25 July, 2009

Economic yo-yo

By Sushma Joshi

A charming little vegetable bazaar sets up at evening at the public plaza near my home. Candles twinkle in the dusk, temple bells rings, and clusters of children gather as the vendors set up piles of colourful vegetables and fruits for sale. One of the vendors has claimed me for his own, and insists I buy watermelons and mangoes even on days when I don't need them. To humour him, I oblige. I found out, however, the last few days, the prices get crazier. One day it's Rs.60 for mangoes. The next day is Rs.85. The day after it was Rs.110. Then Rs. 170. I feel guilty as I pick up my plastic bag with the mangoes. Other customers clustering around me give a baffled look of surprise when quoted the going price, then walk off in disappointment.

This wild seesaw of prices (an almost unheard of swing of 40% within one day) is just the tip of the economic iceberg that is sinking Nepal's Titanic attempts to rebuild the country. With no regulatory mechanisms to keep prices stable, citizens can barely budget for their daily expenses.

Can you wonder then that crime is high? How can a humble office worker or a taxi-driver making Rs.10,000 a month feed a wife and two children on that money, especially when the price of everything from rice to oil to salt keeps yo-yoing day by day?

Economic instability is just a reflection of the political instability. In the Sarbajanik Sunwai program on Kantipur, I watched with the other people of Nepal as three experts battled out what was wrong with the budget. Bishwambar Pyakuryal, the economist, said the budget was enormously inflated. This kind of budget would reduce the value of money. He evoked the image of Eastern European countries where people came out with piles of paper money whose value had become worthless.

The Maoist spokesperson denounced the budget and said the Maoist party had refused to accept it. Despite their tolerance for violence from their youth wings, I have to say the Maoists appear the most convincing actors on the political stage — and the people acknowledged this with bursts of applause.

The CPN-UML candidate, dressed flamboyantly in a Jawarharlal waistcoat, spent the entire time berating the Maoists instead of explaining how the troublesome budget would tide 26 million Nepalis out of rising food prices and monsoon-deficit non-harvest in the coming months. In fact, he did not mention a single concrete issue — no water, no food, no electricity, no education, no healthcare, no road. He also couldn't really counteract his opponent's claim that in fact a substantial portion of money had been divided and distributed between political cadres.

This of course is what happens on the political stage. In another small stage in central Kathmandu, I was invited to attend a Yuwa Bhela (a youth gathering) and to think about the ways in which young people could make a difference to Nepal. Anil Chitrakar was the chief speaker. “Do you know who ruled Italy when Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel?” he asked. We all shook our heads. “The answer is…” Mr. Chitrakar looked around, and then said: “The answer is: who cares?” Would Italy really have become the wild whirlpool of creative arts and cultures if it had spent all its time thinking about who the rulers were and what they were doing? Mr. Chitrakar's point — we spend way too much time thinking about inept leaders, instead of focusing on getting things done. Of course, one cannot ignore politics. But in the thralldom that holds Nepalis captive as we watch a very badly scripted play with terrible actors (even our political leaders are not professionals and don't really know what to do) we forget our own roles.

Of course, our quality of life is dependent on what political leaders do or don't do. Water is political. So is electricity. So are roads. And while we surely can't forget or ignore politics and must be aware of what is going on, how can we balance our obsession of watching what is akin to daily soap opera with a bad script and instead channel our energies into creating new young leaders? How do we leave traditional party politics behind and groom a new generation of youth leaders with an ethical mindset and priorities? As we raise these questions, I see that the Madhesi youth group leader, who's sitting with us on the same table and giving us an exquisite speech that is a close copy of party rhetoric, is being ignored by his tablemates. The two — an USA returned entrepreneur and a USA returned journalist — have leant behind him to continue their own interesting conversation as the youth leader forges onward with his cliché-ridden speech. As I watch this scene, it occurs to me that what is missing is the linkage between these two groups. How can the young people who have left the country and acquired new and globalised skills see it in their benefit to pass them onto the future political leaders of the country so that twenty or thirty years down the line, we won't have to bemoan that politics is business as usual?

As I mull this, Mr. Chitrakar has already shared with us how challenges could become opportunities. “There are going to be 20 million Chinese tourists entering via the train in Kodari in 2020. Do you know how many Nepali entrepreneurs are ready to provide Chinese-speaking tour-guides? Now what about the Chinese — do you know how many Nepali speaking tour guides they are already starting to hire and plan for?” China, that behemoth of forward looking thinking, is surely ahead of us in that game. This is a striking example of how we never plan for the future but only for the hand-to-mouth present. But as Mr. Chitrakar points out, there are plenty of opportunities in Nepal, if only we are willing to see it and take it for what it is.

One of the greatest challenges — and opportunities — for the new generation might be global warming. Girija only cares about the weather (will it rain or will it be sunny? is the extent of his concern), but the future generation must care about the climate, as one young journalist explained to me. As the planet's temperature rises, young people must ask themselves how they can adapt, independent of party rhetoric and what did or did not happen in Kathmandu's political circles. A recent visit to Nepalgunj brought home this point to me. A Chidimar village watched helplessly as their water sources dried up, their jungles vanished and they were pushed to the edge of mass migration, but a few kilometers down the road a settlement seemed to be thriving. They'd taken herbs like mint, chamomile and citronella and with the help of national and international agencies, started to extract herbal oils. Before long, their income had quadrupled --one liter of oil sold for Rs.33,000 ($500). Half the plants, found in the jungle, were wild. The forest, preserved, ensured a cool flow of water irrigated their maize fields when other land dried up. And the hot weather had even been a boon — instead of 4 liters, the heat had thickened the oil and now they got 8 liters from the same plot. Alcoholism and seasonal migration had stopped, and people exuded a sense of well-being and economic security.

If they had waited for the political leaders to solve their problems, would they have reached this level? Surely not. Waiting wouldn't have done them or their children, now in good boarding schools, any good. But maybe out of this experience will come more leaders who can see not just their own benefits but the benefits of others. For the farmer who's done so well with this new venture, his purpose is very clear. “There's so much demand for these oils we hope the government will help spread the farming techniques and provide seeds to other farmers in other parts of Nepal so they too can benefit,” he says simply. I look at him and realize he's totally sincere. He sees a whole country blooming with herbal flower gardens. Now when farmers like these enter local politics, maybe then we will see a real new class of politicians.

In the meantime, can the current actors stop their confused running around in chia-pan and bhetghat sets, and instead of fighting about “consensus” and “harmony” (neither consensus nor harmony will feed the people, people) focus on putting a price regulatory board in order? You can always ask the big bad foreign hands for help in case you're too busy fighting about consensus.

(Sushma Joshi is the writer of
“End of the World,” available in Pilgrims, Mandala, etc. She posts to www.sushma.blogspot.com


manjeet said...

Dear Sushma jee

Great, Thanks a lot the event now can be recoded in text. All the example by Anil dai were inspiring.


ken said...

your articles are supurbly blended on the column "The Global and the Local" I read all your articles in TKP although I dont understand them fully.