The Singularity of Nepal

Nepal, as Kunda Dixit told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Wednesday evening, is a singularity among countries – and a country not often discussed at the Council. Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times in Kathmandu, gave a brief overview of the turbulence and violence of the past two decades that has left Nepal, nestled in the Himalayas, impoverished and politically fractured.

A monarchy for two centuries, the government was faced with a violent Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006 that cost 17,000 lives. In the midst of this war, in 2001 the Crown Prince shot the King and Queen and seven other members of the royal family in the Palace before killing himself in “a massacre that you would not even see in a Shakespearean drama”. India stepped in to mediate an end to the war, which opened the way for elections in 2008. The Maoists won, and their first act was to abolish the monarchy completely. Dixit visited the new prime minister who kept portraits of Marx, Mao and Stalin in his office. (Explaining the image of Stalin, the prime minister conceded he had “made some mistakes”, but added “he did defeat fascism.”) A second set of elections last month went against the Maoists, but Dixit foresees more political instability in the coming years, which will in turn slow down economic development – “I am a short term pessimist, but a long term optimist.”

Kunda Dixit points out pivotal stories taking place in his country in a copy of the Nepali Times to students attending Wednesday night's event.

Nepal is a mountainous landscape – a “staircase to the sky” - with eight of the ten highest peaks in the world including Everest. “We joke that in our country there are six directions – north, south, east, west, up and down”. It has more hydroelectric power potential per capita than anywhere except Brazil, but because of the past 20 years of political instability there has yet to be any concerted development of hydropower, which could be sold profitably to neighboring India, whose economic development is plagued with power shortages. Nepal, in fact, is one of the poorest countries in the world with per capita GDP of $750 – its single biggest source of income is from remittances from its overseas workers, many in the Gulf. 18% of the Nepali population works overseas.

The second big income earner for Nepal is tourism, hill trekking and mountain climbing. Everest can be “bagged” in exchange for a fee of $60,000, for which even climbers with little experience can be escorted to the top by a team of sherpas carrying oxygen tanks, tents, food etc. This is a lucrative business – the sherpas who live around the Everest area have a standard of living that is five times the national average.

Nepal maintains good relations with its two large neighbors, China and India, and continues to send Gurkhas to fight in the British Army. Ironically, Dixit pointed out, the first Nepali Gurkhas to die for the British were in the 1847 Afghan campaign – and now again today Gurkhas are dying with the British Army in Helmand province in Afghanistan. It can be hard to escape from history.