Sunday, June 28, 2015

No to torture

This appeared in Republica on June 27, 2015.

On June 26 the world celebrated the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This is the day the world pays respect to torture survivors. Torture is said to be the mother of all human rights violations as it subjects people to the extreme form of indignity. Broken bodies might heal over time but the impressions they leave in the mind are indelible. Since human beings are extremely attached to their bodies any assault to the body haunts the memory for a long time.

Torture is practiced in police custody in Nepal, although with the intervention of rights activists it is on the wane. State mechanisms like Office of the Attorney General and National Human Rights Commission and lawyers from private organizations like Center for Victims of Torture, Advocacy Forum, among others, carry out detention center visits to check.

Generally, torture is employed by the police to extract confessions. Since our criminal investigation system lacks scientific tools to establish criminality, the police rely on confessions of the accused as evidence. Especially in the cases of theft the police are pressured to nab the criminal and recover the stolen property. The police see extracting confessions as the sure-shot way of sealing evidence. Although any confessions obtained from torture are inadmissible as evidence in the court, judges generally accept them.

The practice of torture was widespread during the conflict. Both the security forces and Maoists tortured detainees. The army and the police tortured detainees to have them disclose the location of Maoist rebels. Maoists, on the other hand, tortured those who failed to give extortion money they demanded or those who were suspected to be informers. With the peace agreement, torture has decreased.

There are various instruments to safeguard detainees from torture. The Interim Constitution of Nepal has explicitly prohibited torture. Article 26(1) has provided that “no person who is detained during investigation or for trial or for any other reason shall be subjected to physical or mental torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Besides this, Nepal is party to several international human rights instruments including Convention against Torture. Under Article 2 of this convention state parties are obligated to prevent torture and other ill-treatment and under Article 4 torture is an offense under criminal law.

A separate Act against torture also exists. Torture Compensation Act (1996) provides certain safeguards against torture but legal experts believe they are not adequate. For example, the statutory limit for filing complaints for torture is 35 days. This is not practical as the victim may fear reprisals from perpetrators or may be suffering physical or psychological trauma from torture. S/he should be given enough time to prepare for delivery of justice, possibly six months. However, the bruises from torture might disappear by that period.

The name of the Act itself is problematic. Rather than preventing torture it seems content to compensate torture victims. There is a provision of awarding Rs 100,000 to torture victims but since the state provides it and not the perpetrator. Even if there is a provision of departmental action against the perpetrator in police, this provision is rarely enacted. This has effectively let the perpetrator go scot free. But torture is subject to Universal Jurisdiction and the perpetrator can be nabbed in any part of the world, as seen in Colonel Kumar Lama’s arrest and trial in the UK.

Because of the inadequacy of the existing legal protection, the government has prepared a new bill to address torture. In August 2014 the Ministry of Home Affairs tabled the Torture or Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (Offence and Punishment) Bill in the Parliament. This proposes to criminalize torture, to provide a mechanism for the investigation and prosecution of torture complaints, and compensation to victims. It puts the onus on officers in charge to prevent torture or ill-treatment and sets out a system of receiving complaints and investigation, including the possibility of detaining those under investigation. With the incorporation of these provisions torture in police detentions could be minimized.  

However, with the increase in custody monitoring, the police have started refraining from inflicting visible torture on detainees. According to Advocacy Forum’s latest torture report, the rate of victims reporting physical torture has decreased but psychological torture seems to be on the rise. “Threats against the detainee or the detainee’s family members increasingly are being reported to AF lawyers. These changes in the methods of torture may lead to torture being underreported, either because the detainee does not perceive threats and psychological manipulation as a form of torture, or because of the difficulty inherent in proving that psychological torture has occurred.”

This reflects the global trend in torture. Darius Rijali in his seminal book Torture and Democracy points at this trend in chilling details. In authoritarian countries the state is least worried about human rights activists and justice so that they have no hesitation in leaving scars and bruises on detainees. But democracies have to uphold minimum standard for treatment of detainees and thus resort to psychological torture that is undetected in medical examination.

Rejali observes “a global decline of the scarring techniques that characterized pre-modern torture. The evidence gleaned from human rights reports, truth and reconciliation commission testimonies, and perpetrators’ confessions confirms a shift toward stealth or clean torture.” Nepal Police seems to have adopted this technique. This is more dangerous than physical torture because it can damage the detainee’s psychology in the long term.

To prevent this form of torture, the state has to modernize its criminal investigative system. Standardized forensic practices in crime investigation will reduce the instances of the investigation officer relying on confessions to establish a crime. Similarly, scientific evidence obtained by thorough forensic evaluations can assist the examining authority in investigating, prosecuting and punishing each incident of torture. In the absence of forensic labs, sometimes torture victims can’t corroborate their claims of torture. This should be avoided. 

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Friday, June 26, 2015

एमनेस्टीको गलत कदम

 यो लेख नागरिक दैनिकमा  असार ११, २०७२ छापिएको हो ।

वरिष्ठ मानवअधिकारकर्मी तथा नेपाल शाखाका पूर्व सभापति कृष्ण पहाडीलगायत ९ जना पदाधिकारीले मानवअधिकारको क्षेत्रमा क्रियाशील अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय संस्था एमनेस्टी इन्टरनेसलबाट सामूहिक राजिनामा गरेपछि बेग्लै तरंग उत्पन्न भएको छ। विवादास्पद मधेसी बुद्धिजीवी सीके राउतलाई अप्रत्यक्ष समर्थन गरेको र नन्दप्रसाद अधिकारीको अनशन तथा त्यसैकारण भएको उनको मृत्युमा कुनै अडान नलिएको आरोप पहाडीले लगाएका छन्। यसको जवाफमा एमनेस्टीले राउतको क्रियाकलापलाई समर्थन नगरे पनि उनको अभिव्यक्ति स्वतन्त्रतालाई सम्मान गरेको भन्ने स्पष्टीकरण दियो। तर, यो स्पष्टीकरण चित्तबुझ्दो देखिँदैन।

पहिलो कुरा त, अभिव्यक्ति स्वतन्त्रता लोकतन्त्रको आधारशिला भए पनि यो निरपेक्ष हुन कदापि सक्दैन। एमनेस्टीले मान्ने गरेको मानवअधिकारको महत्वपूर्ण दस्तावेज नागरिक तथा राजनीतिक अधिकारसम्बन्धी अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय महासन्धिको धारा १९(३) ले राष्ट्रिय सुरक्षा तथा सार्वजनिक सद्भाव कायम राख्नका लागि कसैको व्यक्तिगत विचारमाथि अंकुश लगाउनसक्ने व्यवस्था गरेको छ। राउतले मधेसलाई नेपालबाट छुट्याउने अभियान लगातार चलाउँदै आएका छन् र त्यही क्रममा नेपाल राज्यविरुद्ध घृणा उत्पन्न हुने किसिमका अभिव्यक्ति पनि दिँदै आएका छन्। मधेसी र पहाडी समुदायबीच फाटो ल्याउन बल पुग्नेखालका उनका विवादास्पद अभिव्यक्ति सामाजिक सञ्जालमा आइरहन्छन्।

पटकपटक पक्राउ पर्दै अनि छुट्दै गरेका राउतले राज्य विप्लवको मुद्दामा विशेष अदालतबाट सफाइ पाएका थिए। उक्त मुद्दामा अभियोजन पक्षले आरोपको प्रमाण पुर्यारउन नसकेका कारण उनले सफाइ पाएको भए पनि उनका अभिव्यक्ति गैरकानुनी नै छन्। भूकम्पले घरबारविहीन बनाएकाहरूलाई तराईमा बसोबास मिलाउँदा मधेसीहरूलाई पहाडीले विस्थापित गर्ने षड्यन्त्र भएको देख्छन् उनी र त्यो रोक्नुपर्ने माग गर्छन्। मानवअधिकारको विश्वव्यापी घोषणापत्रको धारा १३ र नागरिक तथा राजनीतिक अधिकारसम्बन्धी अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय महासन्धिको धारा १२ ले सबै नागरिकलाई आफूले चाहेको स्थानमा बसोबास गर्ने अधिकार प्रदान गरेको छ। यो हक कुण्ठित गराउन चाहने राउतलाई प्रोत्साहन गर्ने एमनेस्टीले मानवअधिकारको कुन अभ्यास गर्दैछ नेपालमा?

नारीहरूप्रतिका राउतका कतिपय आपत्तिजनक अभिव्यक्तिले लैंगिक हिंसालाई बढावा दिन्छन्। सबै नेपाली नारीलाई अनि नेपाल आमालाई नै गणिकाको दर्जा दिने उनका भनाइ सभ्य समाजमा किमार्थ पाच्य ठहर्दैन। मधेसमा बसाइँ सरेका पहाडी महिला वेश्यावृत्तिमा संलग्न हुन्छन् भनी आरोप लगाउने राउतका तुच्छ अभिव्यक्तिलाई लैंगिक अधिकार र समानताका पक्षमा वकालत गर्ने एमनेस्टीजस्तो सम्मानित संस्थाले आँखा चिम्लेको कसरी सुहाउला!

लोकतन्त्रको उदारतालाई दुरुपयोग गरेर यसलाई आघात पुर्यासउन कोसिस गर्ने तत्वलाई ठेगान लगाउन 'लडाकु लोकतन्त्र' (मिलिट्यान्ट डेमोक्रेसी) को अवधारणा विकसित गरे जर्मन दार्शनिक तथा राजनीतिक सिद्धान्तकार कार्ल लोएन्स्टाइनले। उदार लोकतन्त्रले सबैलाई असीम स्वतन्त्रता दिँदा उग्रवादीसमेतले त्यसको फाइदा उठाउँछन्। अझ, संक्रमणकालमा त्यस्ता तत्वले झन् खेल्ने मौका पाउँछन्। नेपालमा पनि अहिले संक्रमणकाल चलिरहेको र राजनीति तरल अवस्थामा रहेको छ। त्यसैले यो बेलामा पूर्ण लोकतान्त्रिक आदर्शवाद व्यावहारिक ठहर्दैन, बरू न्यूनतम स्थिरता कायम गराउन लडाकु लोकतन्त्र उचित हुन्छ।

लडाकु लोकतन्त्रको अभ्यास विश्वका धेरै विकसित देशमा हुनेगरेका छन्। मार्क्स थिएलको पुस्तक 'द मिलिट्यान्ट डेमोक्रेसी प्रिन्सिपल इन मोडर्न डेमोक्रेसिज' मा विभिन्न देशमा कसरी यो सिद्धान्त लागु भएको छ भनी उल्लेख गरिएको छ। आफ्ना नागरिकको सुरक्षा, देशको अखण्डता, सार्वभौमसत्ता र स्वतन्त्रताको रक्षा गर्नु राज्यको दायित्व हो। यसले जनताको मौलिक हकलाई पनि रक्षा गर्नुपर्छ, तर दायित्वको सन्तुलनमा व्यक्तिगत हकलाई थाती राख्नसक्छ। राउतको अभिव्यक्ति स्वतन्त्रताको हक देशको अखण्डताको सवालभन्दा माथि हुनै सक्दैन।

वास्तवमा मानवअधिकारको डिस्कोर्सले जहिले पनि राज्यको तुलनामा व्यक्तिलाई महत्व दिनेगर्छ। राज्यले व्यक्तिको अधिकार उल्लंघन गर्छ भन्ने पूर्वाग्रहमा मानवअधिकार समुदाय चलिरहेको हुन्छ। अति आदर्शको चक्करमा परिरहेको यो समुदायले हकको सन्तुलन सिद्धान्तलाई बिर्सिदिन्छ। त्यसैकारण एमनेस्टीले देश टुक्राउन बल पुग्ने राउतको अभिव्यक्ति हकलाई यति महत्व दिएको हो।

पहाडी समुदायका केही विवेकहीन व्यक्तिले गरेको विभेदका सिकार भएकाले राउतमा उग्रता आएको हुनसक्छ। उनको आत्मकथा 'वैरागदेखि बचाव'सम्म पढ्दा उनले काठमाडौँमा तीता घटना भोग्नुपरेको पाइन्छ। तर, उनी आफ्नो प्रतिभाको बलमा वैज्ञानिक र लेखक बन्न सके र उनलाई राज्यले प्रतिभा तिखार्नमा कुनै बाधा पुर्यातएको देखिँदैन। केही व्यक्तिको उनीप्रतिको मूर्खतापूर्ण व्यवहारलाई उनले सम्पूर्ण समुदायमाथि नै थुपार्न मिल्दैन र यसैलाई मुद्दा बनाएर देशै टुक्राउने अभियान सञ्चालन गर्न कुनै पनि हालतमा मिल्दैन।

राउतको छुट्टै मधेसको प्रस्ताव आफैमा समस्याग्रस्त विषय हो। स्वायत्त मधेसमा मधेसीको हक स्थापित हुने भनिए पनि आदिवासी थारू तथा अल्पसंख्यक मुस्लिम समुदायको हकका बारेमा स्पष्ट खाका केही छैन। सबै थारूलाई मधेसी बनाउने र उनीहरूको पहिचान मेटाउने षड्यन्त्र भइरहेको भनी थारू नेताहरू शंका गरिरहेका छन्। पहाडी समुदायमाथि विष वमन गर्ने राउत र उनका सहयोगीहरूले आफूइतरका तराईबासी समुदायको भयलाई सम्बोधन गर्नेतर्फ कुनै ध्यान दिएका छैनन्– दिँदैनन्।

हाल विकसित देशहरूमा पहिचानको राजनीतिले संकट निम्त्याइरहेको भन्ने बहसले बौद्धिक वृत्तमा चर्चा कमाइरहेको छ। व्यक्तिलाई विभिन्न पहिचानका वर्गमा सीमित गरेर व्यक्तित्व विकासमा बाधा पुर्याौउने काम भइरहेको छ भनी विचारकहरूले चिन्ता व्यक्त गरिरहँदा विदेशीहरू यहाँचाहिँ जातीय पहिचानको राजनीति चर्काउन खोज्दैछन्। यस्तो विभाजनकारी काम गर्न पाउँदा उनीहरू आफ्नो स्वार्थसिद्धि सहज हुने ठान्छन्। अनि पहिचानवादी भनिन रुचाउनेहरू त्यसैलाई अनुसरण गरेर रमाइरहेका छन्! एकात्मक राज्यले पहिचान हरण गरेको तर्क दिनेहरूले आफ्नो गौरवपूर्ण भाषा र संस्कृतिलाई उत्थान गर्नेभन्दा जातिवादी राज्य स्थापित गरेर इतर जातिलाई दबाउने चेष्टा गर्दैछन्। राउत पनि त्यही समूहका नाइके भएकाले उनको उदयबाट आममधेसीलाई भन्दा पनि उनका विदेशी प्रभुलाई फाइदा पुग्ने देखिन्छ।

नेपाल राष्ट्रको अखण्डता र नेपालीबीचको सद्भाव कायम राख्नका लागि सिके राउत प्रवृत्तिलाई निरुत्साहित गर्नैपर्छ। उनलाई उक्साउने राष्ट्रिय तथा अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय संघ–संस्थाका क्रियाकलापमा सरकारले अंकुश लगाउनैपर्छ। हुन त राज्यले सबै समुदायलाई बराबर महत्व दिएर कसैप्रति पनि विभेद नहुने प्रत्याभूति गर्नुपर्ने हो, जसले गर्दा राउतजस्ता उग्रवादी नजन्मिउन्। अनि एमनेस्टीजस्ता संस्थाले पनि कस्ता व्यक्तिलाई समर्थन गर्ने अनि कस्तालाई वास्ता नगर्ने भन्ने कुरामा विवेक पुर्यामउनु जरुरी छ। भूकम्पपछिको समयमा अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय गैरसरकारी संस्थाका क्रियाकलापमाथि प्रश्न उठिरहेको बेलामा एमनेस्टी जस्तो संस्थाले आफ्नो साख बचाउनु जरुरी हुन्छ।

Dispute deferred

This article appeared in Republica on June 15, 2015.

The 16-point deal among four major parties has raised hope of a constitution. Poles apart and bitterly divided for a long time, the parties reached an agreement after the country faced great devastation in the wake of the April 25 earthquake. The unity and solidarity shown by Nepali people in the aftermath of the quake even amidst government apathy must have shamed leaders to iron out differences. UCPN (Maoist) Chair Prachanda and CPN-UML Chair KP Oli, who couldn't see eye to eye and constantly traded insults against each other, warmed up and backed down from their rigid positions. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala also let go of his adamant stance of incorporating the term "pluralism" in reaching the current deal.
But the picture is not rosy yet. Apparently the deal has been reached to deliver the constitution, but the real intention of the major leaders is to be part of the lucrative reconstruction process post-quake. Sushil Koirala government received widespread condemnation for its sluggish approach to relief delivery in quake affected areas, so much so that even after a month of the quake people in certain hinterlands had yet to see any relief materials. The mismanagement and allegations of wrongdoing tarred the government image more. Finance Minister and Home Minister fought with each other to hold command of relief process. The personal secretary of the Finance Minister resigned from his post after allegations of ferrying zinc sheets meant for quake victims to his home with the intention of selling them.

Seizing this opportunity, KP Oli, eying the PM post, wasted no time in criticizing the government sluggishness, conveniently forgetting that his loyal comrade Bamdev Gautam is in charge of the influential Home Ministry and shoulders equal blame. Oli was being impatient for the post for long as his party had struck a "gentleman's agreement" with the Nepali Congress that CPN-UML would lead the government after the promulgation of the constitution.

Adoption of the fast track route and summary process of constitution making would pave way for UML to ascend the throne with possible help from UCPN (Maoist) as Prachanda, who wants to emerge as the kingmaker after the second Constituent Assembly (CA) poll debacle, has assured his backing to Oli. This would drive the wedge between the ruling coalition and Prachanda will seize the opportunity to play his role. Be that as it may, given his proximity with the southern neighbor establishment, Oli seems all set to become the next PM.

Nepali Congress, on the other hand, is trying hard not to lose power at any cost and turn the incumbent government into a national unity government under its leadership. The PM seems to be in two minds. On the one hand, he seems to want to be remembered as the executive head under whose tenure the constitution got promulgated. He may even be offered the post of the country's President by CPN-UML. But he too doesn't want to be left out of the reconstruction process. If he is able to handle that process well, his legacy will be written in golden letters of the country's history.

However, it would be better if the PM honored the agreement with the UML and stepped down rather than opting to head a national government. NC should take the role of a strong opposition. Fickle voters didn't learn the lesson from the CA-I polls to give any single party the majority in CA-II polls, so there is no reason for the NC to perpetuate the uneasy coalition with UML (it was unnatural as well because the biggest and the second biggest party generally don't make a coalition government).

Moreover, democracy becomes strong when there are checks and balances against government authoritarianism and a strong opposition can warn it against any misdeeds. One of the reasons why Maoists went into a further slump was that they didn't assert the strength as the opposition to the government's anti-people decision of hiking consumer good prices; rather they seemed to collude with the government. That caused their shameful loss in by-elections. If NC is assertive in its opposition role and takes the opportunity to go to the people and deliver them succor, it can win a comfortable majority in the next parliamentary election.

This political tug of war, however, has exacerbated the contentious issue of federalism although the recent deal seems to have put a lid on the can of worms. The major bone of contention between the parties was/is the issue of federalism and the real deal has been deferred to the yet-to-be-formed Federal Commission. Explosion is imminent after the promulgation of the constitution once the Commission starts functioning. Some fringe parties have taken offense exactly on this deferral charging the four major parties of bypassing the sovereign CA to allocate names and boundaries of the provinces. But since they have not got people's backing—they were ignominiously drubbed in the second CA elections—their voices may not amount to anything substantial.

However, since the issue has not been completely addressed as yet, federalism can still put Nepali politics in limbo for a long time. Many years will be wasted before this issue is settled. It is noteworthy that federalism and secularism were never the agendas of Janandolan-II. Democratic and left parties were fighting against their common enemy—monarchy—but the issue of federalism had not been floated. Although the Maoists, during the so-called People's War, had incited people that the unitary system had been responsible for the entrenched inequality and the solution lied on federating the country the issue gained traction only after the Madhesh uprising.

Hot on the heels of the uprising, Maoists tried to cash in on the issue by supporting even ethnic federalism proposed by Madheshis and Janajatis that has the potential of sowing seeds of ethnic strife. Nepali Congress and CPN-UML were hesitant on federalism, but nonetheless agreed to make it their party agenda fearing the loss of votes in the CA polls which they did regardless.

The logical settlement of federalism issue will put the wayward politics back on track. But that seems unlikely as the Federal Commission may meet the fate of several commissions of the yore—submitting its report but not having its recommendations implemented. Political appointments will compromise the integrity of the Commission.

Federalism will prove to be an expensive experiment for a poor country. The better solution would be improved decentralization with strong local governance whose benefits reaches the remotest and the most underprivileged part of the country. The federalism backers didn't allow local elections to be held of whose necessity everyone felt in the aftermath of the earthquake as it would have ensured accountability. If we go beyond the shrill rhetoric of a handful of leaders, the majority of the population opposes federalism. Let there be a referendum to settle this contention for once and all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Poetic picture: A Review of Abhaya Kumar's "Jatra"

This appeared in Republica on June 12, 2015.

Abhaya Kumar wears many hats- a diplomat, an artist and a poet. How these professions and interests converge in a single personality leave one baffled. I have known Kumar to be person in deep love with poetry, given his enraptured state in listening to good poems. This quality is emblematic of his large heartedness and that quality rare in modern people—empathy.

I evoke the word empathy after going through his latest poetic offering "Jatra". In the collection, elegantly translated into Nepali by veteran journalist and writer Kishor Nepal, Kumar vividly paints the poetic picture of Kathmandu through the perspective of the architectures and tourist sites. The poet injects life into the inanimate objects by entering into them in the glorious tradition of the Eastern philosophy that takes everything in the world to be part of the same over-soul. By taking this route of empathy, Kumar veers away from the ordinary onlooker in that his is not that objectifying gaze for general pleasure but of a person losing himself in the ananda of God's creation.

Kumar's tenure as a diplomat in Kathmandu has proved to be a blessing for the city as readers have been privileged to experience its beauty and grandeur in the mellifluous diction employed by him to perfection. The artist in Kumar has channelized his expression to poetry and presented the picture of Nepal's national heritages, different traditional processions, places of natural beauty and eminent personalities. Those who are still to visit Nepal will get a vivid image of the country and those who have been living here will learn the hidden meanings of the tourist sites that they took for granted.

Kathmandu's exoticness is enhanced with its medieval warren of alleys, Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas, and Kumar describes them with vigor. He hears ancient songs in birds' melodious chirpings and imagines the world stopping still in awe of the craftsmanship of the local artisans in Patan. The Valley's artisans appreciate the finer things of life and it is reflected in the lavish temples in front of which the human appears puny, as Kumar expresses in "Bhaktapur". Basantapur Durbar Square in the heart of old Kathmandu city never fails to impress visitors with its intricate wood carvings and rich history. Here, Kumar observes Lord Shiva in his ferocious Kalbhairav form, playing with birds, living beings and demons and the living Goddess Kumari stealing glances at mysterious Tantric idols.

The poems extolling the virtues of Valley architecture are relevant now more than before as the recent earthquake razed them to the ground. These monuments can never be remade in their original form, even if Nepalis are eager about the reconstruction. Lest the post-quake generation forget these manmade beauties, Kumar has beautifully captured them in his poems. The immortality of art has helped preserve the image of the toil of our god-gifted artisans for generations to come.

Once the poet moves out of the Valley to visit the hill stations in the lap of the Himalayas, his disdain against unmanaged urbanization gets expressed. Sitting atop the Daman hill, he sees the concrete jungle of Kathmandu and excoriates the wrong notion people have of civilization. He is hurt by the people's irresponsible littering of plastic bags in Lakuri Bhanjyang. However, he is not content in passing judgment and loses himself into the beauty of nature. The birds and animals in Shivapuri forest, the land appearing as the piece of the moon in Mustang, the silence of the Bardiya forest, the calm flow of the Marsyangdi River in Bandipur, the misty mountains of Bhedetar—all these places of natural beauty have come into life in the poems. His poetry is most redolent of the earthy smell as many places in Nepal have remained unscathed by the encroachment of modernity. Given the simplicity and lyrical quality of his poems, Kumar manages to evoke variegated emotions in the reader, with sheer lyrical spontaneity and subjective honesty.

That Kumar breathes life into monuments has already been discussed above. What about people in his poems? He has built portraits of Nepali cultural icons with fresh vision. The whole world praises the Gautam Buddha but before achieving Buddhahood, the prince of Kapilvastu was an ordinary man. Kumar imagines the feelings of Siddhartha at the time of leaving his family and even the sorry state of Tilaurakot as he left the place forever. By imagining Buddha's sorrows on the haphazard state of Lumbini garden, one can detect Kumar's satire on Nepali authorities who trumpet around the world that Buddha was born in Nepal yet do not bother to keep his birthplace beautiful. He describes Bhanubhakta, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, BP Koirala, Araniko and Narayan Gopal's glorious contribution to Nepali culture and indirectly expresses pains about Nepali people's apathy towards these eminent personalities.

Kumar's verses transcend the ordinary and transport the reader to the heart of the universe. These deceptively simple poems are pregnant with philosophical meanings that transpire only after multiple readings and deep cogitation. It is more than obvious that Kumar is in a state of rapture while creating these verses and he is successful in sharing the taste of that creative elixir with the reader. Italian artist Tarshito's sketches have added aesthetic depth to the book.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Aid anomalies

This appeared on May 19, 2015 in Republica.

The unmanaged relief delivery in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake has exposed faults of both national and international aid organizations.These organizations have largely focused on short-term measures and victims' real needs have been ignored.

Recently I visited Chhap village in Rasuwa district that was severely affected by the quake. None of the houses was fit to live in. The villagers are staying in community hall of a local cooperative, which has several cracks. They rush out in panic after each tremor. Several governmental and non-governmental organizations have visited the village with sacks of rice. Not all of it is healthy to eat. For example, the rice provided by the Nepal Food Corporation and distributed through the Village Development Committee office had crossed expiry date. NFC is notorious for hoarding rice sacks in its go-downs and failing to deliver it to the needy on time. Similar was the case with World Food Program's rice. Even the tarpaulins were substandard. The black tarps were brittle. Since villagers have been cooking food under those tarps, they melt by the heat. During rainfall, these tarps are useless.
Despite living in such adverse conditions, the villagers have kept their spirits high. Their lands are intact and they are ready to toil in the fields. When asked of their demands, they told us that they needed zinc sheets so that they could prepare temporary shelters, and then they would build their own homes. They asked relief organizations and private volunteers to provide them zinc sheet or sturdy tents, like the ones used by the International Red Cross as they don't want to live under tarp forever, but those organizations would not listen.Voluntary donors that arrive at the village bring with them cheap noodles, biscuits and beaten rice. Volunteers who love showing off in social media have visited affected villages with cheap food and have rubbed on victims' wounds.

This village is not far from highway;that is why relief workers reached there in big hordes. But inhabitants of remote villages in this and other districts haven't yet seen any visitors with relief materials. The foreign donors have been reluctant to coordinate with local disaster management authorities and are distributing relief on their own. This has led to duplication of relief at settlements near highway while villagers in remote parts have got nothing. The National Human Rights Commission had raised concern about this.There are cases of desperate locals wielding khukuris and looting relief material. Donors prefer to go to accessible villages about which their local contact informs them.

The reluctance of foreign organizations to work with government authorities has raised concerns about their motive.It has been found that most money allocated to relief efforts goes back to donor countries in the form of exorbitant consultant fees and other overhead costs. Not all of the extraordinary amounts pledged translate into relief.Dubious practice of putting Bibles among relief materials and the surge in the number of roaming proselytizers have strengthened people's fear that these donors might be culturally invading their territory. The rapid opening of job vacancies for disaster management in international volunteer organizations based in Nepal makes one question whether they are trying to "projectize" to prolong their stay here.

Their focus on distributing sanitary pads and wash kits rather than seeds and fertilizers along with homemaking materials feeds the commoners' fear.

Fears of Nepal meeting Haiti's fate are not unfounded. Due to flooding of aid organizations in the aftermath of Haiti earthquake in 2010, the locals became lazy. Rather than working in the fields, they looked to aid materials to meet their needs, which they got in plenty. Many of them never bothered to build their own houses. The result is that around 250,000 people are still living in temporary camps. In several quake-affected districts in Nepal, it has been found that people rush to the streets abandoning work in the fields whenever they see vehicles carrying relief materials.

But at the same time many other victims have stopped looking for relief and started to work on their own.Even when relief materials are not enough for the displaced, they distribute these materials among themselves equitably. Even the children have learnt from elders to judiciously distribute things and keep them safe.Many victims have realized that it would be foolish to look up to government to take care of them forever. A large number of people have lost everything and the poor state cannot heed everyone. That is why survivors have started taking relief materials as well as making full use of undamaged local crops and woods.

To keep the spirit of the commoners alive, the need of a strong government is sorely felt. Despite the experts' warning that the "Big One" could strike the country any time, our government didn't prepare. This lack of preparation hampered timely delivery of relief. Since local elections have not been held for the last 15 years, there were no local elected representatives who would have known every house in the ward or the village and coordinated with relevant stakeholders to deliver relief to the needy.

However, all is not lost. There is plenty to learn from this disaster. The government can coordinate with all stakeholders to immediately deliver necessary materials like tarpaulins, tents, edible foods, clean water, and medicines to the needy. This will restore victims' faith in the government and help stop foreign elements from meddling.

Foreign donors didn't want to donate their money in the Prime Minister Disaster Relief Fund citing that it would be misused;and slow delivery, given Nepal's ponderous bureaucracy and red tapism. To alleviate such fears, the government should make all transactions transparent and cut red tape.Unnecessary expenditure in the form of overhead costs must be minimized.

Almost 30 percent of annual development budget remains unspent every year. All that unspent money can be used for reconstruction. PM Sushil Koirala has requested all countries to open their tills for rehabilitation and reconstruction. He should also ensure that this money would be used judiciously. The survivors need encouragement to build their homes and till their own lands. They don't want to live under tents and look for relief, forever.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Enchanting ebooks

This appeared in Republica on April 4, 2015.

Enchanting e-books
For a book lover like me the debate on choosing paper book or e-book is a non-issue. Slowly the world is going digital and books are no exception. When people are embracing latest digital gadgets with glee, why should we hesitate in choosing e-books?

Champions for the paper book generally resort to olfactory images. 'I love the waft of smell fresh off the press,' claims a typical paper book reader. But a book is to be read not to be smelled. I have not come across any research claiming that the smell of the page helps better comprehension. (I confess that I too have a keen nose but that doesn't make me a good reader.) Some other readers talk about the tactile pleasure of flipping the pages. But modern tablets with touch screen simulate that experience with comfort.

E-books are easy to carry around. An e-book reader with an affordable price comes with at least 2 GB onboard data storage. That means you can store around 1,000 books in the device. Imagine lugging 1,000 paper books around! Let me tell you of my personal experience without sounding boastful. My family owns more than 5,000 paper books as my father has this obsession with hoarding books (he reads them too). Before the e-book explosion I too used to buy paper books in copious amounts. But safekeeping of those books was a major problem. I bought big bookshelves that occupied two rooms. Dust, termites, and shameless friends who don't bother to return books after reading them used to cause me anxiety. With e-books all these troubles have disappeared.

Let's see what people's objections toward e-books are. E-books are accused to be a strain on the eyes. That is not entirely true. I used to have a Kobo e-book reader. It had black and white graphic design and reading books in it was comfortable to the eyes. Yes, the light-emitting modern tablets are problematic. Gazing at them for a long time makes your eyes itch. After my Kobo reader broke down beyond repair, I bought an HCL ME Tablet that supported PDF files only. PDF files are real nuisances as they are largely incompatible with reading devices and I was forced to squint like a diamond cutter to understand the words. It gave me bouts of headache.

But one of my well-wishers had me install Moon Reader into the tablet. It supports Epub files, fully compatible with almost all devices, and has this great feature of warning you to take a break from reading after an hour. You'll take the advice if you love your eyes. Let me warn you, reading paper books for long stretches too can tax the eyes. With Moon Reader, interestingly, you can turn on the audio function if you don't feel like straining your eyes. Even if the robotic voice can be irritating, your eyes will get a break without any interruption to your reading pleasure. Speaking of myself, I wake up some nights and fail to get back to sleep. To while away the time, I read e-books in my tablet with auto-light and this doesn't disturb my wife and children. I have to switch on the room light if I have to read print books, or go to another room.

Some people have raised the issue of cognitive disadvantage of reading e-books. They argue that romantic and thriller genre of fictions, where you don't have to exert your thinking, is better suited to e-format. (E-books contributed to the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey.) But comprehension of hardcore non-fiction and philosophy is difficult in e-books. I believe this is a matter of perception. A good reader meticulously makes notes in the margins and highlights relevant passages of the book for reference. Generally, when you come across a difficult word you google it. Now, e-books have built-in hyperlink facilities which direct you to the information you require. This may distract an inattentive reader but those who search for references to broaden their knowledge certainly benefit.

Moreover, one research on e-book reading has found that reading on screen is slower than reading on paper. If it is true, it gives the reader more time to think what s/he has read, rather than rush through the book with little comprehension. Quoting Sara Margolin of State University of New York, Julian Baggini in his Financial Times article writes, "slowing down may actually allow us to spend more time consolidating what we have read into a more cohesive mental representation of the text"; furthermore, "not skipping around during reading" could be "a good thing in that it forces the reader to read the text in order, and preserves the organization the author intended". Can one read James Joyce's opaque novels in a rush? I believe e-books would be good medium to read these novels that call for much deliberation.

The biggest advantage of e-books (in our context) is that you can read books for free. The question of morality might be raised here. "You're causing harm to the author and the publishing industry by downloading a book for free," one may object. But what harm is there in downloading the stuff that is easily available? The publishers can make a formal complaint anytime and ask the authorities concerned to take down materials if they infringe copyright. But preventing the upload of books for free is easier said than done.

All this doesn't mean that I'm a total convert to e-books. I read paper books from time to time. But I'm not emotional about e-book replacing paper books like some of my fellow bibliophiles. I find the technology can very well satisfy my hunger for books.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

जनकराज सापकोटाको "जीवन कतिपय" Janak Raj Sapkota's "Jiwan Katipaya"

जनकराज   सापकोटाको  निबन्ध संग्रह "जीवन कतिपय" ले निराश गर्यो । तराईका सीमान्तीकृतहरूका  बारेमा लेखिएका दुइटा निबन्ध बाहेक अरू  सबै बोक्रे लागे ("ललनको बिहे" र "सस्तो मृत्यु : महंगो दु:ख" मा पाठकको संवेदनालाई उद्वेलित गराउन सफल छन् उनी)। अनावश्यक गन्थन यी निबन्धका विशेषता हुन् । विषयमा प्रवेश गर्नुपूर्व लम्बेतान मनोवाद गर्नु र केही शब्दावली दोहोर्याइरहनुले निबन्धको सौन्दर्य क्षय  भएको भान हुन्छ ।  भुइँमान्छेको   कुरा उठाएकोमा  लेखक दंग देखिन्छन् सायद । तराईका दलित प्रति त उनी सहानुभूति देखाउँछन् तर दोस्रो भागको "सहर र जीवन" मा भुइँमान्छेका क्रियाकलापमाथि उनले गरेका  टिप्पणीमा  उनी  "जजमेण्टल" लाग्छन् । सहरप्रतिको उनको  रोष झर्कोलाग्दो छ,  अँध्यारो मात्र देख्ने दृष्टि साँघुरो  छ । अस्तित्ववादी  चिन्तनका केही सूत्रलाई उनी सहरी जीवनमा लागू गर्छन, जस्तै चक्रपथको सिसिफियन तुल्यता, परिवार नियोजनका साधनको  अभावमा प्राप्त व्यर्थ जिन्दगी जस्ता बिम्ब प्राय: दोहोरिन्छन् । देखिएका घटनाको थोरै गहिराइमा जाने प्रयत्न गर्दैनन् उनी र सतही टिप्पणीमा रमाउँछन् । आजकलका लेखकमा भाषा  सबै थोक,  विचार गौण हो भन्ने लाग्छ सायद !