Print Edition - 2017-05-28  |  Free the Words

Masses on the move

  • Nepal may join many external initiatives, but without stability and empowerment, it will continue to flounder
- Pramod Mishra

May 28, 2017-I am at the Doha International Airport beginning this piece during my 10-hour transit. Qatar Airways brought me here from Chicago after a direct flight that was 13 hours long. The flight travelled over Greenland, Helsinki, Moscow and the Caspian Sea. I am sure it flew over some trouble spots on the Arabian peninsula that are now plagued by religious and ethnic strife. The globally savvy and ambitious 18-member crew on the airplane were from resource strapped places in Asia, Africa and Europe. They were of different hues and from different countries— from Thailand to the Philippines to various African nations.

When the plane landed, a young Filipino woman guided me to the transit desk, a young Indian man showed me to the immigration line and a young Nepali man loaded my carry-on bag through the customs and security scanners. The only Qataris I encountered were the glum immigration and customs processors, who hardly spoke and did not show any signs of friendliness, and men who were clad in white from head to foot and shopping in the City Centre Mall. The driver who took me to the downtown hotel 30-minutes away was an Indian Muslim who was listening to Quranic verses; the driver who picked me up from the City Center Mall was a Bangladeshi and the one who took me back to the airport was from Kerala. The man who checked me into the hotel was from Egypt and the woman who showed me my room spoke English with a heavy Slavic accent.  

Belt and Road Initiative

All these encounters with numerous accents and nationalities in a culturally restrictive but commercially thriving country made me reflect on the recent initiatives and developments in the region. I reflected especially on the colossal Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a most recent—albeit mega—copy of the petroleum-rich Arabian countries’ frantic development initiatives in the recent past, and a commerce copy of Euro-American initiatives of the past several hundred years that some consider acts of modernism and others a form of colonialism.

Nepal has just signed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and so have many nation-states in South and South East Asia, but India has refused to do so citing problems in the concept itself.  What does all this mean for Nepal’s participation in the BRI? Globally,

people from impoverished regions—whether in Asia, Europe or Africa—are on the move to well-paying regions as skilled professionals and unskilled migrant labour force. And corporations and their moneyed investors and executives from wealthy economies are spreading to exploit regions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This movement is reminiscent of the gold rush in the United States or the diamond rush in South Africa in earlier times.

Is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Marxist concept of ‘biopower’ about the masses on the move, going to turn the capitalist world system upside down? Or will capitalism triumph and dominate? Here at home, China’s non-western push is of a scale not witnessed since the European expansion during the last 500 years. Will this move to establish a massive infrastructure network of communication and transportation through multiple regions and countries in Asia, Africa and Europe enrich or impoverish the participating countries? As was documented during the American version of globalisation, and the European version where the national boundaries were loosened through the empire, the educated and the skilled benefitted from these massive economic initiatives whereas the rooted, unskilled and unprepared got the short end of the stick.

What happened to the people in the rural farmlands of America that propelled Donald Trump to the post of president as the ‘superman fixer’ of all problems could happen to countries like Nepal. This could happen if the roads and communication networks that are built neither benefit the Nepali workforce, nor export goods manufactured in Nepal. Nepal could possibly only remain a dumping ground for cheap, overproduced Chinese trinkets. While this scenario may not be exactly like colonialism, which had broader political, cultural, military and economic ramifications, colonialism too established widespread transportation and communication networks. Colonialism made colonies the markets for European goods, stifling and killing local industries. Nepal may escape from its dependence on India, but will dependence on Chinese goods shore up its economy, offer mass scale employment for its ever increasing young population and help establish its own climate-suitable sustainable commerce and industries?  

Mutually interdependent

This is when the highly commercialised hub of the Saudi peninsula, where people have flocked from near and far, becomes instructive. Native Saudis, Qataris, etc have become government officials and top executives while outsiders have designed and built their cities and have run these cities and the economy. To be a little uncharitable, one can even quote VS Naipaul’s pejorative term for the Caribbean, these places show signs of “half-made societies,” that import goods for survival and luxurious living but do not know how to make them, whose people know how to use cell phones and the internet but do not know how to make them or innovate technologies.

But there is a difference between a country like Nepal and the larger petrodollar countries of the Middle East or even the Tiger economies of South East Asia.  Nepal has neither the equivalent of petroleum nor the similar cultural conservatism to protect its people and cultures. Nor does it have decades of already established skilled workforce and a thriving economy. In the absence of indigenous economic production and hard-core cultural confidence that comes with conservatism and orthodoxy, what will happen to its people and cultures?  

Will Nepalis turn into mere consumers of cheap Chinese goods from the north that will arrive through a network of roads and train tracks and Indian soap operas and Bollywood flicks from the south that have been arriving over the airwaves? Or religions that many Hindu ideologues fear? What does Nepal have to do in order to operate from a position of strength as a participant in the BRI and build a relationship with India culturally on respectable terms? Or learn and benefit from Christianity’s many noble messages without relinquishing their ancestors’ belief system as inferior?

Political stability and cultural empowerment of its various communities can play a crucial role here. But political stability and cultural empowerment are mutually interdependent; one cannot be possible without the other. True economic empowerment of Nepalis all over the country—and not just of the entitled few concentrated in Kathmandu and major towns—cannot happen without both political stability and cultural empowerment.  

So, Nepal may sign any number of external initiatives and treaties, but without internal stability and empowerment, the country will continue to flounder, always losing precious energy in the debate whether it possesses full sovereignty or is at a risk of dissolution and disappearance—real or imagined. 

Published: 28-05-2017 08:04

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