Kathmandu Valley Rice Fields and Brick Factories

For my last walk this year (October 2011) we take the bus to the end of the line in Bhaktapur, one of the Kathmandu Valley’s original three kingdoms.  At the center are elaborate palaces, multi-tier temples, and private houses all with spectacular carved windows, doors and roof ornamentation.  We are out among the farms that used to support the old city.

Unlike everywhere we’ve gone before, these fields are still covered not with houses but rice.  Rice here takes 150 days from sowing to harvest but only 100 near the Indian border.  That rice doesn’t taste so good.  This rice would be very popular but the villagers can barely produce enough to feed their own fast-growing local population.

We chat with a couple from far western Nepal where survival is barely possible.  They’ve rented a house and are weaving chair carpets for sale to a finisher who sells them to retailers.  They also have a garden where they grow veg to sell to the migrant brick factory workers who will arrive soon from India.  They get very little for either carpets or veg but it’s enough to support them and their two small kids.

Next we stop at a tea house where half a dozen men are chatting.  An animated older guy tells us they are all adamant about not selling their land.  They want to live the rest of their lives the way they always have, working in the fields.  Their children go to school, which none of them did, and want office jobs, of which there are not nearly enough.  The men know their land will be built over but they’re determined it won’t happen until they’re dead.  These are the first anti-development folks we’ve met.  The old guy tells us a Nepali proverb:  “More development means more beggars”.  It means more productive new methods result in fewer jobs.

Scattered among the fields are small brick factories with great tall chimneys.  Bricks were traditionally made on-site here from sun-dried clay.  When reinforced concrete post and beam construction was introduced 25 years or so ago, fired brick technology was introduced from India.  The clay bricks are still molded by hand and dried in the sun but they are then placed in the huge chimneys and coal-fired.  That’s why it’s a seasonal activity.  The work can’t be done during the rainy season.  It’s very hard work out in the sun for the men from Bihar, India’s poorest province on Nepal’s border.

In our next tea house the men tell us about coal smoke and dust pollution from the brick factories.  It’s unhealthy for them and devastating for their cauliflower crops.  The Kathmandu Valley was famous for its tasty cauliflower.  Less tasty cauliflower now has to be imported from at least 35 miles away.  There’s a law that no brick factory can be within three kilometers of a village or school but the law is not enforced.  The people from this village mounted a big protest five years ago.  Two were killed.  There was no justice for the killings and nothing was done about the brick factory.  The police and justices were bought off by the factory owner.

We walk back a little way on the same road.  It’s being upgraded to be a through road between Bhaktapur and Nuwakot.  The villagers complaining about the brick factories are eager for it to be completed and traffic to begin flowing.  Then they expect to sell out for huge money.

We turn onto a six-inch wide path among the rice paddies to a bus stop.  The bus is an Indian relic packed tight inside so our only option is the roof.  The bus rolls wildly from side to side over the corrugated dirt tracks.  It looks terrifying from the ground but feels fine and is safer than being inside because you can if necessary jump off.   You cannot ride on the roof in the city where electricity wires dangle low over the streets so I don’t get to ride up there for long.

Tomorrow morning my Tibetan Buddhist classes start.   Now I’m off for a happy-making dal bhat (rice, lentil and “spinach”) dinner.

Nepali Festivals

The Dashain festival starts today (October 2011) so Hindus are planting barley.  Others will begin the ritual practices later.  What everyone looks forward to is the feasting.  Huge numbers of animals will be sacrificed.  It’s projected that only 15-20% of the goats will be of Nepali origin this year.  The remaining 80%+ will come from India.  Ideally, one should sacrifice a buffalo but most people cannot afford that.  A goat is next best but a chicken is OK.  Chicken trucks have been coming to Kathmandu for many days and chicken men walk the streets with birds casually suspended from where their wings are attached to their backs.  Most chickens look alert and oddly calm.

The latest version I’ve read of why buffaloes should be sacrificed is:  Once upon a time all the Gods and Goddesses were bothered by demons.  None had enough power to defeat them.  At last the deities began to dance.  They danced with such vigor that great clouds of dust arose.  Goddess Kali manifested from a lock of Lord Shiva’s hair (Shiva is the member of the Hindu trinity responsible for destruction and creation, Kali handles just destruction).  Kali was immediately covered with dust energized by the deities’ dancing that gave her enough power to kill the demons’ vehicles, which were buffaloes.  The unseated demons fell to the ground where they were easier to kill.  We kill buffaloes on this day to commemorate Kali’s triumph.

I learned more during the next big festival, Tihar (later in October 2011).  This is when girls offer tikka to their brothers.  Tikka means prayers, gifts and a colored powder emblem applied to their forehead.  I was puzzled because the girls of the family I was with offered it to more males than those I think of as their brothers.  I’m still not entirely clear about it but I am clearer about who can marry who.

The first-born adult sister in this family is A. Next are B, C and D.  A, C and D are married, B is not.  C could (after divorce or death) marry A’s husband but not D’s.  She must treat him as her brother and would offer him tikka.  A’s husband could marry B, C or D.  C’s husband could marry D but not A or B.

As well as rules about brother marriage there are rules about cousin marriage that are not the same for all Nepali tribes.   Many members of this family’s tribe have the family name Y or Z.  The adult sisters’ father’s family name was Y so they could not marry a man with that family name.  They also could not marry a man whose family name is Z because Y and Z are “the same”.  They could marry anyone with the same last name as their mother unless it was barred by the first set of rules.  The existence or not of a blood relationship makes no difference for marriage but they would not offer tikka to an unrelated Y or Z “brother”.

There are only five family names in the village of about 800 people where these sisters were born, two of which are “the same”.  So, if the population was equally distributed across family names, 40% of the males would be their “brothers” and off-limit for marriage.  Is this because most marriages were between people in the same village so all Ys and Zs would have been blood relatives of these Y sisters?  But why not also prohibit those with the mother’s family name?  The Y sisters’ mother was an X so 60% of the males (X, Y and Z) would have been off-limits for them.   Maybe too restrictive?  But if you only prohibit “too-close” marriage to one parent’s family, it should be the mother’s because you cannot be certain about the father in a pre-DNA-typing society.  I need to ask more questions…

The old rules are breaking down but you still must not sit close to and certainly not touch anyone of the opposite sex who the rules would allow you to marry.  You can’t be very free either with those you could not marry but it would be OK, for example, for B to sleep in one room of a house and husband-of-C to sleep in another room even if they were the only ones in the house.  It would not be OK, however, for husband-of-A to sleep in another room of the same house as B unless his wife, several children or B’s mom was also there.  “Everyone” would assume that if B and husband-of-A were alone at night in the same house they would have sex but if B and husband-of-C were in that situation “nobody” would suspect them of incestuous relations.

This is a very repressed society by our standards.  A small girl can put her arms round her father’s waist on a motorbike but not when she is older.  Only a wife can put her arms round her husband’s waist in that situation, or another man.  Society pretended homosexual love could not exist but assumed that sex between any man and woman except if it would be incestuous is inevitable any time there is an opportunity.  The norms are changing, though.  When I first started coming here in 2003 you never saw a boy and girl holding hands. but now it’s commonplace.

One more thing about marriage in Nepal:  Fathers pay for sons’ weddings.  That’s because son’s marriage brings a woman who will care for you when you are old.  It’s best to marry off daughters so you don’t have to support them (unless you have no son).  That’s why very young girls get arranged marriages.  If a son finds a prospective bride, he brings her for his parents’  approval.   Depending on her age, they will evaluate if she has a “good heart”, but mainly they want to know if her family is raising her to be a “good girl”, a good housekeeper and a dependable source of home care in the future.  It’s worth paying whatever you can for that security.  The expensive wedding honors the girl’s family for raising a girl who is worthy of such extravagance.

Partings, Driving and Directions in Nepal

We met very few people walking in the hills yesterday (September 2011) because it rained hard all day.  It was an opportunity for G to tell me more about his friend who had a bad traffic accident and believes the Germans and Irish are out to get him.  He recently became aware of a plan to exterminate most of the world’s population.  He’s not yet certain who is the mastermind but he thought he should alert the Embassy even though his information is incomplete.  They told him not to come back.  When I met him, he explained that he’d given up sex because his sperm have no heads since his accident.  There’s no point in sex now because they no longer know which way to go.

The day before, T set off to work in India.  He was given khatas (silk scarfs) by his sister and female cousins and money by his mom.  He presented the money to the girls.  His mom gave him a banana and a beaker of milk, then he went out the front door between brass flagons filled with flowers, placing a coin in each one.  There was much smiling and laughter but no touching, no saying deep things, no sadness.  The ritual enables the emotions to be managed.  It’s very different from a Western parting.

When you walk along the street here (sidewalks are very rare) it’s not just pedestrians who step in front of you, motorbikes and cars crowd you just as closely.  There’s no concept of personal space.  It’s not just that you don’t give a fellow pedestrian personal space, you don’t do it if they’re a pedestrian and you’re on a motorbike.  You don’t do it if you’re both on/in vehicles.  I realize this conflicts with the alternate reality theory in Village and Urban Culture in Nepal.  I’ll have to think more about that.

When I tried these theories on a Western friend who spends a lot of time here, she said she recently realized she kept expecting people to meet her expectations and getting angry when they didn’t.  She expects people not to drive their motorbike into her path but: “Why should I expect that?  Even if it’s really a bad idea for both of us, it was the only decision he could make now.  Maybe he would make a different decision sometime in the future.  Maybe not.  Anyway, the problem is my expectation.”  She’s finding it very helpful to look at life this way.

Today, D helped me find a place to stay during the Buddhist teachings.  I could never have done it on my own although I had a list of recommended guest houses and the name of the satellite monastery where the teachings will be held.  We found the best-sounding guesthouse with difficulty because all Kathmandu is a maze of narrow streets with no names.  They had no free rooms.  That’s when I decided to accept  the offer from the main monastery to get me a booking.

Most people are happy to provide directions.  What you cannot know is whether they have any relevant information.  We were directed with considerable precision to many wrong monasteries.  When we at last found the right one, there was nobody in the office.  A man said my email contact is out of the country.  He thinks.  He’s not sure.  I figured we deserved lunch at that point.

After lunch we went looking for the second best sounding guest house.  Again, very difficult to locate although very close to where we started looking.  I got an excellent room there for $7/night.  The man at reception took us up to the roof to point out the satellite monastery where the classes will be held.  He can’t be right, but he is very certain.  It’s at least 40 minutes away and it should be only 5 minutes.

Village and Urban Culture in Nepal

I recently (September 2011) learned what happens if there’s a fatal accident on your property in Kathmandu.  It’s what would happen in a rural village.

A boy hired to apply concrete facing on a house fell from the second floor and was killed.  The boy’s father knew the homeowner did nothing that contributed to the accident, but in Nepali culture he must provide compensation because the boy would have supported his parents in their old age.  Because the father has a good heart and knows the homeowner does not have much money, he requested only about two years’ wages compensation, which the homeowner had to borrow and is now working to repay.

After I wrote about Truck Drivers’ Insurance in Nepal I was asked how big is the fine for killing someone and how much for injuring them.  The fatality fine is too large relative to what a driver can earn.  That’s why they join the insurance club.  There isn’t a fixed fine for causing injury.  The problem for the driver is he becomes responsible for paying the victim’s medical costs and compensation for loss of earnings, etc., which gets complicated and unpredictable.   If nobody observes the injury he simply drives off.  If he may be caught it’s better for him to get the definite outcome, the fine for a fatality.  Vehicular homicide is always considered an accident.

Another comment was: “The drivers must feel somehow insulated from reality up in the cab or how could they back up and run over someone on purpose.  Perhaps to the Ranas other people are just animals.”   The Ranas ran Nepal for more than a century before the king regained control in 1951.  They set the example for how to drive because they were the only ones who could have motorized vehicles. They established that killing someone in this way deserves only a fine.

The Ranas used tax-gatherers to collect half or more of the peasant farmers’ annual production.  They rarely saw anyone other than their entourage and they did act as if the rest of the population were animals.  You do not treat an animal standing on the road with any courtesy, not in a hierarchical society, anyway.  The Ranas’ vehicles were driven by their resentful and/or prideful servants who would have treated the “animals” not with indifference but contempt.

Nepal still has a highly status-conscious culture.  The Ranas established a caste system that encompassed not just them and other Hindus, not even just tribal folks who were not Hindu, but also foreigners.  There was a hierarchy of tribes as well as the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy.  This aspect of Nepali culture has changed less than I imagined.  I did not at first realize there is a hierarchy because we relatively very wealthy Westerners are treated as high caste.

I also misunderstood Kathmandu Valley culture because the village culture I saw first on mountain treks is more egalitarian.  The Ranas had little influence there because there was little for them in that harsh environment.   The majority of people in the Valley now are fairly recent arrivals.  If they can get a motorbike, they are suddenly more powerful.  They’ve acquired what the Ranas had, the ability to intimidate.   Add these dark cultural legacies to the very low level of common sense among Nepalis, G says, and you have the explanation of Kathmandu traffic.

G went to a driving school when he got a motorbike.  The owner said he need not take lessons, for Nrs 3,000 (a little over $40, an average monthly wage) he would get G a license.  G said he wanted to take lessons and pass the test.  The owner said he might fail and would have to wait six months before he could take it again.  G persisted and passed.

Another question prompted by “Truck Driver’s Insurance” was about the overall legal system, which used to be controlled by the king, then by parliament.  I’ve seen no discussion of an independent judiciary under the new Constitution.  The politicians want to remain safe from prosecution for corruption unlike in India, which is also famously corrupt, where a very strong independent judiciary was inherited from the Brits.  India’s Telecom Minister is in jail for corruption right now, his boss the Minister of the Interior is under indictment, and the Prime Minister may also be indicted.

A villager we talked with yesterday said:  “We don’t need democracy, what we need is for criminals to be punished.”  That’s a common theme.  We keep hearing complaints about the breakdown of law and order.  Westerners are safe so long as they remain in the tourist areas during daylight because there will be severe retribution for messing with them.  Nepalis, however, are not safe from each other anywhere after dark and business people are not safe period.  Three men were arrested yesterday for demanding protection money from more than 50 business owners in Kathmandu.

Village style social pressure for good behavior has not yet been replaced in Kathmandu by an urban rule of law.  The distressing results illustrate why urban societies need an effective central government.

Nepal’s Election and the Kamlharis

Nepal has been without an elected government since May 27 of last year.  You’ve been eager, I’m sure, for an update on the election of the new Constituent Assembly (CA) promised for this June 21st.  The election will not be this month.  November is now the aspiration, but there has been some progress.

Political parties have been registering to participate in the election, 139 of them, 76 of which did not exist at the time of the 2008 CA election.  The breakaway Maoist faction has not registered because they say no election is possible under the current circumstances.  Most of the new parties are regional and ethnicity based.  Those getting 1% or more of the total vote will get seats in the CA based on proportional representation.

In the 2008 CA election, 84 parties applied, of which 74 were registered, 54 took part in the election and 25 were elected to the CA.  Most of the parties will again get no seats but the new CA will again be made up of representatives from of many different parties so it will again be hard to avoid stalemate.  One big issue delaying this election is wrangling over the 1% rule.

While the politicians wrangle, protesters stage strikes.  There’s plenty to protest about.  An issue I became aware of only because of strikes is the Kamlhari system of female bonded domestic workers.  Former Kamlharis with the “Struggle Committee for Abolishment of Kamlhari Tradition” recently imposed strikes in 22 districts after police broke up their peaceful demonstrations in Kathmandu and a district administration office.  Schools, shops and other businesses were shut and roads were blocked.

Kamlhari is part of a bonded labor system established millennia ago and institutionalized in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Nepal’s government defines bonded labor as: “a person working in the fields for a land owner, looking after his animals and doing other agricultural works in landlords’ fields and in his household, bound by loans from the landowner”.  You become bonded if you cannot repay a loan.  The system was abolished in 1926, again in 1990 and yet again in 2000 but it continues to exist.

There was an influx of people from the hills to southern Nepal after malaria there was eradicated.  The locals had no records of land they were cultivating.  The more worldly-wise newcomers registered it in their own names and the locals suddenly had landlords demanding rent for what they’d always considered their own.  The only option for many of them was to borrow the money, loans they could in many cases not repay because the land provided only enough for subsistence.

All political parties say they are against the system but even now there are leaders of the traditional ones, almost all of whom are high caste and relatively wealthy, who benefit from bonded laborers.  Thrice-abolished Kamlhari continues to decline but the system is deeply rooted in feudal history like so many aspects of Nepali culture.

Because malaria kept British India out, Nepal was thoroughly isolated until little over half a century ago.  Because geography makes travel in Nepal hard even now, communities are isolated from each other.  Urbanization, cellphones and the internet are motivating change but government is also necessary.  Dictators come to power fast and can change things fast.  Democracy is established slowly because society must change, and democracy must become somewhat established before it can start to deliver benefits.

Nepal’s politicians must learn how to govern and voters must learn how to get good representation (I wish we were setting a better example).  Constant strikes and protests are making daily life even harder for Nepalis but they are an essential part of the process.

Earthquakes, Jewels and Zombies

Last night’s earthquake (September 2011) was the strongest in Nepal since 1934.   The epicenter between eastern Nepal and Sikkim was 6.8 on the Richter scale.  I barely felt it.

As G and I came out of a tea shop into light rain, I felt momentarily as if I was a little drunk.  The ground felt a little bit unstable but it passed so quickly it didn’t really register.  A little later, the street filled with people clapping, shouting and cheerfully jostling all across the road.  Was there a huge wedding?   Surely it couldn’t be part of today’s ceremonial offerings to continue getting blessings from their tools by those who work with metal even though that now includes taxi drivers, kitchen workers and many others?  G asked.  There had been an earthquake and people thought there could be another one.

This morning’s newspaper says there was almost no physical damage but more than 60 people were hurt jumping out of buildings and three were killed when the very old brick wall round the British Embassy collapsed.  This was not the “massive earthquake” D’s teacher said is necessary (but far from sufficient) for Kathmandu to get a better than third world road, water supply, sewer, electrical grid and other infrastructure.

G and I walked today in another area where it’s likely no Westerner ever went before.  There’s no temple or historical site, just very poor villages that you get to via an hour-long walk through the “jungle”.

We stopped at a tea shop where locals gather.  The proprietor was excited to find an American in his shop.  He said: “America is the richest country in the world”  then proposed to sell me a jewel that he took from a naga, a snake deity that lives in rivers.  They produce one jewel from their body during their incalculably long life.  They use it to hunt for food at night because it casts intense light 21 feet in every direction.  You can keep it if you can take such a jewel when the naga is not looking, the man tells G, but if the naga sees you, it will bite and you will die instantly.  It will not be after one minute or one second, it will be instantaneous.  That’s why such jewels are so rare.

The man said he would show it to me if I would like to buy it but it would cost eighty thousand million rupees.  That’s a little over one billion dollars.  G said I did not have so much money in my pocket today.  The man said in that case he could not show us the jewel.  G told him he had read about these jewels but never imagined he would have the good fortune to meet someone who possessed one.  The tea the man’s wife prepared was exceptionally tasty but it had no magical properties as far as I can tell.

On the way back G said when he was studying philosophy and reading Socrates “and it was the time when I must decide who I am, I realized I am a citizen of the world”.  He also realized he could not say he is a devotee of any religion.  His wife, however, is Hindu.  She knows that while not everyone is Hindu, those who are not are either Muslim or Christian and since her husband is not Muslim or Christian, he must be Hindu.  That means he must do what a Hindu man should do.

Yesterday was a day when all Hindu men must get their hair cut.  G forgot.  Last night Mrs G was very concerned because she believes dead men will now start to follow him around.   G does not want her to be distressed, so he will get his hair cut this evening.  She is afraid that will not be effective because today is the wrong day.  G says she will relax after a couple of days when she sees no dead men following him .

Observations from Kathmandu

First observations from Kathmandu, September 2011:  “I typed this into Notepad for when I could get wifi access.  Extreme lack of electricity really is a problem.  The official explanation for 18 hours a day of load shedding made no sense.  Now I’m amazed at my naivete.  There’s a 200% customs duty on imports which means an imported generator brings twice its value to the government, i.e., the politicians.  Also, since they have a monopoly on fuel imports, they make money on every liter of generator fuel.  The politicians have powerful incentives to minimize the supply of electricity, therefore they do.

The Kathmandu real estate bubble has deflated because banks are not lending.  Everyone imagines lower land prices to be a temporary problem but Nepal’s economy depends on tourism, which is much lower this season, and remittances from family overseas.  There is almost no industry and none of the infrastructure, physical or cultural, that industry requires. There’s no fundamental reason for Kathmandu to be a large city.  It became the center because it’s at the crossroad for China/India trade.  Not much of that these days.  Villagers moved here en masse when the Maoist guerrillas made rural life too dangerous.  Now they don’t want to go back to village life.  They survive for now in what feels like the pre-recession US economy, i.e., one not based on anything real.

G. and I continue to talk about small scale businesses we could try to kickstart so villagers in the hills around Kathmandu could support themselves but we no longer believe it makes sense.  It just goes against our nature to give up.  The bright spot we found yesterday is villagers in the hills above Buddhanalikantha do not need to sell their land.  They are doing quite well selling illegal home-brew down in the city.   Because the rainy season isn’t quite over, it’s very humid.  Hill walking is pretty tiring in these conditions so we often stop for tea which provides opportunities for chatting, a double benefit.

Many of the few tourists this year have always-on iPad-type devices but the internet is usually off for lack of electricity.  It’s a dramatic illustration of the need for infrastructure and why the libertarian ideal is not viable.”

Some questions in response: “The corruption answer makes sense but I’m still surprised.  I suppose not having an immediate assumption of corruption is part of growing up in a culture where corruption is supposedly policed.  From your descriptions of Nepali politics it doesn’t seem like it’s possible for Nepal to succeed; do you think there’d be a way to arrange things so there was more benefit in their politicians doing what was good for the people they supposedly represent?  Something where the politicians could still benefit (they’d have to, or they’d never go for the policy changes.)

If Kathmandu has no real reason to be a city, and can’t seem to support being a city, does it follow that it will eventually have to stop being a city, or will there being a dense collection of people mean enough jobs that people will be able to stay?”

My response to the questions: “I haven’t yet figured out a system of carrots to incent politicians to do what is good for the people.  The stick, however, is a vigorous and independent judiciary determined to stamp out corruption, which Nepal does not have.  Politicians need to fear consequences of abusing their position.

I also haven’t yet figured out Kathmandu’s future.  D.’s social studies teacher told the class it would take another massive earthquake to make sufficient change possible.  He is almost certainly correct.  I don’t see how else it would be possible to establish the infrastructure necessary for a viable city.”

Barbarous Legislation, Dysfunctional Governments and What to Do

Truck Driver’s Insurance in Nepal explains why a Nepali truck driver who injures someone goes on to kill them.  Sasi Kala commented: “This is one of the most barbaric insurances I’ve ever known” and asked: “Can we do something to change this madness?”  That led me to answer a bigger question; why should Americans be interested?

In 2006 when the civil war ended, the monarchy fell and several long visits had given me a sense of Nepal’s economic situation, I thought: “I have decades of experience in enterprise strategy as a consultant and executive, I studied it at Harvard Business School, I should be able to see a strategy for Nepal”.   I wasn’t expecting it to be helpful but if I came up with something compelling I’d presumably have tried to get it heard.  What happened is, I realized I was trying to answer the wrong question.  It’s not just that there’s so little to build on in Nepal, it now has neither government nor leader.

Distressingly little has changed in the months since I last posted about Nepal’s political situation, or even in the seven years since 2006.  The “movers and shakers who never move and rarely shake” continue only to fulminate.  The Constituent Assembly elected to draft a new Constitution within two years that failed to finish in four still has not been replaced so there is still no progress on the Constitution, and no government or leader.

An alliance of 33 parties is protesting against a proposed election to be held in November.  They say they will not participate.  Party leaders who say they will participate are resisting setting an election date until they have their alliances nailed down.  The caretaker government headed by the Chief Justice is not empowered to do anything, which suits the politicians all too well.  Meanwhile, daily life gets steadily worse for most everyone else.

The truck driver’s insurance is just one manifestation of a much greater madness.  There’s little we can do until that’s healed.  We can’t expedite the election to complete the Constitution, or its drafting, or the eventual election of a government.  All we can do in the meantime is, if we have contacts there, help them understand what should be in the new Constitution and what legislation the new government should establish.  That’s worth doing.

The existing truck driver insurance seems normal to Nepalis because it’s always been that way.   Justice always has been subordinate to the Executive in Nepal so its government officials always have been above the law and that, too, seems normal.  We’ve lived over two centuries with the Constitution of a secular republic and a democratically elected government, so we can more easily see some things Nepalis should change.

But what if we have no contacts in Nepal?  Why should we be interested in Nepalis’ situation, anyway?  Because it illustrates where we’re heading.

Nepal has dramatically inadequate infrastructure of every kind because it has no government.  That’s a fundamental problem.  If there’s no electricity 14 hours a day, there can be no wealth-producing enterprises with jobs for educated people.  Fully a quarter of Nepal’s GDP is money sent home by Nepalis doing manual work overseas.  “What’s the point of educating our children if there are no jobs for them?” one of my Nepali friends asks: “They’ll either leave us behind or make another war.”

Because the US government used to be effective, we have electricity, road and rail networks, school systems and the other services necessary for a strong society.  It’s easy to start a business here and grow it quickly to any size.  But our infrastructure that makes such things possible is now, day by day and year by year growing weaker.  Why?  Because our government no longer invests effectively for the future of our economy and society.

Why do we behave as if that’s OK?  Because the results are accumulating at a pace we don’t notice.  It’s like not changing the oil in a truck.  The wise trucker does that and other maintenance and at the appropriate time gets a new and better truck.  He doesn’t just drive the one he inherited into the ground.  Like Nepalis, we’re accustomed to what our government is failing to do.

We say government should get out of the way of business.  Nepal shows business is impossible without government.  It’s not just that you can’t operate a business without electricity and you can’t access markets if there’s no railroad or highways.  It’s not even worth trying if there’s no legal protection.  Over the last few years I’ve explored with Nepali friends half a dozen business ideas that could have produced worthwhile products, profits and employment.  They’d all be easy to do here.  Not one is viable there.  There’s so much missing and what is present is undependable.

I like business.  I had fun and satisfaction doing it for forty years.  But I have no experience in government and little understanding of how it works.  That’s a problem.  We all have biases about how much of what kinds of things government should do.  Bias is unavoidable but ignorance is not.  We all should form not just opinions but educated and actionable ideas about government, test them against ones that don’t match our biases, think them through, then work to get them established.

The goal of my original blog and this one was at first just to help me identify and define what would be better and worse.  That is necessary but it no longer feels sufficient.  We must stop our government and future from getting worse, and have our government do what it must for a better future.

An “Election Government” for Nepal

Nepal has been without an elected government since May 27 last year.  Its politicians have been fighting ever since about who should lead the interim government necessary so there can be an election.

The four major parties have at last reached an agreement.  They want an “election government” led not by a politician but by Chief Justice Regmi.  Leaders of the UCPN (Maoist), Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Madhesi Front just signed an 11-point political agreement to form an “interim electoral council” made up of 11 former civil servants.  This is because the NC and the UML would not agree to elections under the UCPN (Maoist) Baburam Bhattarai-led government.  President Ram Baran Yadav approved the agreement and has administered the oath of office to Regmi and two ministers.

The election of a new Constituent Assembly to complete drafting Nepal’s new Constitution will, they say, be held by June 21st.  But the “interim electoral council” will get a second term to December 15th, 2013 if it fails to hold the elections due to ‘any technical or untoward situation’.

Twenty two smaller parties represented in the dissolved Constituent Assembly, including the CPN-Maoist that recently split off from the UCPN(Maoist), rejected the idea and said they will launch protests.  The new Prime Minister should be from within the parties, they say.  Of course, it should not be Baburam Bhatterai the acting Prime Minister since last May 27.

The interim Cabinet will be responsible for holding the elections and overseeing day-to-day administration but will make no decision that could have a long-term impact.

Should we be optimistic?  Why not?  But we should also keep in mind that, ‘this is Nepal, so anything can happen”.  Or nothing can continue to happen.

“If You Really Want to End Suffering,

it’s very simple,” Shugen Sensei told us at the start of our week of Zen Buddhist meditation: “Stop creating it.”  I’ll come back to that in a moment.  Just notice he did not say it’s easy.

Thinking why I blog reminded me of what Steve Jobs said is the secret to product development “Start somewhere”.  Just starting has always been my path.  Only later, sometimes much later, if what I started still feels worth doing, do I try to understand why.  The urge to figure out the why of Himalayan exploration, Buddhist practice, economic and governance research and blogging has now arrived.   To my surprise, it centers on ending suffering.

It all started ten years ago in the Himalayan mountains.  It wasn’t my idea to go there and I had no specific objective.  What happened was I found myself among people who appeared to be living with dignity, not aggressively, not hurriedly, and happily without the nice things we take for granted.  Could it be true?  Did they have a recipe my society might learn from?  So I kept going back.

I began to wonder if Buddhism was part of the recipe.   When we visited Buddhist temples our crew always lit lamps and prostrated.  But later, when we visited Hindu temples and the dwelling places of animist spirits, they showed reverence there, too.  I’d done some Buddhist reading by that time and was trying to meditate.  That’s why I went to the Zen monastery.

By the end of the first day I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake.  It was so hard to do nothing, sit completely still, just notice my thoughts, make no judgments, not reject or follow them.   By the end of the day I was exhausted although I’d “done” nothing.  I fell instantly asleep.  In the morning I thought, “I’ll see how it goes until breakfast”.   After breakfast I thought, “I’ll see if I can hang on ’til lunch”.  At day’s end I thought, “Maybe day three will be better“.   It was worse.  Day four was a little better, though, and so it went.  I’d suffered a lot by the end of the week but I’d also had glimpses of the truth of what Shugen Sensei told us at the start.  I was bringing my suffering onto myself.  That felt worth knowing.

Before I could go to the Himalayas I’d forced myself to retire.  It was hard because from then on, investments would have to support us.  With more time to worry, I realized my ignorance of how the economy works meant I had little confidence we’d made good investments.  So, when I wasn’t in the Himalayas I studied investment and economic theory.  The Great Recession arrived just as I was starting to feel I had the theories sufficiently clear.

Now I had to understand why our economy collapsed.  I studied governance and saw some parallels with the paralysis of government in Nepal.  That’s when I started blogging.  The US economy is embedded in the global economy.  There are so many moving parts in the system.  I had to start recording facts and analyses to get a holistic picture.  Charts and writing are my best tools for thinking and I hoped for critical feedback.

It’s only recently that I began to sense all these activities are related and they all start where Shugen Sensei was pointing.  They’re all aimed at happiness and stopping the creation of suffering.

The historical Buddha taught that we will only become truly happy when we work to end the suffering of others.  It must be so because we are not separate from others.  If they are unhappy we will also be made unhappy.  Communities were small two and a half thousand years ago.  People made each other happier or not with face to face interactions.   Today we also interact via nation-state and global systems that impact both us and future generations.  That’s why I care about governance.