Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Kathmandu’s Day Off

December 8, 2009

The 6th December will have been one of the clearest days in Kathmandu all year. The 6,500 metre Himalayan backdrop is usually almost never visible, hidden behind a smog layer trapped in the valley.


But today there are no cars, no trucks or buses, no bikes, mopeds or tempos emptying their kerosene-heavy exhausts into the winter sky. The towering white peaks loom over the city. And without the vehicles, the usual soundtrack of the city, an incessant cacophony of horns, is absent. The quiet is somehow at once soothing and unnerving. Sunday is a work day in Nepal but without public transport, no-one is able to go to work. No shop or cafe is open either.

Yet it feels like the whole of Kathmandu is out on the street. People are enjoying the novelty of hearing the crows in the trees above and walking in the middle of the main distribution roads. The kids are certainly making the most of it, zigzagging on their bikes across the whole of what are usually gridlocked streets, their only danger arising from the armed police’s turreted pickups that unnecessarily speed by.


On every street corner a couple dozen heavily armed police troopers lean against their shields, batons and rifles. But the mood here in Kathmandu is one of unexpected holiday. As New York sees its first snow of the winter, Kathmandu is having its version of a snow day.

Around a month ago the Maoists led a land grab in the buffer-zone between Bardiya National Park and Shuklaphant Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal, settling landless poor and setting up co-operative farms. Yesterday the armed police came in to remove the squatters. A fire fight ensued resulting in five deaths, including the brutal lynching of a police officer, and more than 50 injuries. Last night scenes of violent protest broke out across Nepal and a country-wide bandh – shutdown – was called by the Maoists for today.*

Nepal’s young democracy is going through crippling growing pains; the eight month long political deadlock periodically spills onto the streets, sometimes with inspiring scenes of mass protest, sometimes with ugly scenes of violence. Yesterday was a particularly grizzly example of the latter, but today was something still different: a day off.

But in a country where over 50% of the population live under the national poverty line one wonders for how many ‘a day off’ was really welcomed. For the struggling shop owner, tempo driver, store assistant, factory worker and rural farmer who really need that daily income and access to basic services to secure their fundamental needs, having to take part in the bandh out of solidarity or fear of reprisal is unlikely to feel like a holiday. The Maoists in their protests are likely hurting those they purport to speak and work for the most.

*Read more on Saturday 5th December’s events.


Forest Management and Child Labour

November 5, 2009

The tracks out of the forest near Nepalgunj in south western Nepal are very busy today with people carrying large bunches of firewood. The vast majority are women and children. It’s Friday, the only day of the week communities are allowed to forage dead wood, as designated by the local Community Forestry Coordination Committee.

I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than eight years old carrying a bunch of wood that probably weighed over ten kilograms. Later, I asked another girl who was resting from carrying a bunch that wouldn’t have passed long-haul flight baggage restrictions her age: 10. (Nearby I saw a large group of teenage boys and men playing cards. When I passed again an hour later, they were still playing.)

Rishi Bastakoti, of Resource Identification and Management Society (RIMS) – Nepal, explains that the one-day-a-week regime is intended to make communities use fire wood more economically. When locals could collect wood every day they tended to stock pile the resource and over time increase their consumption of it due of perceptions of abundance. The one-day-a-week system allows households to collect enough wood for the week but not stockpile, curbing the consumption increase trend.

Mr. Bastakoti also says that the regime has led to a shift to the use of other fuels for cooking and heating, such as kerosene, further protecting the sustainability of the forest. It must be said however that in three weeks of field work in rural Dang and Banke districts, I not once saw the use of alternative fuel.

In addition to the effectiveness at managing the tension between livelihood needs and ecosystem sustainability, the success of a natural resource regime must also be measured on its wider social impacts, such as child manual labour.

The one-day-a-week system creates a labour-time management bottleneck. Households must fit all their wood-collecting labour hours into a single day. If the labour hour demands exceed those providable by able-bodied adults, children will be mobilised. In contrast, if households could spread the wood-collecting hours across the whole week, the hours could in principle be allocated entirely to adults without needing to resort to child labour.

Child labour is often determined as much by labour-time management constraints as economic pressure. This is well documented in long term farming cycles. Child labour is often mobilised during harvest when labour shortage is common. At these times, school attendance drops sharply, and often school holidays are scheduled to coincide with harvest time to address this problem. The example of community forestry practice suggests that time management and labour hour shortages can have the same effect in much shorter cycles too.

Holistic ‘community-based’ or ‘co-management’ approaches to forestry popular with international non-governmental organisations promise to strike a balance between protecting ecosystem sustainability and safeguarding livelihoods. But if the cost of these systems is taking steps backward in social development it is arguable that priorities should be rethought. Certainly the sight of an eight year old missing school because her parents need all the hands they can get fetching firewood on Fridays invites considerable disillusionment in the new grass-roots empowering, integrated sustainable development paradigm.

Adam Smith Avoids Extortionate Bus Fare

October 5, 2009

‘Adam Smith’s’ eyes glimmer with triumph as the frustrated bus conductor climbs down from the roof of the bus as it swerves down the pot-holled mountain road towards Pokhara Bazaar, in Nepal. The great economist has just dodged his fare.

“Good economics?” I facetiously ask the tenth grade economics student who introduced himself as the 18th century father of modern economics. He and his friends grin, their faces lit up by the mid-day September sun. Because it’s Dashain, Nepal’s biggest and most important festival, the local bus companies have raised their fares by over 100% to benefit from the increased, inelastic demand for transport, the young Smith explains.

In response, he and his friends have started using a variety of methods to avoid the extortionate rates: arguing with the conductors until they give up, producing student I.D. cards and claiming tenuous special rates, or as I saw Smith do, simply ignoring the conductor until he leaves.

There is evidence that price hikes are not limited to transport. It is traditional for families to sacrifice goats and other livestock during the festival. The market value of live goats during Dashain this year has fallen significantly due to high imported supply and decreased demand due to early departure of migrant workers (which make up half of Kathmandu’s sometime population). Cash shortages amongst consumers have also contributed. In the capital this has often left intermediary livestock dealers struggling to shift at profit, their stock bought at high import prices before the start of the festival, in expectation of higher consumer prices.

But outside the capital, stronger monopolistic power of the marketing Nepal Food Corporation (NFP) and greater inelasticity of demand – possibly due to more rigid cultural and religious norms – have led many rural families to pay NFP set prices, above market value. Many of these rural families pay for such celebratory purchases with funds informally borrowed at interests rates sometimes as high as 10% per month.

The comment sections of some of the papers call for national and local government regulations to prevent temporary, festival-time price hikes, and that’s what the 15 year-old Adam Smith said should happen. It is unclear what the 18th century Scot would think.

Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children

September 30, 2009

Pema Chodon and Sangmo Sherpa apologise for the non-existent mess in their flat – they are preparing for a celebration tonight. What’s the occasion, I ask. I’m told that there is no need for one.

Pema and Sangmo are seniors at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children, located in the Buddhist suburb of Kathmandu. The 17 and 16 year olds are on a ‘gap year’, working as special assistants to the director of the school, having finished tenth grade the previous year. Next year, they may join the few but growing number of teenagers from the school securing scholarships to complete high school abroad. But as Sangmo explains, with so many complications, not least ethnic discrimination on the part of the Nepali government against Himalayan youths, she will not get her hopes up until the plane takes off from Kathmandu International.

Shree Mangal Dvip School was founded in 1987 by eminent Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche as a place for northern highland Nepali children to get the opportunities that the national government fails to provide in their home region. Culturally and linguistically Tibetan, and Buddhist, Nepali highlanders are one of the most marginalised groups in Nepali society. Villages in the mountains have no roads, electricity, telephones, sanitation, hospitals or schools. Even relative to the rest of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, highlanders’ lives are exceptional precarious.

By any standard, Shree Mangal Dvip School is outstanding. Taking in the poorest Himalayan boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 22 the school teaches them maths, science, English, Nepali, social studies, IT, and Tibetan to international standard (IB in some subjects). Class sizes are between 15 and 30. Boarding rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. The school also provides health and dental care for all in the school community.

The school also has a strong emphasis on Buddhist teaching, with the children taking part in prayer and meditation every day. Transferrable life skills are also instructed along the way through innovative programmes such as the senior ‘gap year’ whereby older students work as teaching, health care and administrative staff in the school.

Notice boards of the various student clubs and societies skirt the basketball court. At the time of our visit, the young monks of the nearby monastery who come here for lay teaching, donning dusty old Brazil and Chelsea shirts, were scrapping around across the football pitch.

Canadian Shirley Blair, director of the school, explains to us that things are going well at the moment, with strong support from international private donors, many of them Buddhists influenced by the teachings of Thrangu Pinpoche.

But she remembers a time when the school experienced black-outs for 18 hours every day, broken windows were left unmended due to lack of funds, and basic schooling equipment was in serious shortage. Necessarily hard-headed and thick skinned, Shirley also several times faced off against maoist would-be extortionists wielding metal bars. The school’s walls are now cemented with nails and broken glass for protection. Shocked by one occasion where Shirley stood up against the thugs on her own the students mobilised themselves to set up a website, and promised that they would protect their school from intimidation themselves in future. “The thugs would not beat kids, it would be all over the international news”, they explained.

The school has big plans to build a new ecological campus away from the bustle of Kathmandu, but this depends crucially on the support of Thrangu Rinpoche, his followers, and other donors.

During my visit I was struck by the quality of the school and the opportunities given to the 650 odd under-privileged children, despite significant adversity. Clearly the religious charity model works well in this case to provide substantial working capital for the school. More distressing is the size of the waiting list for entry at the school, which runs into two packed ring binders, and the reality that a dysfunctional state system makes this type of charity school, whose long-term sustainability is always uncertain, the best chance for Himalayan children.