Blog

Either too young or too old to be taken seriously

Photos: JITEN BAJRACHARYA

Greta Thunberg began her school strikes for climate action at 15. Steve Jobs founded Apple at 21. Whether young or old, age is not a barrier to do something innovative and different. 

And yet, age-based discrimination, or ageism, has long existed in societies, much like other intersecting forms of prejudice based on gender, race, weight, ethnicity, religion, and even politics. It is not just older people being stigmatised, but also the youth being dismissed and not taken seriously.

To raise global awareness about the challenges of ageism, the theme for this year’s International Youth Day on 12 August is ‘Intergenerational Solidarity: Creating a world for all ages’. Leave no one behind is the central promise of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

But ageism, by its very definition, means leaving certain demographics behind, and to begin dismantling it we must look into how it is subtly and deeply rooted in us, our cultures and institutions.

According to the Pew Research Centre in the USA, the population across the world vulnerable to ageist discrimination, i.e. below age 20 and above age 60, totalled 3.6 billion — 47% of the world’s population.

The first Global Report on Ageism by World Health Organisation (WHO) paints a similarly grim picture. The report estimates that every second a person in the world holds ‘moderately or highly ageist attitudes’, which means half of humanity thinks and feels negatively about people based on their age.

Reports indicate that ageism creates divisions, perpetuating stereotypes, marginalising people, placing them at a disadvantage. And so much of it is internalised.

Young people report age-related barriers in various spheres of their lives, including employment, political participation, health and justice. In fact, more younger people in Europe report ageism than any other age group.

With serious and wide-ranging consequences for people’s health and wellbeing, ageism is also associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity, decreased quality of life, and premature death especially among the older population.

An estimated 6.3 million cases of depression globally are attributable to ageism. Mandatory retirement age without research-backed evidence can be viewed as a form of institutional ageism that leads to financial and social instability. 

For example, the compulsory retirement age in Nepal is 60, while Nepal’s life expectancy is 72 years. The impact of this gap is yet to be researched and analysed. On top of this, the Constitution of Nepal has no specific provision to combat age-based discrimination.

According to the UN Global Report on Ageism, age-based prejudice and discrimination also costs billions of dollars to economies globally. A 2020 study in the USA found that ageism resulted in 17.04 million cases of these health conditions and is responsible for $63 billion spent on healthcare annually among people aged 60 years or older for the eight most-expensive conditions including cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory illnesses, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries, diabetes mellitus, treatment of smoking, mental disorders, and non-communicable infections. 

Similarly, in Australia, estimates suggest that if 5% more people aged 55 or older were employed, there would be a positive impact of $34.16 billion on the national economy annually. 

While the data on the economic costs of ageism is minimal, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, the global trend emphasises the need for more structured research to better understand this economic impact in countries like Nepal.

The celebration of International Youth Day calls for a mediation on intergenerational solidarity. Interventions across age groups and activities which can lead to a greater sense of social connectedness are crucial strategies in building compassion and reducing generational differences to address ageism. 

This highlights the need for evidence-based strategies to frame policies and laws that are not discriminatory on the basis of age. Further, change is necessary not just on policy-level but also in communities and societies which means changing the way we think and act towards age and aging. 

Why should a young person not run a company or govern a country? Why can an older person not change jobs or work beyond a certain age? The demand for fresh voice and outlook was recently underscored in the local elections when Kathmandu elected 32-year-old Balen Shah as its mayor. 

However, the questions above are often answered not by evidence, research or reason, but by prejudices. We need more research into the far-reaching impacts of ageist views and policies so we can work to address inequalities. 

Having data and evidence only is not enough to address ageism either: we must bring empathy and solidarity to how we view things and act. Perhaps there are differences in the way different age groups operate, but that does not mean we stop trying to make things more equal and accessible.

Asmi Ghimire is a student at KISC Lalitpur. 

Forgetting to remember

Illustration: SUBHASH RAI/NEPALI TIMES

Eighteen years after the end of Nepal’s Maoist conflict, and eight years after the Supreme Court ruled that a law on transitional justice was inadequate, the coalition government last month finally registered a bill to amend it.

But human rights experts say the draft fulfilled neither the aspirations of victims, nor international law. The proposed amendment to the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2014 still provides amnesty to perpetrators.

“Starting the amendment process after so long, and consultations held in the seven provinces were positive steps that gave victims and their families a ray of hope,” says Raju Prasad Chapagai, a constitutional and human rights lawyer. “But the draft bill fails to address their demands for truth and justice.” 

In its 2015 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered a revision of the Act to ensure that heinous crimes like rape, extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances could not be pardoned. Since then, successive governments have challenged that ruling and stalled the transitional justice process.

The draft bill does include the right to reparation and interim relief for victims, and gives the two commissions truth-seeking mandates. But activists say it makes an absurd distinction between murder and brutal murder, and stipulates that the verdict of the Special Court cannot be appealed. 

Read Also: Nepal’s unpunished war crimes, Sabita Adhikari

“War crimes cannot be selectively categorised to bypass criminal accountability,” states Chapagai. “Also, the right to appeal is one of the minimum standards of human rights norms. The clause is arbitrary as accused from both sides may need to appeal their cases.” 

As per the draft bill, the transitional justice commissions will have to make recommendations to the Attorney General’s office to start prosecution, which will then forward the cases to a Special Court, which in turn is supposed to come to a decision within six months. 

Legal experts say that the six month interval is not enough for proper investigation. Apart from letting down families of victims and survivors, what surprised activists was the way the amendment bill was registered on 15 July.

“It was wrong of Minister for Law and Constitutional Affairs to hurriedly register the bill in the middle of the night,” says Lily Thapa of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). 

“Violations should not have been categorised, and heinous crimes must be investigated and tried,” she adds.

Read Also: No closure after Nepal’s insurgency, Mandira Sharma and Mohna Ansari

Families also worry that with the Maoists now in the governing coalition with their erstwhile enemies the Nepali Congress, justice may never be served. They are also surprised that the bill was registered by Minister Bandi, who was once a transitional justice activist and supported their cause. 

“What is the point of registering an amendment bill if the grievances and demands of the victims are not addressed?” asks Thapa.

Former NHRC head Sushil Pyakurel says one has to take into account the intentions of the coalition leadership to understand the timing of the draft bill.

“Even since entering politics in 2006, the Maoists have never had to admit to any wrongdoing or express remorse for their crimes. They have always thought of themselves as the victors,” Pyakurel says. 

In 2001, it was Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government that declared a nation-wide emergency and mobilised the Royal Nepal Army to fight the Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal. 

Read also: Impunity through immunity, Raju Prasad Chapagain

Today, Deuba is prime minister again and his close coalition ally is Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a former nemesis. The Army and two police forces are also accused of numerous wartime atrocities.  

“Both Dahal and Deuba are trying to brush war crimes under the carpet, and that is what brings the two former enemies together,” explains Pyakurel. “Neither wants to express remorse and admit that atrocities were committed.” 

Nepal’s transitional justice process was supported by the Europeans and Americans, but with the weakening of the West and the rise of next door India and China there is less pressure to follow through on transitional justice. 

Says Pyakurel, “Having two powerful countries as neighbours is both a blessing and a curse for Nepal. Neither are strong proponents of human rights, but Nepali victims of conflict need justice and closure.”

Go online for Kanak Mani Dixit’s detailed analysis of the draft amendment, Transitional Injustice in Nepal.

20 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK

Issue #105 9-15 August 2002

Unfriendly Fire

In February 2002, 17 young men from Jogimara in Dhading district were killed by the Eotal Nepal Army while working on an airport runway at Kalikot in western Nepal after being mistaken for Maoists. 

This was just one of the many war atrocities committed by both the rebels and the state. Which is why the amendment to the Transitional Justice Bill is so hurtful and disrespectful to the families of victims for attempting to grant immunity to perpetrators. 

Excerpts from the report published 20 years this week in issue #105 9-15 August 2002:

In late November, just when the Maoists broke the truce and attacked the army in Dang, Jogimara’s poorest of the poor were getting ready to go to Kalikot. They went because they trusted the sub-contractor, Kumar Thapa. They knew him, he had never cheated them, and he was even willing to pay an advance. And they needed the money. 

A month later, the Maoists attacked Mangalsen and Sanfebagar, killing 137 soldiers and policemen. The security forces went on a three-pronged hot pursuit northwards. The fleeing Maoists infiltrated the construction workers in Kalikot, and fired on an army helicopter flying overhead. 

On 24 February, an army attack force stormed the quarters, thinking the workers were Maoists. According to eye-witnesses, 17 workers from Dhading, seven from Sindhupalchok, and 11 local villagers were killed. Among the villagers were the ward chairman from the Nepali Congress, two Sherpas from Solukhumbu who were working in Kalikot and two minors. All the Maoists had fled by the time the soldiers arrived. 

The fact that the Maoists shot at the helicopter using the workers as human shields does not hide the fact that the attack in Kalikot was a colossal blunder. For the families of the dead in Dhading and Sindhupalchok, the wounds haven’t healed with time. This is mainly because they never got the bodies of their loved ones. No one ever came to apologise or tell them that it was a mistake. And to make matters even worse, as far as the government is concerned, their sons and fathers were all “terrorists”. 

From archive material of Nepali Times of the past 20 years, site search: www.nepalitimes.com

Migration not a wish, but necessity for Nepalis

  • In January 2020, a 28-year-old Nepali man left home to work in Sharjah. Five months later, his family would learn through their son’s coworker that he was dead from an apparent suicide. The family suspected foul play, but there were no answers.
  •  A man from Kanchanpur returned after working four years in Malaysia to set up a jaggery factory and livestock farm. He stood for local elections in 2017 and won. 
  • In Malaysia, a worker died by suicide, leaving behind family in Nepal that included a two-year-old daughter. His family waited two months to get his body back. 
  • A woman in Kalaiya lost contact with her husband who went to Malaysia. She has heard he lives with another woman. 
  • In Gulmi, a 47-year-old woman who worked as a caretaker for a family in Dubai for 10 years now runs a successful meat and poultry shop back home.

These testimonies from migrant workers are contained in a new report Research Studies on Labour Migration in Nepal 2022 by Blitz Media and Humanity United. 

The report explores the socio-economic impact of labour migration, as well as the key role that the Local Governance Operation Act 2017 needs to perform for Nepal’s migrant labourers.  

The study surveyed more than 4,000 migrants from 21 districts, three from each province, across Nepal. It interviewed families and communities left behind as well as local leaders.  

Read also: Foreign employment revival, Editorial

Since 2008, the DoFE (Department of Foreign Employment) has issued labour permits to more than 4 million Nepali migrant workers, which does not include those working in India. Nor does it include workers who travel overseas through backchannels. But the 2021 census puts the overseas Nepali population at only 2.1 million.  

Malaysia, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia are primary destinations for workers. Half of the respondents in the study were still employed when they considered foreign employment, and chose to leave Nepal in search of higher income and work satisfaction. 

Nepalis paid Rs 103,888 on average in processing fees to recruiters, and went on to earn little more than Rs 25,000 on average monthly.

Respondents said they had little to no idea on how to ensure safe foreign employment, and there were few policies and guidelines to direct them through the process. 

The first-time destination for most respondents was Malaysia. Average overseas stay for both men and women was about three years. Regular work hours per day for most participants in the study was 8 hours, while some said they had worked for up to 16 hours daily.

Read also: No country for young men, Shristi Karki

Figures: RESEARCH STUDIES ON LABOUR MIGRATION IN NEPAL 2022/ BLITZ MEDIA

The survey has also looked at the impact on spouses and children of overseas workers. Participants described having problems ranging from long-distance communication issues to behavioural changes in children that included drug and alcohol abuse. 

Many problems arose after my husband left,” a female respondent from Baitadi said. “It became difficult for us to understand each other’s situations. I couldn’t see my husband’s pain, and he couldn’t see mine.”

The study looked at how society perceives women whose husbands work abroad, and leave them to care for in-laws and extended families. 

Many female spouses developed mental health issues triggered by abuse from in-laws and the community at large, and in some cases sexually assaulted by family members. Wives of workers back in Nepal were disproportionately judged and criticised by the community. 

My neighbour lives with her in-laws, but the house isn’t safe for her,” a female participant tells interviewers. “Six years since her husband left many unpleasant things have happened to her. Her brother-in-law raped her, but no one has spoken out or helped her.”

In cases where it was the woman who migrated for work, household chores like cooking, cleaning, and washing, and caretaking were found to have been deferred to other women in the household, although some men said that they had assumed those responsibilities following their wives’ departure. 

I have a lot of things I need to do now,” said a male respondent whose wife is overseas. “When my wife was here, I never had to clean or mop the house. I do all that by myself now. I also wash clothes and take care of my parents.”

Nearly 90% of families used remittance sent from abroad for household expenses, 81.2% to pay off loans, and only 15.3% responded that they put some money aside as savings.

Read also: Mindful of migrants’ mental health, Upasana khadka

The report has recommendations for the local governments: local-level record collection of people going for foreign employment,  financial literacy and skills training for the foreign labour force, social reintegration of migrant returnees and the use of knowledge, skills and entrepreneurship gained from foreign employment.

Most local governments maintained information on migrants overseas, but the data collection process was neither uniform nor standardised.

Unfortunately, we do not know a whole lot about current migrants,” the chief of Jhapa’s Gaurigunj Rural Municipality said in their interview. “We want to get details regarding where migrants want to go, skills they gain before migrating, and which recruitment agencies they use and why. If we can collect such data … we can ensure safer migration.’

The report highlights struggles that returnees face in Nepal in the absence of proper opportunities, incentives, or infrastructure to engage in the workforce. So it is not a surprise that they re-migrate despite having faced hardships on previous stints overseas. 

Respondents cited ‘discrepancies in salary payment’ (61.5%), ‘unable to do anything after returning’ (41.3%), ‘skill acquired is not useful in the returning country’ (39.4%) and the ‘need to start from zero’ (37.4%) as reasons to re-migrate.  

Among the respondents who were returnees, 36% were involved in agriculture, 20% in sales and service, and 5% were unemployed.  

The report concludes on a solemn note: ‘For most Nepalis, foreign employment is a compulsion rather than a desire… to meet the financial requirements but also the improvement in the overall livelihood.’

Research Studies on Labour Migration in Nepal 2022

by Blitz Media 

2022

314 pages 

Pokhara Airport ready for take off

All photos: SANJAYA RANABHAT

Nepal’s government decided to finally begin operation of the much-delayed Pokhara International Airport from 1 January 2023. 

With an investment of Rs22 billion, 98% of the airport work that was undertaken by China’s CAMC Engineering has been completed. The airport has bays for 4 mid-size airliners with 2 airbridges, parking for 8 turboprops and a maintenance hangar.

, The airport is set to connect the scenic tourism hub to Nepal’s regional capitals without travellers having to fly to Kathmandu first.

Reducing the height of a hill on the eastern approach to the runway, relocating a garbage landfill site to reduce risk of bird strikes, and building a retaining wall to protect the airport from river erosion is not yet complete. 

The project had previously been delayed by decades of bureaucratic hurdles, local opposition, corruption, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The airport is Nepal’s third international aviation getaway after Kathmandu and Bhairawa.

In May, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba inaugurated Lumbini’s Gautam Buddha International Airport with the arrival of a Jazeera Airways flight from Kuwait City.

Days later, Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered the government to scrap all decisions taken thus far to build another new international airport in Nijgad, 80km south of Kathmandu, citing an amateurish Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) that ignored the ecological cost of the $3.5 billion project.

Foreign employment revival

The Covid pandemic had a major impact on Nepal’s economic mainstay, overseas employment. Those stuck abroad in 2020 were unable to return to Nepal, even when they lost their jobs. Migrant workers in Nepal could not resume or start overseas employment. Many chose to stay on and hold on to jobs, even when wages and work hours were not ideal. 

Laid-off workers did return home en masse, only to find that lofty promises of reintegration were just that: promises. Despite all this, remittances defied predictions.

In 2021, jobs abroad started reopening, even though migrants faced complicated, costly and confusing requirements related to vaccines and quarantines.

A year on, foreign employment has not just recovered but surpassed pre-pandemic levels. More than 630,000 Nepalis left for overseas jobs in the last fiscal year — a huge jump in labour approvals from 166,698 in 2021, and 368,433 in 2020. 

Read also: No country for young men, Shristi Karki

Nearly 78% of the permits so far this year were for just three countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. And only 8% of them were obtained by female workers. The revival of overseas labour also brings relief to recruitment agencies whose business had been adversely impacted over the last two years.

Under the Korea Employment Permit Scheme and Israel caregiver G2G workers underwent gruelling test and selection processes, but were unable to leave and were stranded for years. But by now, and estimated 6,000 of the 10,000 Nepalis have started EPS related employment in South Korea.  

Demand for jobs in Malaysia has also rebounded, and recruiters say it is difficult to find seats on flights out, and fares are expensive. 

A majority of Nepali workers continue to pay high fees for placements, but there are a few ethical recruitment initiatives that do not charge any fees. Recruiters attribute this to some multinationals in Malaysia have come under global scrutiny, and faced export bans due to evidence of forced labour conditions, including high recruitment fees. 

Read also: Painting a bright future, Nepali Times

Nepal has also announced that it will allow recruitment of workers for short-term contracts in Qatar provided the employer bears all the costs of recruitment. The labour approval process in Nepal requires that workers have a contract of at least 2 years, but given the surge in demand for hospitality workers in Qatar for the World Cup the government has made an exception. 

Other countries like the UK have also been spotlighted for high recruitment fees paid by Nepali workers in seasonal agriculture jobs. Despite that, employment in Britain is highly prized by Nepali workers who are applying in large numbers as that country faces a severe labour shortage. 

Despite the revival of foreign employment after the pandemic, there is poor implementation of Nepal’s policy on reintegration of returning workers due to government apathy. The newly issued reintegration guideline prioritises economic reintegration support in both wage- and self-employment while also prioritising a range of social reintegration support including psychosocial counselling for those who need it. 

Read also: The Days of International Migration, Editorial

With the World Cup in Qatar set to start in November, there are also some employers in the hospitality industry hiring workers at zero fees. High profile projects overseas with reputational and financial risks have created a demand for ethical sourcing. 

Despite delays, the directive is a much needed step in the right direction. But as we have stressed before in this space, the real test lies in its implementation. 

The most tragic cases of returning workers are those who die overseas, and are flown back to Kathmandu airport in coffins on the very flights that are taking more migrants abroad. There were 1,242 deaths of migrant workers overseas in the last fiscal year, with most of those families receiving financial compensation from the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund.  

The actual number of deaths is probably higher given that this is only a tally of the families that received financial compensation for which valid labour approvals are required. The highest fatalities of Nepali workers in the past year were in Saudi Arabia (362), Malaysia (280), Qatar (239) and the UAE (208). 

According to government records, the most common cause of death were chronic disease (427), suicide (140), traffic accidents (119), cardiac arrest (104) and ‘natural’ deaths (171). Many of these deaths go uncompensated by foreign employers, and many unexplained fatalities are seldom properly investigated. 

This remains a dark reality of Nepal’s overseas employment story, and many of these deaths were probably preventable. But as we have previously reported, Nepalis are dying abroad but also dying to work abroad. And therein lies our conundrum. 

Read also: Rights referees blow whistle on World Cup fouls, Kunda Dixit

Echoes of myth and monument

Photos: ROSHAN MISHRA

Among the many legends about the Boudhanath Stupa, one involves a poor poultry keeper Jhazima and the buffalo skin.

Boudhanatha is in fact the Sanskritised Panchayat-era renaming of the chaitya which was originally called Khasti Mahachaitya (‘great stupa of the dew drops’). However, the chaitya had another name too according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition –– the Great Jarung Kashor (‘Let it be done, Slip of the tongue’) Stupa.

Many years before the birth of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Jhazima, lived with her four sons in the village where Boudha sits today. After the demise of the Kasyapa Buddha, she petitioned the king to grant her land the size of a buffalo’s skin to build a stupa and inter the Buddha’s remains. The king, thinking it would be a measly piece of land, gave her permission.

Illustration: DESMOND DOIG

However, Jhazima carefully cut the buffalo skin in a long strip, like a rope, and circumscribed a larger area – where the great Boudhanath Stupa stands today. 

This symbol of devotion quickly took on a political significance, as the wealthy people of the country were humbled by Jhazima’s faithful act.

If a poor woman like her can build a stupa of such magnificence, they thought, they would have to build shrines equal to the mountains.

“Stop the building,” they implored the king: “If this construction continues, then each and every one of us will be harshly criticised.”

But the king would not hear of it. “This poor, single poultry-woman, through gathering earnings from raising chickens, established her four sons born of four fathers as respectable householders. Not only that, with her remaining wealth she builds a stupa such as this. I thought this to be truly amazing, and so the words ‘Let it be done’ (jarung) slipped from my tongue (kashor). Kings speak but once!” he said in response.

Boudhanath in a photo taken in the 1940s. The Chaitya is the white dome, almost like a dewdrop, seen in the distance. Photo: OLD PHOTOS OF NEPAL.

This charming and extraordinary story is the subject of Object in Focus #5: Invocation at the Taragaon Museum situated next door to Boudhnath itself by contemporary visual artists Koka Vashakidze from Georgia and Alicia Junissaliyeva from Kazakhstan and curated by Roshan Mishra.

At the centre of the room is a dark-coloured rope-like object spiraling – almost like a dizzying solar system, with what looks like a vague triangle standing in for the Sun – and surrounded by a rectangle of red ropes. 

But as one walks around, observes the work with an unfaltering gaze, the circle of the base quickly stands out. Then, with a little change in the angle, one can imagine a dome rising from it, followed by the ever-watching eyes and the finial.

Here is the Boudhanath Stupa, translated, stripped down to its backbone – an abstraction. Like a cosmic bridge, it brings together the myth and the monument, looking both ways into the past and present.  

All this may not be entirely conspicuous at first, but when one realises that the whorl is in fact real buffalo skin, the pieces fall in place. The rectangle outlines the block of land upon which the Mandala sits today. Take a step back outside the building and the doors represent the streets opening around the complex.

The artists spent several weeks in Boudhanath, measuring the circumference of the stupa. Since animal skin is not permitted inside, they used the red rope for the purpose. People would come and watch them at work, perhaps wondering what they were up to. But the story of Jhazima, Vashakidze believes, was one of undefeated courage and creativity.

Jhazima defied expectation, says Vashakidze. And instead of just putting the skin on the ground, she cut it in narrow strips to cover more area, demonstrating her boundless imagination. “And the king in the end has to say, ‘No, she has to continue making the stupa’,” he adds.

Vashakidze, whose extensive contemporary body of work ranges from site-specific pieces to media installations, sees this as the moment when the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, are equal – because one woman with devotion for the Buddha stood up against the system and built an unprecedented monument, anticipating perhaps even the Shakyamuni. 

The artwork, in this sense, is an invocation to memory, to history and to Jhazima. Along with Junissaliyeva’s experience in healing and energy exploration, the trio of the artists and curator Mishra has created a poignant piece that is equally contemplative and dramatic, reminding us that despite the overwhelming restrictions – political, social, professional – and widespread philosophical, spiritual lethargy around us, we can still create what we want to, for the realm of possibility is boundless.

Says Mishra: “I think it is a brilliant notion to sit with one object, one narrative.” This has much to do with the fact that the viewers can spend time with this echo from the past under an extended spell. 

Leaving the exhibition, one is filled with a striking desire to visit the Boudhanath Stupa, where the remains of Kasyapa Buddha are believed to be entombed, to compare, to recall. There too, prayers and invocations from all around bounce off the white dome and fill the air with sweet music, as though the voices of good will have never ceased and promise to echo into the future – in the same way that Object in focus #5: Invocation is an echo itself, of the enduring legacy of Jhazima.

 

The artwork will also travel to the Tbilisi Triennial in Georgia in October 2022.

Object in focus #5: Invocation

By Koka Vashakidze and Alicia Junissaliyeva

Curated by Roshan Mishra

Taragaon Museum,

Boudha

Open 10:00am – 5:00pm

Till 18 August 2022.

The Chiuri Boys of Makwanpur

Photos: BHADRA SHARMA

Aryan Praja grew up hearing stories about the versatile chiuri tree that provided his Chepang community with food, honey, medicine, and was an intrinsic part of the culture.

Paja’s village of Raksirang north of the East-West Highway in the densely-forested mountains of Makwanpur district once used to be covered by the Indian Butter Tree. Today, not much is left of the chiuri and with it the unique culture, cuisine and livelihood of the Chepang people.

“Our parents and grandparents told us about the value of chiuri but we neglected it, and moved away from our culture. My generation knows little to nothing about the trees,” says 26-year-old Praja, who then took it upon himself to save what was left of the all-purpose trees.

Little did Praja realise what he was getting into. He tried to mobilise young Chepang like himself, and lobbied with the elders. But saving the tree was not a priority for a people marginalised and neglected by the state for so long that survival from day to day was a hurdle.

Education, roads and migration were eroding the Chepang’s semi-nomadic way of life. The climate crisis brought more intense floods, landslides and lightning, making the lives of villagers even more precarious.

Aryan Praja and his young activist friends were ridiculed time and again by their peers for trying to save the trees when there are much more pressing concerns like finding jobs abroad or applying to colleges.

Fortuitously, three years ago Praja attended a program on chiuri organised by the non-profit National Forum for Advocacy Nepal (NAFAN). Finally he came across like-minded people who understood the importance of saving the endangered tree and the culture it represented. Their activism won the group the moniker ‘Chiuri Boys’, and it has stuck.

Read also: Chepang and their Chiuri, Bhadra Sharma

NAFAN works to improve food security among the upland Chepang and Tamang people across Central Nepal through sustainable community forestry, and is supported by the group Swallows of Finland.

The Chiuri Boys are now registered as the Chepang Chiuri Youth Club and have hundreds of members all over Makwanpur, actively engaging with young Chepang to revive the tree with plantations, door-to-door campaigning and training during its annual Chiuri conference.

The group is working on a video, interviewing elders to document the many uses of the tree — as an antiseptic, the nutritional value of its butter, and its role in honey production and supporting the population of pollinating bats. The video also shows the tree’s use as fuel, fertiliser and organic pesticide.

NAFAN’s Bhola Bhattarai remembers the first time he visited Raksirang five years ago, and being appalled by the depletion of the chiuri, and how it had changed the lives of the Chepang households for the worse.

“Back then, I knew that if we are to garner positive response moving forward we need to take the ecology and economy side by side,” recalls Bhattarai, explaining how reviving beekeeping was a way to bring the chiuri culture back.

He lists the factors that led to the disappearance of chiuri trees: the Chepang’s rights to chiuri was being challenged by the government’s opposing forest ownership rules, the advent of modern lifestyles, especially in changing food habits.

The erosion of the cultural values of the Chepang, and the very association of chiuri with the community’s impoverished status did not help matters.

NAFAN is now working with the Nepal Chepang Association to change the government’s policy of turning the former slash-and-burn range of the Chepang into leasehold forests. They want the land to be formally handed over to the Chepang for protection and livelihood, and in the process bring back the chiuri.

Also tied up with the importance of the chiuri tree is the revival of the Nwagi festival that has been in decline since so many Chepang have converted to Christianity. 

Restoring chiuri has also made locals realise the significance of traditional food items like githa, bhyakur, and tarul that are also a part of Chepang identity. There is a need to remove the association of those foods with poverty and ‘backwardness’.

The revival of Chepang culture, tradition, language and local products has gone hand-in-hand with initiatives to start homestays that will offer a unique experience to tourists and generate income.

“Chiuri conservation has had a cascading impact here. The younger generation is now better-informed and identifies with our culture and tradition,” says Kamana Praja, 22, a social mobiliser in Raksirang.

“This has motivated us to conduct informal traditional classes where we have students ranging from 2-20 years,” she adds.

News about The Chiuri Boys of Rasksirang has now spread to surrounding districts. Aryan Praja and his team are being invited to villages in Chitwan and Gorkha to launch similar activities to revive the Chepang ties with the land.

Says Aryan Praja: “Some people still don’t understand why we are prioritising chiuri and do not heed our request. Change takes time but every day we are gaining new believers, making our efforts worthwhile.” 

Read more: What’s the buzz, Sonia Awale

Small Bites into big issues

Photo: UNICEF NEPAL

When Tina Moffat returned to Nepal in 2019 after two decades, she was shocked.

 It was not the sight of gleaming shopping malls towering above roads widened to the size of boulevards, where thousands of new vehicles jockeyed for space. It was the sheer number of overweight and obese Nepali children she noticed.

‘This was not something I ever saw in Kathmandu in the 1990s,’ writes Moffat, associate professor of anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. Her research at the end of the 20thcentury focused on children in the families of carpet weavers living on the outskirts of the capital. Since then her academic interest has broadened to include how children worldwide are fed, which is reflected in her new book, Small bites: Biocultural dimensions of children’s food and nutrition

In the first two decades of the 2000s Nepal has made some remarkable advances including a leap forward in nutrition. The country saw the world’s fastest decline in the rate of child stunting (low height for age) from 2001 to 2011 — from 56.6% to 40.6%.

Read also: Junk food is making Nepali children shorter, Marty  Logan

Yet as Moffat saw, less than 10 years later Nepal was facing what is called the ‘double burden of malnutrition’: both undernutrition — stunting and wasting (low weight for age) which remains a serious issue — and overnutrition, or overweight and obesity.

Small Bites is an attempt to explain how in the third decade of the 21stcentury, when having enough food is generally no longer a widespread concern, but it is food quality and the system that delivers food to children are themselves sources of health risks. The book was written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting food shortages. 

Moffat lays out her approach clearly at the start: ‘…children’s food and nutrition cannot be understood in isolation from larger understandings of food, environmental, social, cultural, political and economic systems. Contemporary nutrition problems such as child obesity and undernutrition must be addressed as societal issues that are linked to current problems with the industrial food system as well as social inequities that are embedded in the global capitalist food system.’

In the course of the short volume (181 pages plus notes) she explores issues including breastfeeding, the cliché of the ‘picky eater’, the food industry’s creation of ‘children’s foods’, child obesity and the role of school meals. Based in Canada, many of Moffat’s reference points are understandably in that country, and in the neighbouring US, but she broadens her scope in discussing topics including malnutrition. 

Read also: Thought for food, Marty  Logan

Having recently spent a couple of months looking into Nepal’s school meal program I was especially interested in her description of such initiatives in France and Japan. Although different in delivery (in Japan meals are compulsory for students and teachers for example, while in France about two-thirds of students have at least one lunch per week at school) both are ‘excellent models’ for other countries to follow because they go beyond simply feeding children to exposing them to their food cultures: not only what foods to eat but how to eat them and why they are eaten a certain way. 

Moffat describes being served a typical school lunch in Japan: ‘I picked up a tray, and then a student served pan-fried mackerel on one side of the plate and mixed steamed vegetables with ham on the other before placing it on my tray. Next a bowl of rice was placed on the bottom left of my tray, followed by a bowl of miso soup on the bottom right. Finally, the teacher directed that I place chopsticks on my tray between the rice and the miso, and milk at the top right.’

The food looked better than it tasted, reports Moffat, but the bigger point is that ‘food is very dear to the national culture and heritage’ of both Japan and France. Both countries feel threatened by the global spread of American fast food, and have passed laws to strengthen school feeding.

Nepal has invested heavily in its diya khaja program in recent years and by 2024 is planning to take full control of school feeding in all 77 districts from the World Food Programme (WFP). This includes developing a variety of nutritional menus that reflect regional tastes. But the program lacks guidelines to show the way for the thousands of local officials who have direct responsibility for feeding students.

Read also: Growing appetite for school lunches, Marty Logan

If child obesity is often seen to symbolise all that is broken with our food systems, Moffat cautions about labelling it an epidemic. One risk is that by focusing on individuals we overlook structural issues.

‘For example, the industrial food system prioritizes cheap, fast and processed food, leaving a significant proportion of the world’s population to live with food insecurity and/or time constraints that necessitate the consumption of nutrient-poor and energy-dense food,’ she writes.

Another reason to avoid alarmist approaches is that the fear of being obese can trigger mental illness in children. I was surprised to learn that anorexia nervosa, known as a Western illness but increasing in Asia, is ‘the mental illness with the highest incidence of mortality, and survivors may experience long-term health issues such as heart disease and osteoporosis’.

Given the breadth of the issues Moffat tackles in Small Bites, it is not surprising that she does not propose a single remedy to improve children’s feeding and nutrition. Her suggestions are broad-based, from governments taxing junk foods and ensuring people have enough income to eat healthy, to communities growing and eating their foods together.

On the menu for those local meals, says Moffat, should be discussions of how to reform the systems that too often neglect children’s health. 

Small bites: Biocultural dimensions of children’s food and nutrition. 

by Tina Moffat

UBC Press, 2022

$89.95 (hard cover),

$32.95 (soft cover – to be released on 15 November 2022)

230 pages

ISBN 9780774866880

Civil-Military synergy in disaster management

Efficient collaboration between civilian agencies, humanitarian groups and the security forces can make disaster responsemore effective. But while the military has a strong control and command culture, the civilian humanitarian outfits are less well organised.

Yet, there are examples of these two agencies which have diametrically opposing ways of working successfully coming together at crucial times. 

In March 2020, the Nepal government established a Covid-19 Crisis Management Center (CCMC) to coordinate pandemic response, launched also at the provincial and district level. The CCMC, under civilian authority, together with different ministries, the Nepal Army (NA), the Nepal Police (NP), and the Armed Police Force (APF), coordinated the control, containment, and management of Covid-19. 

When Nepal went into multiple lockdowns, most services also came to a halt and it was the security forces that managed migrant returnees, established isolation centres and ensured the disposal of dead bodies. They were also transporting Covid-19 patients from the Nepal-India border to hospitals and quarantine sites.  

On 31 March 2019, a powerful storm hit Bara and Parsa districts in Madhes Province, killing more than 20 people and injuring over 700. Immediately after the disaster, the NA, APF and NP deployed search and rescue teams. 

They worked with locals to search for victims and prevent further damage from fire, and also delivered relief support as well. In addition, the government tasked the Army to rebuild 869 damaged houses, which was accomplished on time.

Traditionally, communities managed disasters on their own. But in recent times, with the increase in disasters, the government, military actors, and other stakeholders have necessarily had to coordinate response.

Locals and security forces are often the first responders when a disaster strikes and the capability of the army and police is very crucial. Oftentimes, the government seeks international assistance, including support and deployment of foreign military forces during large-scale disasters like the 2015 earthquake.

But if we are to make humanitarian response more effective and timely, it is the capacity of Nepal’s own security apparatus that should be well-mobilised, trained and ready.  Coordination and partnership with security forces also make life-saving interventions transparent as they always follow command, control and coordination concepts.  

According to the UN CMCoord Field Handbook, civil-military humanitarian coordination deals with all aspects of civil-military interaction to harmonise activities and promote humanitarian principles.

Coordination of operational activities, cooperation with the use of assets, and sharing of ground information can foster more effective civil-military humanitarian coordination. This can be achieved with regular interaction, joint planning, and task division.

It is the shared responsibility of civilian and military actors to work towards coherent and consistent humanitarian action. But there are different reasons and ways to collect information. 

“As search and rescue workers, security forces are the ones who are deployed immediately after a disaster so they have enough information within the first 72 hours which the humanitarians can access to fill the gap in defining the scope of work and mobilising the lives-saving resources,” says Krishna Karki, coordinator of a women humanitarian platform. 

This can create synergies between civilian groups and the security forces. Better coordination can expand the understanding and establish interaction leading to information exchange. In addition, regular interaction can facilitate a good understanding of each other’s working culture and procedures for future disasters too.

Similarly, joint planning between the civilian and security forces can make humanitarian assistance programs more efficient. In principled humanitarian assistance, the role of security forces is sought in indirect assistance such as logistics– the transportation of relief items and humanitarian personnel and infrastructure support such as repairing damaged roads. 

For example, in 2021, the Nepal Army rebuilt a collapsed bridge in Melamchi. Military actors get involved only as a last resort to direct assistance, such as the distribution of relief items. 

“To optimise the benefit of limited resources, joint planning between civilian, humanitarian and military actors has to be impactful,” says civil-military expert Col (Retired) Ratindra Khatri. “The civilian authority and agencies, researchers, private sector, humanitarian partners and security forces should collaborate and come together for a common goal of dealing with the impact of disasters.”

In far-flung and remote areas of Nepal, logistics is the most challenging aspect post-disaster where military assets such as airlift capacity become crucial. For example, in the 2009 Jajarkot diarrhea outbreak, Nepal Army medical teams and air assets were deployed in containing the disease. 

To ensure consistency in coordination and increase the efficacy of available resources, civilian agencies and military need to agree on task division too to avoid duplication and waste. 

The 2015 Nepal earthquake and response to other recurring natural disasters have provided a historical basis for robust civil-military humanitarian coordination. Being a country prone to multiple hazards, we have to build on past experience and further strengthen coordination and preparedness. 

Next time a major earthquake, flood or landslide strikes any part of the country, a clearly defined and agreed-upon framework can facilitate structured and efficient deployment of search, rescue and relief. Interaction, information sharing and task division between the civilian authority, humanitarian actors and security forces must work seamlessly together. 

Prem Awasthi has over 15 years of experience in humanitarian coordination with the UN. 

Read more: A disaster resilient Nepal is possible,  Anil Pokhrel