Saturday, April 30, 2016

About Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs)

[This piece is based on a recent interview of Dr. Sesh Ghale, President, Non-Resident Nepalis Association (NRNA) on Sagarmatha Television by prominent telejournalist, Mr. Jibram Bhandari.]

It was inspiring to listen to Dr. Ghale's quiet succinct answers to the probing questions posed by Jibramji. Dr. Ghale, one of the ten richest men in Australia, a Russia-trained engineer who started his working life in the Nepali government's Road Department, is in the process of building a 5-star hotel in Kathmandu. He stated frankly that most investors would have cut their losses and left after last year's earthquake, the Madhesi/India blockade and the general lack of investment incentives from the government. But he wants to give back something to his motherland, so he continued.

Excluding those in India, there are more than 4 million Nepalis working abroad, in Malaysia and the Middle East (Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, etc.). NRNA's membership is only 50,000 and efforts are being made to increase this. It was apparent that there are NRN associations in various countries who shy away from placing themselves under the NRNA umbrella. The remittance sent home by the workers in Malaysia and the Middle East account for 50% of Nepal's GDP. The government has yet to take the lead in assisting these workers, mostly menial labourers and security guards, with issues such as insurance and training. Dr. Ghale emphasized that this is the government's responsibility, not NRNA's. Far too many instances exist where there is a confrontational relationship between workers and the Nepali Embassies in their country of work.

To the question regarding what is the main bottle-neck to foreign/NRN investment, Dr. Ghale categorically said that a major disincentive is the bureaucracy. To another question asking his opinion on a common view that NRNs spend their productive years abroad and come home "to die" so why should they get any benefits, the answer was interesting. The vast majority of NRNs who retire here are quite well off and do not seek any local benefits. On the contrary, they can contribute expertise and even finances towards development. So any hostility towards them is quite misplaced.

Another issue covered was the young retirement age of civil/government servants in Nepal. In
Australia, it seems they work even up to 70 years of age as long as they are able and can contribute.

As regards post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, NRNA has allocated Rupees 4,20,00000/- (USD approx. 400,000) towards the construction of 1,000 houses in Laprak, near the epicenter of the quake, to make it a model village.

The issue of dual citizenship for NRNs was only briefly touched upon. If I heard correctly, NRNA is not pushing for this at this time. Nepal does not yet allow dual citizenship. A child usually takes on the citizenship of the father, whether Nepali or expatriate. This has forced many single women, whose foreign husband/partner have left them, to raise children without citizenship. On the other hand, I understand dual citizenship would create a flood of new citizens along the southern border with Nepali/Indian nationalities - a political quagmire. I wish the dual citizenship issue was dealt with more thoroughly in the interview.

On the whole I laud both interviewee and interviewer for an informative as well as inspirational, given Dr. Ghale's life story, interview.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Little Angel

I thought I'd feel older when I became a grandfather. I could not have been more off the mark. My granddaughter was pretty much a stranger to me during the initial months, as breastfeeding and nappy changing are not my forte'.  But now that she is almost two, I can only describe her and our relationship as - Bliss! She epitomizes what family bonds mean. Her innocence is something to admire, having lost mine in so many ways. Her speech is pure and sweet as the nightingale's. Watching her toddle around is to marvel at the innate balance we have. Let me now restrain myself before I break out into poetry. I do wish I could kick a ball around with her, but her interest in football has not emerged yet. I do dream of a time when she can play for the Nepali or the US national women's team, presuming she will have dual nationality by then. The other sport I can play, tennis, will have to wait maybe two more years before I can take her out to the courts. This time, I will dispose her in the hands of a professional coach; I tried teaching my daughter, her mother, with unexpected results! Perhaps some day she will play tennis with the grace of a Sharapova, minus the grunts, the power of a Serena and the internal strength of a Hingis.

Wishing her Good Morning makes my day. She comes with me to blow out the candle I have burning most of the time, a personal oddity. I help her blow out the flame and then she's good to go for the day, meeting uncles and aunts next-doors and frolicking in the garden. Her outdoorsyness more than balances my generally reclusive indoor life. After her oil massage and bath she comes in her dress, already chosen by herself, with a black mascara 'Tika' on her forehead. The Tika looks good, though its main purpose as per local urban legend is to ward off the 'evil eye'. I can hear her talking and shouting, very rarely crying, through the day as she keeps the house lively while I lead my quiet retired life.

I was with her, in the third floor of the house, on that fateful day last year when the earthquake visited. Huddled together with her nanny, she screaming all the while, we rode out the shaking and the humming until it was safe to run down the stairs. It was a blessing that she bore no trauma, maybe because she was only ten months old and too young.

My mention above of "family bond" is not light. A premature retirement from the UN meant returning home; I had never given a thought to retiring anywhere else though there were choices. The extended family and old friends drew me, without hesitation, to Nepal. Eight years later, despite disappointments when one idealizes too much, I have no regrets. My daughter and son-in-law joining us three years ago, to pursue their career interests here, was simply icing on the cake. The nuclear family, if one can call it that, is complete - the little angel at its head, not me. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

One Year After...contd.

So tomorrow, in the Nepali calendar, and the day after, in the western calendar, is the first anniversary of the "Great Earthquake" of 2015. A quiet sunny Saturday morning brings back memories of that fateful Saurday last year when the quake, which we knew was expected, finally arrived.

Aftershocks still continue though few are near enough to be felt in Kathmandu. Reconstruction of ruined houses continue, for those who can afford it. The rest still huddle in makeshift shelters waiting and hoping for help from the ineffective government. Around 8,700 people lost their lives. Besides loss of lives and property, the survivors have to deal with the more complicated less discernible effects - from the trauma caused by the quake. An expatriate friend returned to his country with his Nepali family due to the trauma retained by his small daughter. Another young boy I know, very independent and free, insisted on sleeping daily with his mother after the quake. I, myself, have pushed the memory of that deadly minute to the depths of my mind; it is quite unnerving to relive. I was lucky that my granddaughter was only 10 months old and too young to have any after-effects. For those who can remember, every loud noise and every ordinary shake of furniture make the spine tingle and the limbs ready to flee.

Mental health services, never strong in Nepal, did try and offer the maximum psychosocial counseling possible in the wake of the quake. I doubt that it made much of a dent. Psychosocial workers were trained, I gather, and sent to offer services to the neediest. I think they were too few and not all of the training were of the required standard. I can but imagine the trauma-stricken children and adults who still walk around with its after-effects - those who suffer the after-shocks in their minds.

The government National Reconstruction Authority was formed belatedly after much political quibbling and remains still a white elephant. If the newspapers are to be believed, the process of assisting the neediest has commenced. Getting about USD 2,000 to those who lost their houses has proven to be a Herculean task. Apparently the residents of the village of Barpak in Gorkha, the epicenter of the quake, have started rebuilding with what little resources they have. As for the 4.1 billion US dollars pledged by the international community post-earthquake, well, I only wish an objective audit would be carried out to see how many of our leaders would have mud on their faces.

Meanwhile, as per the US Geological Survey's probability analysis done last June, there is still an 80% chance of a 5-6M aftershock until 24 June 2016. There is a 1:200 chance of a quake/aftershock stronger than the original 7.9M; let's not even think about that! 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cricket Anyone?

The T20 World Cup is just over followed almost immediately by the Indian Premier League. The West Indies took the World Cup in swashbuckling fashion. Now the eight IPL teams are settling in into their long season, 9 April - 29 May. Though it is an Indian league, it attracts the top players from all over the Test cricket countries and more. The daily matches begin here at 8.15 p.m. And the next three hours are lost in the glorious haze of the battle royale between two teams, focused on a pitch 22 yards long and 10 feet wide.

Eyes focus on the two batsmen across 22 yards of the bowling pitch, the opposing bowler who is essentially out to get the scalps of those batsmen, and a green oval field speckled by ten others of the bowling team. The crowd, especially in cricket-crazed India, gets so loud that the umpires' verdicts are often drowned out by their noise.

Batsmen the likes of Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, David Warner (impossible to include all the stars) walk jauntily to the wickets crease and try and psych out the bowler with their boundaries (4 runs) or sixers. The big hitters hardly go for 1 or 2 runs: they have only 20 overs and they are confident of their hitting prowess. The bowlers, in turn, are the duelists against the batters. The seamers, fast ballers, try and intimidate the batsmen with their speed, often reaching 140+ km.\hr. Their bouncers justify why the batsmen wear helmets similar to that in American football. The spinners, who usually get more wickets (outs) than the seamers are a tricky lot. They make their balls twirl and change directions like magicians. The West Indians, Narine and Badree, are master slow ballers. For me, no fast baller can compare with the panache of the Sri Lankan Malinga, though there are others like the South African Steyn and some Australians who in recent times may have better records.

I root for the Mumbai Indians and not because they are the defending IPL champions. I have been rooting for MI since the IPL began around seven years ago, because Malinga bowled for them and the great Sachin Tendulkar opened their batting. Sachin has retired and Malinga is missing this IPL season with injury; but I stay loyal to MI. They still have batsmen the caliber of Simmons and Rohit Sharma and bowlers led by the veteran 'Bhaji' Singh who can swing a mean bat too.

Interesting how cricket has become internationalized over the years. It was invented in 17th century England and was limited initially to the royal courts. When the sun never set on the British Empire, the game caught hold in the colonies. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa all took up the game with a vengeance. I think it is certainly the most popular game now in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, if not the others. Having lived and worked in India and Pakistan, I caught the cricket fever because in those days, the 1990s, there wasn't much else to watch on TV by way of sports. Viewed Pakistan, with its Captain now turned politician Imran Khan, win the World Cup against England in India. Viewed Sri Lanka, while based in Pakistan, hoist the World Cup at the next World Cup. Cricket is now opening up and a second tier of countries play to qualify for the World Cup; Afhanistan, Netherlands, Scotland, UAE, USA, Zimbabwe - and Nepal too - participate in tournaments to get a chance to play the Big Boys. Afghanistan and Bangladesh had qualified to play in the recent T20 World Cup; the former beat West Indies in the round-robin and the latter lost to India by a single run.

Test cricket, with all players in white and breaking for tea, though still played has given way to One Day Internationals and T20. A test match can last up to five days; in ODIs each team gets to bat 50 overs (300 balls) and usually lasts around six hours; while T20s have 20 overs (120 balls) for each team and lasts, thankfully, about three hours. I have enough patience only to watch T20 Matches and, only when it's the World Cup, ODIs.

Well, it's almost time. Mumbai is playing Kolkota. Gotta go root for MI!

Friday, April 8, 2016

One Year After

Monday, 25th April 2016 marks the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal last year causing almost 19,000 fatalities and massive destruction of property. Much has been written on what has happened and what sadly remains to be done. This is a personal perspective, leaving the other aspects to the pseudo-intelligentsia.

Huddled on the third floor with my 10 months old grand-daughter and her nanny, the shaking and the ominous humming, at around noon that Saturday, seemed to last forever. It did last almost a minute. There was no time to be frightened. Pure self-preservation kicked in, there was no question of running down the staircase; we were thrown off our feet, quickly recovered and went into a rugby-like huddle to keep ourselves stable. We rushed down to the house parking lot as soon as the shaking stopped. Little did we know that countless aftershocks would follow. A sizable crowd of neighbours had gathered in our parking lot since apparently it was the only open space in the vicinity. A neighbour was having a Buddhist ceremony performed, so there were about 20 monks also in the compound. The motley crowd, now numbering more than 50, was in shock especially as the aftershocks came fast and not far in between. Cell phones were not very effective while we tried to reach family members away from home. Texting was slightly better. Soon all family members were safely back home. The Internet was down, but only for a couple of hours. Of course, we immediately disconnected the electricity even though there was none.

It was a relief that the house had not crumbled, though we were to discover numerous cracks later on. The monks left in the afternoon. We were left with around 40 neighbours – children, women and men – who did not want to return to their homes as the aftershocks were continuing. At least we had plenty of bottled water for immediate needs. A building nearby which was rented by many expatriates was damaged beyond occupancy. So we had quite a cosmopolitan crowd of French, German, Italian
and even an Ukranian, besides the majority Nepalis.

As night set in, a light bulb was hooked up to the garage from the solar panels and a connection to recharge cell phones was also readied. The cars were removed  and the majority of our guests spread carpets and settled down for the night under the garage shed. We spent the first night in the car, not daring to use even the ground floor of the house; this continued for a few more nights. Gradually a few neighbours set up tents around the grounds. We were lucky it was not winter or the monsoon season.

We moved back into the ground floor of the house around the third or fourth night. We had neighbours in the front lot for the next month; most had returned home after a few days but returned after the second quake a week later. Food was brought from their homes and cooked in the open. Everyone was surprisingly quite self-sufficient. With the Internet back, we were able to know the
magnitude of the earthquake, 7.9 in the Richter scale, and follow the aftershocks on the US Geological Survey web site. A lot of the conversation focused on that web site to find out the epicenter and how strong the aftershocks were. Soon we settled down to the increasingly less frequent aftershocks. We became impervious to anything less than 5.0M!

We really did not know any of our neighbours before the earthquake. The biggest bonus from the disaster was the sense of community which developed in our neighbourhood. Now we know all our neighbours and how supportive and warm they are. They shared often the delicious Manangi momos (dumplings) they made for dinner. No more looking at surrounding houses with Buddhist banners and thinking how different people are because they come from another part of the country. I had an additional bonus. I did not have to watch the Indian Premier League cricket games alone anymore! We had our morning tea together while looking at the USGS reports Often we had our round of pre-dinner Ruslan (vodka) too to brace ourselves against  any nocturnal  aftershocks!

Another significant result of the quake was the number of queries from friends all over the world who sent emails, messaged on FaceBook or called to check on our safety. It was simply heart-warming. I reconnected with some  friends from college in the US with whom I had lost touch for about 40 years!

Now things are relatively normal. Sleeping late is still not possible because of the drilling and hammering in houses being reconstructed. We have yet to demolish and reconstruct a small portion of our house, that portion being about 150 years old and irrevocably damaged. The seismic energy in the moving fault lines under us has apparently not been spent. So another earthquake, perhaps a stronger one, is expected. When? Nobody can predict earthquakes. They say anything close to a 9.0M will pulverize the city. Meanwhile we feel blessed to be safe and sound. Life goes on as it must.

Let me attempt to sign off with a Haiku:

We huddled in shock
As the earth danced wantonly
Peace now till next time.

Birat K. Simha