22 June, 2010

Hello Kitty salvation

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post, JUN 19 -
A few days ago, I was on my way to work when all of a sudden, out of the window of the shuttle van, I saw what appeared to be thousands of young people lining up and around Thapathali, all the way towards the Darshrath Rangashala. The line was composed of young people in their twenties and thirties. In another country (India maybe) these folks could be mistaken to be lining up for the exams for the Indian Institute of Technology. In America, I’ve seen young people like these lining up to enter a hall to see Orhan Pamuk talk at a literature festival.

But in Nepal, sadly and devastatingly, our best and brightest were lining up not to enter any institution of higher learning or to listen to some Nobel Prize winning writer. Our best and brightest — who should be staffing our schools and hospitals, who should be running local councils and governments, who should be working in small industry — all these folks were hoping for the chance to go to Korea. There are 4000 spots open, and about 12,000 men and women line up each day to try their luck.

The look in their eyes — some of desperation and despair, some of cocky hope — made me the saddest I have felt yet in these last few years in Nepal. It seems incredible to me that an entire nation can be held captive by a democratic soap opera day after day while at the grassroots, thousands and thousands of young people can never achieve their true potential because the opportunities that should be available to them have been choked off at the top.

Without political change, it appears, the things people take for granted in other countries — job security, entrepreneurial opportunities, healthcare, education, freedom from fear — all of this seems like a fairy tale Europeans tell us about when they visit us on their three year diplomatic stints.

Nepal’s politics, of course, is “Taukay Politics.” Everything happens at the top. But the kind of democratic politics that should be happening at mid-level and at the bottom -where young people seize the instruments of democracy and start to govern themselves at local levels — all of this is missing. All donors are also quite happy to feed off Taukay Politics. After all, what can a diplomat posted for three to four years do other than shake a few hands of the most visible people? Imagine if you are a diplomat and you were given the choice between supporting yet another training for CA members, or take that money and train a handful of young people at the grassroots to start their own business. Clearly you’d choose the former. It looks better on the resume. The irony, of course, is that 50 young people who start their own businesses and are able to feed 500 people could possibly make more difference in Nepal now than yet another training of the same Taukay folks.

I was intrigued to hear that Prachanda recently went to an astrologer and some water buffalo pooja to get rid of the negative influences on his planets. I felt partially validated — a number of my friends think it’s hilarious I believe in this stuff. See? I said. Even revolutionary leaders believe in this kind of stuff.

Well, if my astrologer is to be believed, then I have one thing in my future. He took a look at my chart and intoned: “This means one and one thing only. POLITICS!”

I laughed disbelievingly. Surely I wasn’t going to join this pack of jokers. “Guruji,” I said. “I don’t want to be a politician.”

“Why not?” he said. “Politics is the original and pure social work. Its only because people have corrupted it that nobody wants to join it.”

“And besides,” I persisted. “How on earth would I join politics? I don’t belong to any party. I am not a student leader. Why don’t you introduce me to the political leaders and maybe that will be my entry into politics.” Apparently Guruji gets a lot of politicians coming to him every week, wanting to know how long they will be in power.

Joking aside, it appears to me that entering “politics”- that domain of social change — is actually quite impossible for educated young people in Nepal. Why don’t we have more qualified people in our political positions? Why are there no doctors running the Health Ministry? Why aren’t people with international relations or political science degrees in the Foreign Ministry? My American friends always ask me accusingly why educated folks eschew participating or serving politics in Nepal. Surely, they ask, people like you with degrees and work experience should be serving your government? But sadly, despite talk of democracy, there is no way for qualified people to enter this sticky black beast of Nepali government other than through party or NGO politics. There is no lateral entry point.

Our best and brightest-those who studied hard and who are qualified to run local governments and local councils and who should be providing service to their fellow countrymen therefore can only dream of going to work in a plastic factory in Korea. They will build Hello Kitty bags, they will be separated from their marriage partners and families for years, and finally they will return to spend their old age in Nepal. Some do escape the migrant labor trap after they spend a few years in Doha or Malaysia. They return to start their own businesses — buy their own taxis, or run their own shops back in Nepal. But many of them spend decades doing the D and D — dirty and dangerous — work that other people in foreign countries don’t want to do.

I met a recruiter from Jordan once who told me he’d stopped hiring Indians and Pakistanis because Nepalis were the best workers. Anybody who’s seen thousands of feet of a vertical hill terraced and sculpted and covered with green crops with bare hands knows that Nepalis are probably some of the most diligent and hardworking people on the planet.

How do we tap this diligence and make sure it stays where is needed? How do we take these folks out of Hello Kitty factories and put them in local councils and regional governments? How do we get rid of the Taukay Politics (did Madhav Kumar just see Manmohan Singh? Did Prachanda just see his astrologer? Who cares?) Shouldn’t we instead be emphasising: Did Ram Bahadur BK of the local council or

government just initiate the new business enterprise that will produce herbal medicine in Humla and feed 5000 people?