19 June, 2009

Fishing Stories

Sushma Joshi

The transformation of a barren strip of unused land to a hundred fish ponds teeming with fish may not just transform the lives of a hundred families

Give a man a fish, and he will eat for the day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. I first saw this adage as a child in the office of World Neighbours, one of the first INGOs to come to Nepal. World Neighbours rented our house as their office, co-incidentally. The sign left me open-mouthed — the idea of teaching a person a skill that would give them a livelihood was alien to my entrepreneurship-deprived childhood. I remember the moment vividly, if only because Tom Arens, the World Neighbours representative and one of people to support the whole NGO movement in its early stages, seemed to be laughing at me silently. No doubt the idea of a Kathmandu child steeped in the grim tradition of Brahminical education and hereditary jagir being exposed to the idea of entrepreneurship was a chuckle-worthy one.

In Nepalgunj, I saw the early vision of World Neighbours being brought to full-fledged life as again — open-mouthed — I witnessed a hundred fish ponds dug out in a few barren hectares 12 kilometres from Tribhuwan Chowk. The 100 is not hyperbole (hyperbole is a crime people often accuse me of), but a literal number. The fish ponds, each 20 by 20 by 2 meters long, are laid out next to each other in what appears to be a rather tiny plot of land. “This used to be barren land, used only for toilets,” says Prativa Rijal Limbu, one of the Education for Income Generation staff who shows me around the site. “Now there are a 100 fish ponds.” The Education for Income Generation in Nepal Program, funded by USAID, is implementing the ponds with support from the World Food Program (WFP).

The hundred fish ponds were dug by 700 laborers. They worked 40 days to finish the ponds. Each worker received four kilograms of rice per day through the auspices of the WFP's food for work program. The ponds, built on leased land, is owned by 100 individuals. The owners were decided collectively by two communities who chose the most vulnerable and marginalized people within their community to receive this benefit. The owners who've showed up to tell us about the program are mostly Dalits — Chamar, Cori, Khatik, Parsi, BK. They all look overworked and undernourished. As landless laborers, they spend their days seeking wage labour when the WFP's food supplement ends. With ongoing strikes and bandas disrupting daily work and wages, and blocking access to markets, they often skip meals and eat irregularly to cope with the ongoing insecurity. Soaring food prices have made even basic staples like lentils out of range for people who survive on a day-to-day basis, let alone more expensive sources of protein like meat.

But hope is at hand. In just a few months, each owner will have a fish pond teeming with new fish. Wells will soon bore ground water, which will fill the ponds. By July, the ponds will be filled with “fingerlings” — recently hatched grass carp, silver carp and one other kind, all three carefully chosen so they are mixed and matched to eat both the grass and vegetation that grows on the surface of the water, along with the bugs at the bottom. Because the fishery owners lack refrigeration, the fish experts attached to the project have timed it so the fingerlings are introduced in a controlled, week by week fashion, so they don't all mature at the same time, thereby avoiding a fish-glut on the market at the same time. The fish will get fat just in time for Dashain's big festival rush. The ponds will give the owners an extra 25,000 rupees a year — a crucial cushion to provide everything from children's education to healthcare to start-up funds for new businesses.

Nepalgunj, which the ever-popular Candy of Traveler's Lodge Hotel candidly terms a “black hole where entrepreneurship doesn't exist”, may soon be seeing a shift in the way it views itself. Rather than being dependent on India — currently truckloads of fish make their way across the border from India to fulfill Nepalgunj's local fish demands — the city may soon see itself providing its own fresh fish to its people. The 100 fish ponds may actually only fulfill a tiny segment of demand. Another 100 fish ponds are already constructed in Bardiya, and 200 more are planned in conjunction with WFP in the upcoming months.

What is startling about the project is not just the scale of it. This may be the first time a hundred fish ponds were built together on the same plot of land. While the intensified productive use of the five hectares is already impressive, what is reconfigured is the land equation. I often wonder why the Tarai, the fecund breadbasket of Nepal, seems to teem with undernourished people. Why does the land itself look barren in places? The answer is simple — much of the land in the Tarai is owned by absentee landlords who live in Kathmandu or some other big city and have no interest or intention to cultivate the land. They hold on to it because it's prestigious to own land, but since they don't depend upon it, they do not use it to its full productive capacity. Consequently, people who have farmed the land for generation but who may only be sharecroppers or even bonded laborers, get sub-par yields from the land.

The fish-ponds are brilliant in that they solve two of Nepal's most pressing issues. Landless people end up having access to land through a leasing system — currently they pay Rs.500 per fishpond to the landlords each year for five years. And after five years? “Five years is a long time,” says Bhanumati Gupta. “We can buy our own land after five years.” Even to dream of this possibility is a shift in land relationships in Nepal. Entrepreneurship and the resulting income fulfills the revolutionary vision of land ownership for landless people without having to resort to the easy and violent methods of land seizure from private owners. The free market, and entrepreneurship, will soon equalize those who are productive from those who are not.

And secondly, the ponds provide a livelihood that does not just feed people for a day, but for an entire lifetime. The proud owners, both men and women, who currently suffer not just from the ongoing high food prices but also the politically unstable regime which makes it difficult to get food on a day to day basis, may soon have a source of food and income that will feed not just themselves, but their entire families.

The transformation of a barren strip of unused land to a hundred fish ponds teeming with fish may not just transform the lives of a hundred families. It will also transform the markets of Nepalgunj and the buying habits of Nepalis who realize that fresh produce grown in Nepal is better than week-old fish laid on ice and trucked across the border from India. And more than that, it may transform the economy of Nepal, which sees itself only as a barren and unproductive country but doesn't realize the potential it has to take its marginalized communities and its unused land and multiply it a hundred times for the economic benefit of the whole nation.
(Sushma Joshi wrote “The End of the World.” It's a book of short stories. Pick it up in your local bookstore. Next time you see her, pretend you've read it.)

Posted on: 2009-06-19 20:14:49 (Server Time)

12 June, 2009

The Flexible Border

Sushma Joshi

Accusations that the Indian security forces have been causing havoc by raping Nepali women and forcing them away from their land by moving the border markers has made front page news in recent days. So is Koilabas another Susta? I was interested to read a report prepared by a mixed group of seventeen civil society members, including eight journalists, two policemen, one INSEC representative, and government officials who went to the border to investigate. Interestingly, there were no women on the team -- and perhaps some conclusions, especially about rape, may have been radically different had a few women been included in the team.
The Dang border, says the report, is about an 8-9 hour walk from the highway through small paths across rivers, jungles and hills. There are 22 crossing points in Dang in about 82km of border -- and each border crossing point is about a two hour walk away from each other. Only Khangra and Koilabas have police stations on the Nepali side -- the rest don't even have a police post.

Koilabas, 60km away from district headquarters Ghorahi, is linked by a gravel and an unpaved road but in the monsoon this road becomes unpassable. For the past 15 days, this road has been unusable, forcing people to walk for four hours to the border.

Since many of the displaced came from Khangra and Adbaruwa, the team went and discussed with them and found out that the Landless Struggle Committee, having promised the people land closer to the highway, had asked 2-3 people from each family to join the group and move away from the border.
In a village close to Khangra, the investigation team saw the Indian side digging an irrigation ditch, an activity that did not honour the 10 gajja of no man's land territory.

Now the interesting conclusion -- all the border markers were old, and in need of repair. One had been washed away by a flood and had yet to be reinstated. The 10 gajja of no-man's land wasn't honoured. But there was no sign that the Indian security forces seized the land around them.
What the report seems to conclude, rather, is that it's not the encroachment from the Indian side, but the neglect from the Nepali side, that seems to be the problem. There was no police post on the Nepali side, while the Indian side had its SSB police force in place. And herein lies the gist of the matter -- there were no roads, no health posts, no veterinary services, no schools, no post offices, no telecom offices, no electricity -- for the Nepali citizens living in this area.

Even the land meant for a police post in Khangra had been seized by locals who had put in a foundation for a private home. There was no seeds, fertilizers, or any other agricultural supplies necessary for farming to reach this remote border point.

The Nepali government had failed to ensure government presence on the border. There were no land registration offices which could show that land was measured and registered when bought and sold. Hunger was endemic because there was no good provision for year around food supply. There was no baazzar on the Nepal side, so the locals had to depend on the bazzar on the Indian side, which was a four hour walk through the jungle.

There is conflicting testimony about the Indian border security force, with some saying they restricted their access to the bazzar, and others saying there were no restrictions. Some said the SSB restricted locals from purchasing more than seven kilos of food. The border police force also insist on the custom tax, ask to see citizenship papers (which most Nepali on this side of the border lack), and they also try to confiscate animals meant for sale. But others also claim the border force allows them up to 50 kilos of food, cement, sugar, fertilizers and other essentials without restrictions. Perhaps the answer to this lies less in foreign policy and India-Nepal relations but in how well each Nepali is able to establish a rapport with each Indian security guard.

Now the question of rape. Interestingly, the paragraph on rape is almost a case study on how not to investigate cases of rape. Here is a verbatim translation: "On asking locals about sexual harassment and abductions of women at the border, the team were told that such incidents took place in the past but in the present such incidents do not occur and there has been no cases filed in the police about such cases."

Now as every activist (male or female) working in rape knows, going up to a potential victim and saying to them: by the way, have you heard of any rape cases around this area? is rarely a good way to get accurate information. Victims often suffer from psychological and physical trauma of the incidents. They are not willing to confide to a fly-by-night team that yes, indeed, the border security force raped them -- especially since there is no police protection and no guarantee of safety that any protection will be accorded to them after the investigation team leaves.

If the Nepali government is really serious about investigating accusations of rape by the Indian border force, it will get together a diplomatic team in Nepal who will fly to New Delhi, get hold of the Indian Government's Ministry of Women Affairs and form an investigative team that will include high level Indian police officers like Kiran Bedi, and prosecutors who have worked to put rapists in prison. This team will then spend two to three weeks talking to Nepali (and Indian) women at the border, and conclude by dismissing key offenders and implementing strong sexual harassment laws in the Indian border security force. And while we are are it, we should do the same for the Nepali security forces as well.

The two countries must also provide safe homes and counseling centers for women facing sexual violence on the border area, since borders seem particularly prone to incidents of violence against women.

According to advocate Govinda Bandi Sharma, there is no legal solution to encroachment. Somebody has filed a lawsuit in the Nepali Supreme Court but one cannot really take the Indian Embassy to Nepali court because they enjoy diplomatic immunity. "The only solution is a diplomatic one," says Sharma.

The way forward is constant pressure and vigilance from civil society to document and investigate actual incidents. Nepali civil society groups must also make linkages with Indian ones and keep them informed about actual incidents so Indian journalists, lawyers and citizen groups are updated on these situations and can raise it within their own legal system.

The Nepali government must also get its dysfunctional foreign ministry in order, and engage in diplomatic talks with the Indian side. One good way may be to informally engage former ambassadors to India, who already have the experience of dealing with their Indian counterparts, to broaden the discussion and keep it in the public eye.

Instead of blaming India for all its problems, the Nepali government must get off its lazy and dysfunctional ass and immediately provide essential services at the border, including citizenship certificates for its nationals, land registration offices, and border monitoring guards.
And all of this, of course, must be constantly monitored by civil society to ensure the Nepali government removes its ostrich head from the quicksand of political bickering and actually does something for its citizens.

(Sushma Joshi has a BA in International Relations from Brown University)

05 June, 2009

Milk and rice

Sushma Joshi

I am the youngest of seven cousins. When we were little, we used to play lukamari, or hide-and-seek, games in the garden. My eldest cousin sister, taking pity on me, would allow me to be a dudh-bhat (milk and rice) during our games. A dudh-bhat is someone too young to play the game adequately, but the older children allow this young one to tag along and never be “outed” from the game because they might cry if made to leave. So this means you are endlessly in the game, even when in reality you should really be out. Of course, being the youngest means you may always retain the status of a dudh-bhat even when you do grow up. In Nepal, as we know all too well, the hierarchy of age allows the young some privileges, along with the old.

It appears to me Madhav Kumar, even though he's lost the game twice in two elections, is being allowed to be the dudh-bhat by his wiser and more tolerant elders. He is allowed to be in the game endlessly even though in reality he should really be out. Now this would be all very well and good if the game was just hide-and-seek. The problem is, this is a much bigger game. And what happens when the dudh-bhat suddenly finds himself leading the game? Well, strange things start to happen. People start to bomb churches, realizing that the rules of secularism and tolerance no longer apply. People start to parade women naked around Ratna Park right in the middle of the capital, because they realize that the rules of fundamental rights no longer apply. The Indian security forces start to loot and rape and drive away Nepalis, because they realize the rules of international treaties and sovereignty no longer apply.

Wanting to treat your youngest and dearest with special affection is a common instinct. The problem with our national game is that the leaders seem to have forgotten that it's a bigger issue than hurting Madhav Kumar's feelings. This is a game to set democratic rules, and democratic precedents for a nation bigger than one individual or one party. If you come out after a long drawn out elections and you say that really who should lead the country is a two time loser, than you're basically saying that the whole exercise was a mockery, just a game played by children which didn't really mean anything very much. If the leaders themselves don't play by the rules, you are allowing the rest of the 26 million to say: f*** it, if they don't follow the rules, we don't have to do it too.

The Maoists were clearly riling up a lot of people trying to grab more power than their fair share. At the same time, they were also not being given the support they needed to make decisions adequately and on time. Now we're back to Square One or Mangalman as we say in Nepal. It's back to Girija trying to push Sujata as foreign minister and forgetting that he'd pledged not to go along with hereditary monarchy principles. Its back to the small-minded confusion of UML-NC nexus trying to work out who should be Prime Minister next since everybody, it appears, must take a hasty turn to sit on that chair at least once.

The worst fallout of all this, as I see it, is that Katawal comes out a clear winner in all the confusion. Sitting at a café, I was rather surprised to hear somebody who I thought held rather different political opinions say: Of course I support Katawal! I don't want Nepal to be taken over by India! Rather than discussing ways in which the security forces of Nepal should be made more accountable and modern, rather than discussing ways in which the transitional justice mechanisms should be implemented to deal with the hundreds of disappearances and extrajudicial deaths, the discourse has now shifted to how the Nepal Army is going to save Nepal from what is surely inevitable -- the takeover of Nepal by India which happens as Madhav Kumar and company happily buzz around Kathmandu in their motorcade breathing a sigh of relief that they made that historic position at least once.

The problem with Nepal, as well all know, that our sense of national responsibility is less than our sense of personal responsibility. How many amongst us would give up the prime minister's chair if the choice was between us becoming prime minister, or the choice of supporting a more difficult man who may, at least, steer the country towards a clear definite path? The sad thing is that Madhav Kumar is doing nothing more or less than what many other Nepalis would do.

As Nepalis, we hate to hurt anyone's feelings. But the problem with not hurting Madhav Kumar's is that we hurt the democratic and ethical sentiments of 26 million Nepalis. From my conversations, I know that many civil society people cannot get over their outrage. As one artist told me-Nepalis have drowned in a ladle. Apparently this evocative phrase catches the smallness of what has just happened in our nation-state.

Now while that sense of national responsibility to an ideal larger than one puny human being is being instilled in the next generation, can we please reinstitute new rules? How about starting with saying that someone who loses the election twice cannot be made Prime Minister? Now that he's taken his turn and is happy, can we let Mr. Kumar go and bring onboard somebody who at least received some votes?
(Sushma Joshi's book "End of the World" is available in Quixote's Cove, Vajra, Mandala, Educational Book House and other bookstores)

Posted on: 2009-06-05 20:42:47 (Server Time)