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The power of one

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

When the stench from the Bagmati started getting too much to bear and the banks of Kathmandu’s sacred river became a garbage dump, many of us just covered our noses, averted our gaze and blamed government. Then, top bureaucrat Leela Mani Paudyal, led a citizen’s movement to collect trash every Saturday. In two years, Bagmati cleanup became a campaign that lifted hundreds of tons of rubbish. Paudyal is now our ambassador to China, but the momentum of his work continues.

Yet, there were those who accused Paudyal of tokenism. As Chief Secretary he should have solved the structural problem of urban garbage disposal instead of collecting the trash himself, they pontificated. Couch intellectuals wrote op-eds accusing him of (horrors!) trying to be popular.

Three years ago Kulman Ghising was sacked by the UML’s Energy Minister Radha Poudel for being too honest. When the Maoist Centre Energy Minister Janardan Sharma brought him back to head the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), Ghising stopped load-shedding in Kathmandu within three weeks. Capital hasn’t had power cuts for the past two months. As we reported in this newspaper last week Ghising simply stopped corruption in the distribution of electricity to favoured customers, and he would not have been able to prevail had he not got the political backing of Energy Minister Sharma.

We have become so conspiratorial in this country that even consumers who are now enjoying 24 hours electricity are cursing NEA Managing Director Ghising because (Oh, no!) he succeeded. It seems we are so disillusioned that many of us will believe the wildest rumours, doubt the most honest, besmirch the most righteous. We make sweeping generalisations about all policemen being corrupt, all bureaucrats being on the take, all politicians being greedy and power-hungry, all journalists being deceitful. And we believe our own misrepresentation.

To be sure, there is lots to be cynical about. Two million survivors of last year’s earthquake are facing their second winter under tarps. In the heart of Kathmandu the Rastra Bank building and parts of the Singha Durbar secretariat are still in ruins. Parliament has not conducted business for two weeks because of a political deadlock over the constitution, yet its ‘honourable’ members just gave themselves a hefty raise. It has become a national trait to blame others (the rival faction, the other party, the neighbouring country) for our own failings, we excel at playing the demanding victim and cannot bear to see our own kind get ahead.

Happily, there are many like Leela Mani Paudyal and Kulman Ghising in this country, quietly and honestly doing their work without undue regard for reward or publicity. The comedy duo Sitaram Kattel and Kunjana Ghimire (‘Dhurmus-Suntali’) put the government to shame by raising money and personally building a new village for earthquake survivors in Sindhupalchok. Last year, it was the tireless teamwork of Govind Raj Pokharel and Swarnim Wagle at the National Planning Commission that allowed the Needs Assessment Report to be completed in time so that the National Reconstruction Authority could be set up. Pokharel could easily find himself a cushy international position, and Wagle gave up a job at the World Bank to return to Nepal. Similarly, there are dedicated young innovators like doctors devoted to service like Bikash Gauchan at Bayalpata Hospital in Achham,  social media trailblazer Sumana Shrestha, politician Anusa Thapa, advocate Om Aryal, human rights activist Mohna Ansari, some of whom have been profiled in this issue.

For every kleptocrat heading a public sector enterprise, there is another with integrity and vision to take the organisation and the country forward. As the Melamchi tunnel nears completion after a 25-year delay, the water utility responsible for distribution is moving fast to upgrade the water supply network despite blatant interference from Nepali Congress politicians, as we reported earlier this month (#835). In the transportation sector, Sajha Yatayat has been revived to provide reliable and comfortable buses for Kathmandu and has prevailed despite a route mafia enjoying political protection and patronage. After decades of going nowhere, Nepal Airlines finally has political support from Minister of Tourism Jivan Shahi  of the Nepali Congress, himself a pilot, and committed former DDC Chairman of Humla.

There are many other men and women who have shown through dedication and determination that it is possible to build a better future for this country.

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