I recently read a piece in the New York Times by Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa about how Nepalis are leaving for greener pastures, unable to find a place in their own land, as a result of our politicians’ (whom I’ve stopped calling leaders – thank you Anil Chitrakar for pointing out that grave error) petty politics. How many? 1000 people every day at an average. And those are people leaving as migrant labor alone and not students and vacationers.
That’s 365,000 people leaving the country every day. The current population of Kathmandu is around 1442271, which means it would take roughly four years to empty Kathmandu. If the thought of an empty Kathmandu is scary but too far-fetched an idea for you to start freaking out, you’re right. Kathmandu with its pollution and lack of electricity and drinking water will probably survive. For a price, the problems seem to go away for many people –invertors and diesel powered generators light up selected homes, tyanker-fuls of water arrive at doorsteps for drinking, showering and soaking in and air conditioned vehicles whisk you around town, in case the pollution turns you off..
While the capital faces problems like housing and subsequently water, electricity, pollution (land, water, air etc), the villages really ARE emptying and the effects of it are, for lack of a more suitable word – sad.
I hiked into one such emptied out village in Gorkha, in the monsoon of 2009. While hunting for interesting stories and interesting people, my friends and I found ourselves in a deserted village called Khoplang Bazaar, once a busy stop between the capital and Pokhara. At first, we didn’t notice anything odd. It was a rather small village, we could see both ends of the bazaar from where we had entered the village and there was the occasional stray dog and goats running free. It hit us as we sipped on some chiya at the village’s only teashop. We hadn’t met or seen any young people yet. The village seemed populated either by children or by old people. People between the ages of twelve to fifty seemed absent.
The effect was eerie, almost haunted. We would be walking around, trying to get some shots of the place, (the deserted houses made for some weirdly beautiful shots) and there would be a pair of old eyes following us from a small window in a ramshackle old house. Perhaps they saw their young ones who had left the village in us or maybe we represented the far away land (Kathmandu) where many of their young ones were. Whatever it was, it got us to stop acting like tourists.
The next day, we hiked back to Kamala didi’s place. A young mother of two whom we had befriended on our way here, Kamala didi’s husband too wasn’t around. He was working in Qatar from where he sent money to run the household. He also called occasionally to check on his adorable children and his ailing, aged mother. One of their two daughters only knew her father by his voice on the phone. I asked Kamala didi how hard it was to raise two girls on her own in a village and she just smiled and continued with her work.
To support the household, she had started working small jobs around the village, helping an NGO set up a system of water taps in the village, something that would free Kamala didi and countless women in her village from walking up and down the hill, carrying gaagri-fuls of water. Developmental works were traditionally men’s domain, but in their absence someone had to pitch in. And since it involved Kamala didi mingling with “too many” strangers, the older folk didn’t approve. She continued; what else could she do when the money didn’t get to her from Qatar in time? Whom could she complain to? Her kids? Her ailing, foul-mouthed mother-in-law? Or to us, strangers who looked at her and realized only how easy they themselves had it back in Kathmandu.
So yes, the villages are rapidly emptying, the capital is bursting at its seams with people pouring in from all over this garden-of-a-country of people of four castes and thirty six sub castes and the problems the country faces are piling up exactly like how the rubbish piles up on Kathmandu’s streets when the street sweepers go on strike.
All this while, our politicians look away and continue with their haggling for power exactly like how we look away and not do anything when garbage piles up in our streets.