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This is a great video to get a sense of how Nepal was framed for the British public in the early sixties. You can see where the roots of certain essentialisms came from, especially Nepal as an exotic Shangri-La that is “friendly to the west but holding jealously to its own standards of values and beliefs.” As an archival artifact, this film clip provides astute insight into how the British Empire manufactured it’s image vis-à-vis the rest of the world, particularly if one considers the shooting of corralled wildlife on a metaphorical level. Lauding king Mahendra’s rule and Nepal’s acceptance of the Tibetan refugees that fled communist Chinese annexation of Tibet, the coverage of this diplomatic trip makes Britain’s foreign policy for the Himalayas quite clear. What struck me the most, however, was hearing that Kathmandu’s population was 100,000 and Nepal was a self-supporting country
For me it’s unimaginable to think of Kathmandu with a population of 100,000. According to the 2011 census Kathmandu Valley has a population of 2.51 million (it was 1.6 million in 2001). Kathmandu district recorded the highest population growth in the country, with a 60.93% increase in the last decade with 1.74 million people currently residing there. This is an exponential increase in fifty years, but is consistent with the trends of urbanization worldwide due to the trade patterns of the global economy.
Many of Kathmandu’s current residents are renters and hold land or official residency outside the valley, which means they don’t vote in Kathmandu or the other valley districts. This causes a disconnect between the residence and government because most people don’t choose the legislators who affect their everyday lives. Thus many feel they don’t have a voice or the power to control their immediate surroundings, which causes apathy on the part of many working and middle class residents and hubris on the part of the influential landowning minority. Neither of which will make Kathmandu a livable, sustainable city for everyone within its dense population. Of course this lack of ownership and oversight is further exacerbated throughout the country since local level elections have not been held since 2001 (King Gyanendra held elections in 2006, however, the majority of the country boycotted them to protests his undemocratic government and those legislative bodies were dismissed soon after he abdicated in May 2006).
Nepal’s not so self-supporting economy
Furthermore, its sad to hear the assertion that fifty years ago Nepal’s economy was self-supporting. The narrator explains this was out of necessity because of the minimal communication and the dangers of traveling abroad. From the British colonial administrative perspective, the perception of Nepal’s self-reliance was due in part to its refusal to accept foreign aid, even from Britain and France after the 1934 earthquake. During colonial occupation of India, Nepal eschewed western assistance because it was equated with colonialism and the Rana government resisted any opportunity that would allow foreign infiltration (Bista 1991: 135). However by 1961, the assertion that Nepal was a sustainable economy was not entirely accurate because it overlooked Nepal’s long history of labor migration and the developing trend of foreign aid investment. Perhaps it was necessary for the coverage of the queen’s visit to emphasize Nepal’s self-dependence and inaccessibility in order to reinforce the image of it as a remote Shangri-La Kingdom that was a world apart from the United Kingdom, which nonetheless, served and welcomed the faltering British Empire.
It is true that traveling abroad was difficult through the 1960’s. The reasons being was Chinese occupation of Tibet to the north and malaria in the Terrai belt to the south. USAID started investing in malaria eradication in 1958, which was the first national public health program in the country. In 1978 the program was reformatted to address malaria control since malaria eradication was deemed unachievable. Nonetheless, the project changed the landscape of Nepal’s southern plains, which was largely uninhabited except by the ethnic Tharu population in the southwest and Maithali and Bhojpuri populations along the rest of the Nepal/Indian border. Another palpable result of the project was massive deforestation to create agricultural land, which caused a huge migration shift of hill dwelling people who took over this newly felled land. A number of native inhabitants were cheated out of their land and the most unfortunate fell into the Kamiya bonded labor system. This changed the socio-political dynamics of Nepal’s southern belt, in which the governing hill elite established an entrenched hold on the local politics and economy and marginalized the native populations. Decades of tension came to a boil during the 2007 Madheshi Movement and the 2009 Tharuhat Movement and was a major factor in the constituent assembly’s inability to agree on a federal state structure in 2012. (For more on the impacts of the USAID malaria program please see Tom Robertson’s current research, for the construction of unified Tharu ethnic identity see Arjun Guneratne’s work, for the history of the Kamiya bonded labor and emancipation movement see Tatsuro Fujikuro’s work, and on Madheshi nationalism see Krishna Hechhethu‘s, Prashant Jha‘s and Chandra Kishor Jha‘s work).
Ah the wonders of DDT and American goodwill!
Another reason external travel was difficult before 1961 was the lack of transportation infrastructure. This made travel expensive and risky. It was mainly available to the elite, who could afford to travel by vehicle on the few highways that existed and more rarely by plane, and to citizens who felt the prospect of better employment opportunities abroad overruled the risks, these individuals often traveled by foot. Out labor migration is a centuries old tradition, not only in the border regions but also recruitment opportunities into the British and Indian army and other forms of trade (For more on the history of migration in Nepal please see the work of Harka Gurung, Jeevan Sharma, Sara Shneiderman, and Anna Stirr).
Travel infrastructure, however, was one of the main priorities of the growing foreign aid agenda in Nepal. Since the 1950’s, Nepal’s dependence on development aid programs has steadily increased (for more details see Bista 1991 ch 7 and Panday 1999). USAID, a result of the Post WWII Marshall Plan, spearheaded early development investment, mainly in agriculture, transportation, and power generation with secondary focuses on education and health programs. Nepal was just one of many developing countries that saw an uptick in foreign aid as the Cold War became entrenched and the U.S. and Russia competed for global influence. The king’s Panchayat government (1960-1990) was smart and maintained a foreign policy of non-alliance, and thus benefited from aid from both the western and eastern axises, and later from multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank and United Nations’ programs. This trend has only increased since the end of Panchayat rule and the beginning of multi-party democracy in 1990, with donor sources and agendas ebbing and flowing along the course of geopolitics.
Even though Nepal was not as economically self-sustaining in 1961 as this clip suggests, it was a lot closer to it than it is today. The increasing reliance on foreign aid has made Nepal the highest recipient of foreign aid in South Asia. Devendra Raj Pandey’s 1999 book, Failed Development: Reflections on the Mission and the Maladies, cogently captures the critique of the national and foreign development agenda for Nepal. He demonstrates that foreign aid has caused the opposite effect than its intent, making Nepal poorer, more dependent, and the economy less sustainable. Nepal’s development trajectory is a very good example of what I teach my students about foreign aid: international development assistance has become colonialism 2.0. Foreign aid creates an uneven power dynamic in which sovereign nations are dependent on the money, technical support, and “advice” of foreign, multi-lateral powers regarding national economy and policies as well as foreign relations.
Nonetheless, Nepal’s struggles can’t be fully blamed on the foreign aid agenda, another unintentional factor was the country opening up after the 1990 People’s Movement, which overthrew the king’s Panchayat government and instituted multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. One of the demands of this movement was right to consume, meaning that the public wanted access to goods as much as access to information and rights to public gatherings and free speech. This demand was quickly obliged and goods flooded through Nepal’s borders along with economic liberalization and all the vulnerabilities that come when a developing nation opens itself up to the global economy. The opening of the economy coupled with the increase in public and private education created a new type of consumer/producer. The 1990 rising middle class cultivated a generation whose aspirations were for a particular kind of life: a life that allows them to participate actively in the market economy. (For more on burgeoning middle class aspirations and identity see Mark Liechty’s work).
Nepal’s development path and resulting dependent position, the liberalization of the economy, and capitalist consumer based aspirations have created a situation in which many have no choice but to migrate in order to sustain their family’s livelihood. Many migrate to Kathmandu and other urban areas in South Asia, others migrate to the Gulf, Philippines or Korea, and others migrate West. The migration patterns are indicative of people’s class status and social networks. (Migration studies is a rapidly expanding field in Nepalese scholarship, here are a few places one can begin to look into the current dynamics further, Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), International Organization on Migration, and Nepal Institute for Development Studies). The Nepal Living Standards Survey of 2010/2011 estimates that 56% of families receive remittances and the estimated average remittance contribution is 27% of the household income (this is most likely underestimated due to money coming in from unofficial channels and people underreporting to avoid tax). Simultaneously, food insecurity is a major concern in Nepal despite the fact that there is plenty of cultivable land. What Nepal currently lacks are individuals willing to farm because they need more than just crops to sustain themselves and their family. They need money so that they can participate in the market economy, whether minimally to pay for healthcare, electricity and their children’s education, or extravagantly requiring the newest technology and fashions. Therefore, Nepal is now importing many things that it could produce itself at a lower cost. This creates a negative feedback loop of external migration that carries the country further and further away from the prospect of having a self-supporting economy.
Thus looking in retrospect, the current generation’s life is vastly different than that of their grandparents when the Queen visited in 1961. One thing is for certain, Nepal is no longer remote. The Nepali diaspora spans the world, especially in urban areas. Look around and you will see it.
Acknowledgements: I want to thank Anup Kafle for bringing this video clip to my attention by posting it on twitter.