I found myself on a bus the other day seated next to Parabati, a woman who had immigrated from Nepal to Boulder, Colorado roughly 15 years ago, and who had returned to Nepal to visit with relatives and conduct some necessary formalities involving her family's property in the area. We chatted a lot about the rapid development of Kathmandu and about other social changes that have been transforming Nepali society at what seems like a breakneck pace to many in the older generation(s).
Indeed, metropolitan Kathmandu has burgeoned from a population of less than 50,000 back in the 1960s to a total of nearly 5 million today across the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley. The move from village to the city is often entangled part and parcel in chorus with broader shifts in social relationships from a community-based set of ties where everyone knows everyone else to a more anonymous urban society complete with a highly specialized division of labor and greater social cleavages.
Yet the core of urban Kathmandu has possessed a highly complex urban civilization for centuries, and even in the most densely-packed neighborhoods strong community-based ties remain, even despite the flood of more recent arrivals from the countryside, serving to complicate simple village/city distinctions. What has changed is the broader political-economic backdrop that's been fueling rapid urban growth in the first place, driving the implementation of new massive public works like the Melamchi River Diversion Drinking Water Project.
One question that I'm often asked back in California, and/or when chatting with other academic types is how my own values/politics etc. influences and informs how I conduct my research. Certainly it can be a challenge when in a foreign country to navigate the domestic political landscape without making the sort of blunder that either mis-characterizes the views of a party or individual, or without being seen as promoting the platform of one domestic political coalition over another, when both/all remain (somewhat) foreign to my own values and political sensibilities. Yet at times like this, I find myself returning to some of the core philosophical insights from my undergraduate education that helped spark my interest in conducting research in this part of the world in the first place, and that may provide a path forward through what can sometimes be a delicate and contested political landscape.
Some of the more helpful senior seminars of my undergrad had reading lists packed with works of Taoist and other traditional Chinese philosophies in an effort to provide a stronger philosophical grounding on the disconnect between Chinese and US policymakers. These philosophies, of course, are every bit as foreign to Nepal as they are to the United States, yet one important concept that I have taken with me wherever I go abroad is the concept of 无为 (Wu Wei), which has been translated as "Do Doing Nothing" (by my undergraduate advisor) or as Active Non-Doing by others.
Back in the States, I have also heard criticism of this concept as an endorsement of "business as usual" a godsend for those wishing to preserve the status quo, yet I believe this philosophical basis for Wu Wei couldn't be further removed from the sense of apathetic inaction that the latter critique implies. Rather, Wu Wei requires conscious and active observation and alignment with what is already unfolding, and is affirmative rather than neutral in its engagement with what is and what appears to be becoming.
Let's make this all a bit more concrete, and less esoteric. When I was a kid, I was warned repeatedly about the dreaded "undertow" when swimming in the Great Lakes. Back in Santa Cruz, locals prefer the term "rip tide" to "undertow", yet the basic idea remains the same if you happen to get caught in one of these strong currents while enjoying a day at the beach. If you are caught in a strong rip tide and you give it your all trying to fight the tide, you will surely drown. Fighting it won't work, but neither will lethargic apathy mixed with good thoughts. Rather, to escape the rip-tide, your best bet is to first observe and flow with the current, letting it pull further out, only making your break once you are able to align your own strokes with a break in the cycle of the waves. In this sense, you escape the current not by fighting it, and certainly not by closing your eyes and ignoring it, but by observing and aligning your own actions with what is already going on around you.
Doing research in a foreign country can be somewhat like this in the sense that local social currents must be worked with carefully, and neither fighting nor ignoring local processes that are already underway will yield the results that one seeks.
Nepal is a country with over 100 local languages and dialects and where deep-seated boundaries of caste, class, ethnicity and geography produce a social landscape that can prove confounding, even for the most seasoned researchers. Yet despite these complexities, much of the country's recent political changes have centered around differing views between pro-royalist groups and Maoist/communist sympathizers. Even today, nine years after the abolition of the world's last remaining Hindu Monarchy, coalitions that have emerged out of these two groups remain dominant fixtures in the Nepali political landscape.
Though early protests against absolute monarchy emerged as early as 1979 in Nepal, it wasn't until 1990 that institutions were established to check the political power of the monarchy. The Maoist-influenced rebel organizations of the 1990s and 2000s drew their greatest base of support among landless laborers and sharecroppers from far-flung rural districts, well-removed from the complexities of urban life in Kathmandu. In contrast, urban merchants, much of the educated elite, and higher-caste and propertied Hindus had generally higher levels of support for the monarchy and were less likely to participate in rebellion than their poorer brethren from the countryside.
Even now in the current moment, I have heard countless English-speaking Nepalese express nostalgia and sympathy for the monarchy when issues touching on current political and social issues arise. Much of the migration to Kathmandu over the past two decades has involved highly-educated, professional, and property-holding migrants. People move for many different reasons, but better job opportunities has been the primary reason I have heard from people I have talked to. One prominent Nepali academic, Bishnu Upreti, has also suggested that many rural landlords also moved to the city during the years of the uprisings to avoid opposition from Maoist-laborers, many of whom had been historically-bonded to the landlords through varying traditional systems of patronage. During that period, many Maoists called for the re-possession of such private property, the removal of the elites from their land, and the division of that land among the poor and landless.
Once an activist-oriented opposition group, the Maoists are now at the pinnacle of government in Nepal, holding the Prime Minister-ship and the most seats in the legislature. At the same time, their consolidation of political power has also shifted the contours of political discourse and made them the targets of criticisms about government efficiency and policy from various groups on the left and the right. Many of the more radical ideas from the years of the uprising have been supplanted with a more pragmatic focus on development, while property prices continue to soar across the Kathmandu Valley as the population continues to grow and undeveloped land becomes increasingly scarce.
Yet here in one of the few remaining countries in the region without a single McDonald's franchise, many questions about the country's longer-term trajectory remain, even as many new projects are underway.
The Melamchi Drinking Water Project itself is getting close to being finished with roughly 23 kilometers of 27 kilometers of tunneling already complete. How this changes the social landscape of the two valleys remains an unanswered question and one that I hope will bring benefits to residents of both valleys, while serving as a focus for further discussion between different organizations, coalitions, and actors about the shape and scope of future plans for landscapes for locals to inhabit and thrive.
I will keep the updates coming, but somewhat more periodic, while I am working on the writing stage of this project.
Feel free to get in touch in case you have any comments or concerns with how any of this material was presented.