choose method of following laws from our neighbour: one day they cite international human rights laws, the next day they apologize for beating up or killing people. Even a child knows the limitations of “sorry”—sorry is okay for scrawling on walls with crayons or breaking a glass. “Sorry” is not adequate for assault or murder. (And while we are on the topic of terminology, lets get clear on “martyr”—a martyr is someone who voluntarily sacrifices his/ her life or freedom to further a cause or belief. A person murdered by criminals, or one who loses his life in a road accident caused by inadequate traffic and road maintenance management, cannot be termed a martyr.)

Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hu Zhengyue flew in to Nepal, shook hands with Prachanda, offered a 400 MW electricity project in Jajarkot, told him to keep the Tibetans under control, then flew off again. How insulting! Does the minister think Nepalis are so easily bought? The least he could have done is offered us a couple of new highways, a solar power manufacturing factory, and at least a 1000 MW electricity plant. And if the Chinese are so filthy rich, why don’t they just throw in a solar powered car for each of Nepal’s 30 million citizens? And add a special pirated DVD containing the oeuvre of Chinese cinema for each? Now we’re talking.

There is a lot of buzz around the new relationship with China—a new version of the 1950 treaty, and special economic processing zones that China may invest in. But do we really want to follow that model of creating incredibly repressive work environments in which people are locked in and forced to work for hours to create more and more cheap clothing for the Western world? Is this really the way forward for Nepal? Does Nepal always have to follow China, or can David lead Goliath?

The Tibetans living in Nepal are Nepali citizens, whether the 1991 Constitution recognizes them as such or not. Those who came in 1959 have lived here for around fifty years, and know more about Nepal’s history than many living Nepali youth. Those who were born here, despite Nepal’s unwillingness to recognize them, are Nepali nationals, born and raised here, speaking the language and knowing no other country. Tibetans have enriched Nepal’s cultural and religious landscapes, strengthened our economy and trade, influenced our arts, revived our architecture, sung our songs and made our films. They are our citizens and have as much right to be in Nepal and to enjoy the rights of every Nepali citizen—including the right to free assembly and protest.

The Nepali state forces Tibetans to face humiliation in their lives—making it difficult for them to travel, buy property, or access basic services which require proof of citizenship. Despite all this, Tibetans have thrived in Nepal, and some have settled down roots. For many, though, Nepal remains a hostile country and unfortunately migration from Tibetan communities are on the rise, as with other communities in Nepal. If we are to make this a hospitable country, the new Nepali Constitution must give Tibetans legal recognition as naturalized citizens, as other democratic countries do. And it must give them equal rights to those of all other ethnic and religious groups. We can’t undo China’s stupidity in decimating and applying genocidal policies to one of its most potent cultural groups. What we can do is embrace our own, and perhaps, through that, show them the way.

There was a joke that circulated in Nepal during the Eighties. When it rained in Russia, the joke went, the Communists in Nepal would open up their umbrellas. Let it not be said that when repression starts in China, the Nepali Maoists follow suit. The Nepali politicians are accountable to their own constituency of 30 million Nepali citizens, which include Tibetans-- not to China. And this means that our government should be thinking about ways in which to include Tibetan communities into the Nepali nation—not about how to repress their freedom of speech.

But it is not just Nepali citizens who will be watching what happens on March 10th, the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan people's peaceful uprising in Lhasa, but also the world. Let it not be said that our country, which has pledged to follow democratic norms, got swayed by a paltry bribe.

Nepal to China: no deal with Tibet till you give us a factory that makes cheap, pirated versions of Summer Palace rat and rabbit heads that we can sell to the international market. Then maybe we’ll help you to hang Yves St. Laurent.

06 March, 2009



I recently made my way up to Swayambhunath after a long hiatus. I’m used to seeing Kathmandu change at a rapid pace, but even the microbus ride out there was surprise. About a thousand kilometers of road seem to be carved out of the ground suddenly, all unpaved, all exuding white dust. Instead of an easy walk through crowded newari toles, we were now bumping past thousands of tacky buildings with high-rise aspirations. The walk up, instead of being a walk up to a quiet, semi-desolate and ancient shrine with grandeur, was now a walk up a trinket-infested, vegetation devoid space to a shrine that has lost its mythic scale in proportion to the inexorable growth that surrounds it. The monkeys seem more disease infected and covered with sores than I have ever seen them. I witnessed a number of angry tribal fights--no doubt the monkeys were taking a cue from humans.

At the top, every building around the shrine was covered with tourist junk, but unfortunately there were no tourists to buy them. A lone French couple looked on at the Third World town sprawl below them and asked some distressed questions. How must it feel, I often wonder, to take an expensive flight out to see a mythical land and find yourself suddenly surrounded by upset monkeys, a dried-out mucky stream that once used to be a river, and a city which has no clue or interest in taking care of the environment? How does your expensive holiday pan out when the lights are out for 20 hours of the day, and there is no water to drink?

Kathmandu is a dying city, said an American friend who has lived on and off since the early nineties, and who recently came back for a visit. What does this mean, you may think. Kathmandu is at the zenith of its urban development. The explosive urban growth of the past decade is fueled by more money than the Valley saw in the past century, probably. Although whether the urban developers who are plopping in these massive buildings think about water, electricity, parking or safety of their residents and neighbours in this earthquake-prone valley is a moot point. Clearly there is no concern for community planning—the neat rows of houses surrounding a plaza square or a temple or a water tap has now given way to houses that may face the other ways on the same adjoining plots. Turning your back to your neighbour wasn’t polite in the good old days but one sees this increasingly in the urban design of our new communities.

Its not as if we didn’t know about new and sustainable technologies that could be implemented low cost on a personal level that could make the city more livable. Make a list of NGO workers who draw big salaries who work on water issues, and train people, and who think about water sustainability. How many of them actually install a water harvesting tank in their back yards, or invest in solar technology? You are more likely to see a 50 inch TV screen attached to their walls, or a SUV in their backyard, than any renewable or sustainable technology.

In the teashop, I get into a conversation with two Newari women who live close to the Swayambhu area. They say they get water once every eight days. “The water bill doesn’t go down, though,” said one, in an ironic tone. “Now all that’s left for us is to do puja to our water taps.” The electricity comes on for four hours—just good enough, she jokes, to turn the water pump on and off. Even the water tankers are booked in advance, she says. She tells me that her cousins, who live in Mangalbazar, are now force to bathe with a bottle of mineral water, and each precious drop is collected to wash the clothes later. Since tankers don’t go through narrow streets, water delivery in this urban core so central to the identity of Kathmandu Valley has become a major problem.

Interestingly, the old dhungay dhara, or stone water tap complexes, which used to receive their water from the Raj Kulo, still function in many places in Patan, providing an unbroken stream of water just as they’ve been doing for centuries. The old tantrics who built the dharas refused to share the blueprints of their water channels—knowing very wisely that all an enemy needs to bring about the downfall of a city is to shut off the water source. People still don’t know where the channels of the dharas lead to, or join up—and this has been a blessing for dharas like Mangal Hiti which continue to function despite the ways in which foundations of new buildings have cut into the channels that bring water from Tika Bhairav, the original source.

No consumer groups have come forward to question the government about water or electricity. If residents continue to pay their normal fees, but receive no water, there would be an outcry in any other city in the world. Not so in Kathmandu. So kudos to Nabindra Raj Joshi who took a delegation out to KUKL and asked them about water supply. Without more public outcry, the state of affairs will continue as always, with all responsibility falling on private citizens to figure out how to get the water.

In the United States, one can see a great many cities which were built up at exponential speed, and then abandoned when the gold mining, or the logging, or the railway building activity stopped. These cities are known as ghost towns. In the Middle East, the boom in construction in many Gulf areas may also end up in this state, since the investment in construction has been out of proportion to the level of population or economic activities in those areas. Will Kathmandu become a ghost town in the future? One can never predict the future but one thing is for sure—if Kathmandu ever feels the full shock of that dreaded-for earthquake, it will take a great deal of time to recover to its former size. For residents who survive, rebuilding may be shelved in favor of a new place of residence.

Kathmandu may recover some of its former charm if state and governance became decentralized, making it less important for every national of Nepal to live here. And cities in the Terai could be built up with more foresight and urban planning, taking some of Kathmandu’s centralized capital and real-estate investment flows towards the south.

But many young people just can’t wait. My tea-drinking companion tells me she is here for a special purpose. Her two children are about to migrate to Australia, and she has come to Swayambhu to do a special puja for them. For many young Nepalis, Kathmandu, inspite of its overpopulation, has already become a ghost town in terms of long-term prospect or sustainability. Greener pastures lie elsewhere.