A Gathering Menace

[Note: On March 25, 2012 I was one of several journalists from local and international media on a  two-day trip to Sindhupalchok district. In the trip, sponsored by Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists, we met flood victims of Sunkoshi and Bhotekoshi Rivers, visited schools and communities that were precariously close to the river. In the light of today's devastating landslide on Sunkoshi River, I have published the report I wrote after the trip but was never published for some reason. Thanks go to Kosmos Biswokarma, now editor-in-chief of Republica daily, for inviting me for the field visit].

Deepak Adhikari

Tucked away at the edge of the Bhairabkunda, a tributary of the Bhote Koshi river, Larcha bazaar feels like a waste land. Recalling the Kathmandu denizens, who sport masks on their faces to protect themselves from the ever increasing pollution, the residents of this sleepy settlement too cover their faces with masks. They say that the dust particles coming from a construction of a hydro-electric plant has forced them to do so.

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Sunkoshi River: picture taken by Deepak Adhikari on March 25 2012

Indeed, as you raise your head and train your eyes farther, you can see something going on in steep hills across the river. According to the locals, a 4-megawatt power plant is under construction. They complaint that despite their objections, the company has turned a deaf ear. A site manager emerges from a run-down office. After much prodding, he passes the buck to his office in Kathmandu, which is 40 kilometers south and indifferent to local concerns.

On July 22, 1996, heavy monsoon rain had forced a massive landslide to crash into its fast-flowing waters, washing away an entire village and killing 54 people in one of the worst natural disasters in Nepal. A new settlement has risen in its place but the locals have been unable to lay the memories of the devastating flood to rest.

Sitting at a roadside eatery on the banks of a section of the Bhote Koshi near the Tibetan border, Padam Bahadur Shrestha relives the mayhem unleashed by the mighty river 16 years ago. “It was middle of the night and the rain was so heavy that we felt like someone was pouring water from a vessel. Then, there was a sudden explosion, like an earthquake,” Shrestha, 39, says, “When we woke the next morning, we found our relatives dead.”

The merciless torrent laid waste to scores of homes and wrecked lives, but it also served as ominous warning that extreme weather poses a serious threat to landlocked Nepal’s trade links with the outside world.

Chema Sherpa, who waits for a trickling of the customers in her tiny restaurant, says her husband’s elder brother’s family of four was swept by the flood.

The 1996 flood damaged a large section of the Araniko Highway — which remains the only road from Kathmandu into China — severely inhibiting trade and demonstrating the fragility of Nepal’s infrastructure.

Scientists say the effects of climate change could be devastating, as the Himalayas provide food and energy for 1.3 billion people living in downstream river basins.

Pradeep Mool, a glaciologist with the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), warned that the risks from such disasters are greater than ever.

“We have several trans-boundary rivers that originate in the Himalayan region of Tibet. Most of their sources can be traced to glaciers that are retreating very fast and also creating glacial lakes,” he said.

“Especially in the eastern Himalayas, all the glacial lakes are retreating and the glacial mass is vanishing,” Mool said.

In recent decades, the days of intensive rain have increased, villagers have experienced irregular rainfall patterns and the frequency of short cloudbursts has increased, said Mool.

Since the 1996 disaster, thousands more people have settled along the Araniko Highway, meaning the next big flood could be orders of magnitude more deadly.

The road, built by China in the 1960s, has become a refuge for the rural poor who have opened shops hawking cheap Chinese goods in the hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. Near the Tatopani border, rows of trolleys are parked, waiting for their turns to ferry the Chinese goods from the border town of Khasa.

The border is a hive of activities, Indian holyday-makers taking a glimpse of Tibet from little afar and Nepali shoppers clutching their woolen blankets, despite the upcoming summer.

Barhabise, a major trading hub along the road, sits precariously close to the Bhote Koshi river.

The 1996 flood was the most deadly but by no means the only natural disaster blamed on climate change near the Chinese border. Locals say they live in the constant fear of a repeat of a 1981 glacial lake outburst which killed five people, destroying 41 homes and two highway bridges.

According to ICIMOD, trade between China and Nepal was obstructed for several days and damage to a hydropower station cut the electricity supply for more than a month.

A flood of similar scale would destroy several hydropower plants built since and many of the dozens of tourist resorts that have sprouted along the Bhote Koshi in recent years, Mool said. About 6,000 people who live along the 100-kilometre (62-mile) stretch of the river would be directly affected, an ICIMOD study estimates.

While India remains the main source of Nepalese imports, China has emerged as a major player in recent decades, with trade between the two countries totaling 46 billion rupees ($567 million) last year.

Barhabise trader Dhan Bahadur Shrestha, 71, remembers all-too-clearly the pungent clay smell as the muddy Bhote Koshi flooded in 1981, and he lives in fear that another disaster could happen in his lifetime.

“There was panic everywhere. My daughter was getting married the next day so a friend and I embarked on a trek to tell the groom’s family about the postponement,” he said, “After our return, there was a huge landslide on the trail. We narrowly escaped being killed. We are afraid that this could happen again.

“People have moved further up from the river but the dangers are still there. I feel lucky to have survived,” Shrestha said.

Why Pokhara?

A trip to the city by the lake

Deepak Adhikari

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The journey began on a sour note. My name wasn’t on the list of the
passengers that the bus assistant was clutching that spring morning in
Kathmandu. The Nepali New Year 2071 was approaching and the slick bus
oddly named Swiss Travels, which had more Nepalis than foreigners, was
brimming with holiday makers.  I myself was mixing work and holiday
and was looking forward to my trip to the city by the lake.

After shoveling a meal of boiled rice, vegetable curry and fish curry on the banks on Trishuli River, we cruised along the Marshyangdi River and arrived in Pokhara late in the afternoon. As soon as I disembarked from the bus, I was subjected to a hard bargaining by the taxi drivers, one of whom finally agreed on a reasonable fare of 200 rupees to Lakeside. The hotel booked by a friend of mine turned out to be similarly occupied. I was lucky enough to get room number in the modest three-storey hotel in this tourist district, the owner, who wore a tuppi (tuft of hair) told me while his wife ran the counter. A group of Western tourists were having momos on the table next to mine. I was having a mild headache, was alone and with my friend busy with his work, feeling increasingly lonely. I almost felt like returning to Kathmandu, cancelling my weekend retreat.

But then, in the evening I strolled along the Fewa Lake and was immediately charmed by it. I hadn’t even walked for about five minutes from my hotel, I was enchanted by what I saw and the lake began to bewitch me. A young man, whose hair sprawled over his ears, was strumming a guitar, singing ‘I can’t live’ in fake English accents. I found myself in the sea of tourists eager for a piece of Pokhara, an ounce of Fewa. A couple of young families, their younger sons and daughters in tow, whom I had seen at a restaurant during a brief stopover on our way to Pokhara –where  after braving humidity and thirst, I bought an expensive bottle of Sprite–were part of the crowd. Already, this was pretty reassuring. The parents took pictures while their kids gave stylish poses. No one rode the wooden, colorful boats anchored to the lake, which nevertheless formed backdrops to countless pictures.

On a small platform at the edge of the lake, more than a dozen tourists were looking at the ripples. Last year, when I visited the
city with my wife, it had been windy and we had to leave the platform early. A cool breeze brought the fresh evening air while a lanky teenage girl in one piece checked her photos on her SLR camera. “Ramailo Chha Hai” (We are having fun, right?) were the words often heard in the gathering dusk. Already, a family of five was reviewing their day’s outing to Chamere Gufa (cave). Someone shouted: “Maya!” Was that a name of a girl? A boy? An illusion?

People seemed reluctant to leave the place. They were enchanted by the lake and seemed to want to savour this joy! An endless, still expanse of Fewa Lake spread ahead in blue, an occasional wave its only movements. I took a stroll on the banks, trying to take in every bit of the pleasant evening. Smoke bellowed from a green hill across the lake–it could a forest fire, could be slash and burn. The hills people, whose only transports are the rickety boats, live there, precariously. On my way, I found Tibetan refugees selling trinkets, young Nepali girls angling for best shots, to be posted on their Facebook pages.

While the majority of tourists were undoubtedly Nepalis, some Chinese and Bengalis added to the multi-cultural mix. In the hazy glow of the evening, it was hard to identify people but you may well run into your old friend or an acquaintance. Already, on the road from Kathmandu, I stumbled across two acquaintances. Yet, Pokhara never ceases to surprise you: As dusk was falling and I was retracing my steps, I heard a familiar voice. “Hi”, I said to her, surprised at myself. A friend with whom I hadn’t met in ages was here. She was here for convocation at Pokhara University, her young son was with her; her husband stayed at the hotel. We exchanged pleasantries and parted.

Back at the restaurant, I heard waiters taking orders from western tourists in their broken English. My hotel owner himself didn’t seem like he felt himself as part of the hospitality business. His restaurant was run like a family business. The items listed in the menus were rarely available. The rooms lacked basic amenities. When I told a friend who works at tourism and nature conservation about my visit to Pokhara, he suggested me to explore the issue of encroachment of Fewa Lake. The increasing pollution was gnawing away at the beautiful city, he told me.

Such are the vagaries of a city which is picture perfect. There are problems aplenty. But despite all this, I love Pokhara. I don’t know why, but every time I come here, I feel rejuvenated, re-calibrated and re-energized. If you want the same experience, please visit Pokhara!

Pic courtesy: Krishna Mani Baral

Che Guevara in Chitwan

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One fine morning this March, I was pillion riding a motorbike as a lorry lumbered on to a vegetable wholesale market in Narayanghat, a town by the Narayani river which gives it the name. The sight of Che Guevara, his name painted across the lorry, called to mind the ubiquitousness of this image in Nepal and indeed across the world. Although it was surprising to find this in such an unlikely place, the pop-culture icon has been part of Nepal’s public spaces for decades. Apart from Che, Bob Marley, and Kurt Cobain must be other icons whose visages are found everywhere in Nepal: trucks, buses, key chains, handkerchiefs and T-shirts.

In 2005, I wrote a feature story for Nepal Weekly magazine on young men and women who wore Che T-shirts and protested against then king’s coup. At the time, wearing the Che T-shirt was akin to a rebellion. Maoist insurgents were battling the state from rural hinterlands and therefore away from the shops selling the T-shirts. They worshiped their favourite icon’s image more than they wore it. During the heady days of insurgency, Nepal Army had banned the combat fatigues. I had heard that the Maoist insurgents would ask their fellow comrades to smuggle the T-shirts from the cities. In pictures, many were seen wearing it.

Che’s iconic image was taken by Alberto Korda. The portrait of Che in a black beret, bearded with eyes looking far away, came to symbolize revolution in an increasingly globalised world. Soon, Che became a commercial commodity.

Even in Nepal, there was no dearth of the communists who aspired to become Che. Therefore, it’s not just a coincidence for such a lorry to appear in Chitwan, the home district of revolutionary-turned-politician Prachanda.

An interview with Jon Lee Anderson, the biographer of Che Guevara.

An article in The Guardian on the discovery of the image and its legacy.

On foreign correspondence in India

Two interesting perspectives have come out recently on the notion of foreign correspondence in India and China. Jonathan Shainin, former senior editor of The Caravan and now news editor at The New Yorker and Indian author Pankaj Mishra have weighed in on the topic.  While both agree that it is a Western invention, there are  differences on the way they think the genre has evolved over the years. Shainin thinks that countries like India can not offer a neat narrative, Mishra opines that India-based foreign correspondents have found “it enough to massage the expectations of elites in their home countries, who tend to see India as little more than a source of corporate profits.” Shainin highlights the editors’ tendency to seek topics that aren’t complicated for the readers back home. He adds: “For example, there’s been a huge uptick in coverage of violence against women, which is seen as being interesting to the foreign audience partly because it’s an emotional one, and superficially speaking, it’s not that complicated. Issues like corruption, governance, and federalism are really difficult subjects that would face considerable resistance from an editor.”

Mishra begins his Outlook essay with a quote which firmly places the correspondents as careerist in which their destinations serve as a ladder to reach at the pinnacle of the news organisations they report for. He writes: “Their exalted position as well-off expatriates in India has its own dangers. Much of their limited time is spent in close proximity to the tiny English-speaking elite of Delhi and Mumbai, whose opinions happen to be more accessible than the struggles of most ordinary Indians, not to mention private schools in rural areas. Continuous proximity to and dependence on senior bureaucrats and other elite policy- and opinion-makers make journalists less inclined to take risks with their own interpretation of events. Soon, the fear that this proximity might be curtailed or withdrawn altogether quietly begins to take its inevitable toll.”

Mishra also tears the Indian English press apart. Quoting Jawahar Lal Nehru, he laments the dismal coverage of English press in India.

In conversation with Jonathan Shainin

Pre-Fab reporting: Pankaj Mishra

Both pieces are worth a read!

Best longreads of 2013

Here’s my year-end list of the best longreads of 2013. This list is arbitrary and the selections based on my own taste and reading. Enjoy the long ride!

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Invisible Child, on a homeless girl, her struggles and the family woes, by Andrea Elliot: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/#/?chapt=1

Confessions of a drone warrior, by Matthew Power: http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201311/drone-uav-pilot-assassination

The Great Escape: on the preparations and the aftermath of cyclone Phailin: http://in.news.yahoo.com/the-great-escape-103506320.html?page=all

The dream boat: a perilous journey of desperate refugees http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/magazine/the-impossible-refugee-boat-lift-to-christmas-island.html

Under the Influence: liquor baron Ponty Chada’s life and times, by The Caravan’s Mehboob Jeelani http://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/under-influence

Out of Syria, by Jim Yardley and Gaia Pianigiani http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/world/middleeast/out-of-syria-into-a-european-maze.html

Fear and loathing in Nepal elections

ImageOn November 19, Nepal’s election day, I was at AFP office when I heard about the bomb blast in Kathmandu. The news flashing in the TV screen said an 8-year-old boy was injured in the blast. In a busy news day, it sent chill down the spine. Nevertheless, we embarked on the reporting trip. The roads were almost empty because unregistered vehicles were not allowed on the D-Day. We drove in near silence and reached the site in about 10 minutes.

As we entered the grimy neighbourhood of Bhotebahal, hordes of people began to appear. We were led to the street where the bomb had blasted.

ImageSoon, we were in a narrow, dark alleyway, flanked by three and four-storey cement and concrete buildings. Hundreds of onlookers had gathered near the site. The polling booth was about 100 metres away from the site. Dozens of Nepal Army soldiers and policemen were guarding the area. A bomb disposal team of Nepal Army was carrying out disposal at a gated house nearby. We were not allowed in. The place was also crowded with media persons. I heard a live TV report but could not see the crew. It was surreal to be near what felt like a disembodied voice.

A while later, Prakash Man Singh, a Nepali Congress candidate from the constituency, whom I had met a few days earlier in an election rally, arrived in the polling station at Araniko Boarding School. The bombing occurred in the constituency number 9 while the polling booth belonged to constituency number 1. Posters of Devendra Paudel, a Maoist candidate, were pasted on the walls near the site.

I spoke to Rajendra K.C, a 38-year-old who said he headed a local club. This is how he described it:

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I was idling by here when I heard a huge explosion. I ran towards the alley and saw smoke bellowing. The boy’s face was smeared in blood. There was a pool of blood on the street and his body parts were scattered. A man, who reached before me, rushed the injured boy to the main road. Then, we shouted at a police vehicle and the injured, including two girls aged seven and nine, were rushed to the Bir Hospital. The boy’s parents accompanied him to the hospital. The parents, both in their thirties, live in the neighbourhood. The father is a driver and mother runs a tea stall. The entire neighbourhood was gripped by fear. Some people saw the blood on the street and were terrified by the sight. Some people started to cry, others ran away.

Here’s the AFP story on the blast.

How would my son write while he’s lost his hand? asks Samir Khadgi’s mother (in Nepali)

All pics by Deepak Adhikari

An Uncertain Glory

I have always been interested to know how people–who suddenly find themselves in fame–cope with it. Moreover, once you become an overnight celebrity, there comes a challenge of maintaining it. Early this year, I covered a story on Chhurim Sherpa, who had climbed Everest twice in the spring of 2012, becoming the first woman to do so. But it took a year for her to be recognized by Guinness Books of World Records. I broke the story of her climb at AFP, which was picked by several newspapers including The Kathmandu Post.  Here’s her profile I did for Pique, a monthly magazine published from Pakistan.

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Chhurim Sherpa is trailing her success.

Early this year, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized her as the first woman who climbed Mount Everest twice in the same season. The extraordinariness of her accomplishment catapulted her from a life of obscurity to one under the media spotlight. A bevy of Nepali radio and television shows have hosted her. Leading national and international news wires have profiled her. But despite the media attention and an almost celebrity like status, Chhurim, 29, faces an uncertain future.

On a recent afternoon, Chhurim sat on a couch in her sparsely furnished two-room apartment on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the capital. Her face still brims with excitement when she talks about her mountaineering adventures. But fame has brought little financial success. She still relies on her parents for a living. She is unsure how to fund her future expeditions.

Her remote village Ghunsa lies under the shadows of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Her parents run a tea shop. Growing up, she watched foreign trekkers trudge the mountain paths through her village. Occasionally, they would stop (at) her parents tea shop and talk about their adventures, kindling in little Chhurim a fascination with mountain climbing. In a way, the interest was but only natural. The Sherpa community is known to be excellent climbers, helping foreigners scale the mountains in her country. “Their stories made me want to scale the peaks,” Chhurim said, referring to the foreigner trekkers.

Her dreams were vaunting but her life was tough. As a child, she had to help her parents by cleaning dishes and bringing water in jerrycans from long distances. In primary school, she learnt about Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to climb Everest in 1993. This became her inspiration. But she could not continue her studies after primary school as her village lacked a high school and her parents could not afford to send her to Katmandu.

Life began to change when she moved to the capital in 2010. Her elder sister’s husband ran a mountaineering company and the couple had to leave for Switzerland. Chhurim took care of the apartment when they were abroad. Upon their return, she expressed her wish to become a mountain climber to sister’s husband, who immediately agreed to help. Her parents also agreed to fund for her expedition. She enrolled in a basic mountaineering course.

In early 2011, she started preparations for her first climb; she trained herself on high mountain rescue for two weeks, followed by a week-long ice-climbing session. After a one-month long training session in the Langtan Region, she conquered Mera Peak, 6476 meters, and Island Peak, 6189 meters. Most climbers scale these peaks before taking on the greatest challenge of climbing the Everest.

In early April, 2012, she started her first climb, accompanied by four other climbers. “One has to be both physically and technically very fit to climb Everest,” she said. For the next several weeks, she continued with her climb, braving harsh and extreme weather conditions. At 9 p.m. on May 11, her team made the final ascent, traversing Hillary Step, named after Edmund Hillary, the first summiteer of Everest. She made it to the summit of Everest at 7:30 a.m. the next day.

She had achieved her dream. “It was windy and snowing,” she recalled. “At the top, I forgot all of my worries but I remembered my family.” A Buddha statue, encased in a wood and glass frame, is fixed atop the summit and as a proof of reaching the summit, every climber has to bring its photograph.

Chhurim wrapped the statue with a traditional Tibetan scarf on which she had written the name of her family members and her country. She then took a photograph, capturing the proud moment of her life forever.

Upon her return, within a week she decided to climb Everest again. No woman had ever done it and she wanted to be the first. She also wanted to break the stereotype Nepali men had formed of women as weak and unable to achieve physical feats.

“It is hard to earn a name by just climbing once,” Chhurim said. “So, I decided to climb twice. A.C Sherpa, a mountain guide and a friend, helped her by sponsoring the second attempt. And so, she began her second grueling attempt.

On May 19, 2012, Chhurim managed to do what no other woman had done before. “When I made it, I cried. Tears kept trickling down my cheek,” she said, recalling those moments. She spent half an hour longer than her last climb and took more photographs.

Everyone around her congratulated her but it took a year for her effort to be recognized internationally by the Guinness Book of World Records. Ang Tshering Sherpa, owner of a mountaineering agency, helped her to get into the records book. She was no more an anonymous girl from a remote mountain village.

Today, she negotiates the smoke-choked streets of Katmandu to attend programs organized by charity groups. She says she is not comfortable making speeches or giving interviews. She feels she is low on confidence due to lack of education. Her shyness, inability to communicate with others and properly articulate herself is a predicament in pursuing her future goals. Her lack of confidence is a bit odd, given she had the strength to climb Everest twice. But she says things would have been easier had she completed her education.

She dreams of owning a mountaineering firm. She wants to conquer the 8,848 meter Everest from the Chinese side. She wishes to climb all Seven Summits, as the highest peaks of each continent are known. “I can realize my dreams if I get sponsorship,” she says with a wistful voice. She has started the preparation for her grand ambitions. She has started taking English classes.

Photo credit: Deepak Adhikari