Nepali Times Asian Paints
The Garment Fatwa

In withdrawing support from the Nepali garment industry and boycotting tourism, our American remonstrators ('Imperious power', #151 and 'Nepal feels the heat over Tibet deportations', #150) seem to have forgotten the social problems that similarly draconian measures have brought to the South Asian region in the past. While their proposals may appease personal egos, they are counter-productive when fighting injustice. The scandal surrounding the Harkin bill of 1994 in Bangladesh is illustrative in this regard.

Senator Harkin introduced a bill to the US Senate to boycott the import of garments from Bangladesh believing that this industry exploited children. But before the bill was even endorsed, the industry fired 50,000 children overnight. So dependant was Bangladesh on the American market. Is this how the Senator hoped to end child labour? In figures, perhaps. In reality, as UNICEF concluded in its study, children turned to more hazardous professions such as domestic labour, construction, and even prostitution. Is our memory so short that it takes only a decade to forget the cause of humanitarian misery in the same industry?

From my doctoral research on the garment industry, I put forth five reasons why it would be wrong to punish the Nepali garment industry for the actions of the government:

1. The people of Nepal are currently protesting a government which was appointed without their mandate. This protest movement is an alliance of citizens who collectively represent more than 90 percent of the popular vote in the 1999 election. It is wrong to punish the people of Nepal for an act which was endorsed neither by them nor by their representatives. It is also na?ve to assume that the present government would change its policies to limit public suffering.

Under these circumstances, a well-informed activist would be better advised to tackle the government directly and to spare its subjects.

2. By agreeing to withdraw support from the Nepal garment bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein is indirectly surrendering to the interests of an American private energy company-Panda Energy International. This firm held the Feinstein garment legislation hostage to its own unrelated dispute with the Nepal Electricity Authority over a power purchase contract and lobbied aggressively against the Feinstein legislation in order to force the Nepali authority to submit to their demands. The withdrawal of the bill can be seen as a ransom paid to them. From my discussions with the activist organisations working for the Tibetan cause, I understand that Tibetans feel as targeted on this issue as Nepalis do.

3. While boycotts may seem moral from afar, for those who earn less than $200 a year, life involves a series of pragmatic choices. Here are some of the people who will be affected:

. a 24-year-old high-school-educated girl whose family has never lived outside the periphery of Bhaktapur. All of her male kin are farmers and none of her female kin have an individual profession.
This girl, on the other hand, has learned to 'stitch' garments and commutes for work daily across three districts, and is the primary bread-winner in this 'son-less' family.
. a 26-year-old unskilled but healthy labourer from the western mountains who fled to Kathmandu and joined the garment industry in order to escape an inevitable recruitment in to the Maoist camps.
. a 35-year-old childless widow of the Damai caste currently working as a garment tailor whose parents and in-laws both disowned her on grounds of \'honour\' soon after her nuptial ties with a groom from outside her caste.

What alternative livelihood would Senator Feinstein suggest for these 350,000 Nepalis who depend on the garment industry? And how would she persuade them that their personal disasters contributed to her 'conscientious' cause? Is she not also jeopardising the safety and well-being of the 20,000 Tibetan refugees who have settled down in Nepal? As the chance of a lasting ceasefire with the Maoists gets thinner day by day, does Feinstein's action not point redundant workers towards Maoist ideology?

4. The proposed bill will alienate Tibetans from one of their closest partners. The garment factories in Kathmandu have contributed to the global Free Tibet campaign. Among others, I know of a factory which, with the help of its 400-strong labour force, was applying about 90 percent of its total capacity to produce high-priced exportable garments with 'Free Tibet' logos and Tibetan Buddhist screen-prints. In the commercial arena, their hope that their efforts might contribute to the global 'ethical clothing' campaign are bound to dissolve when they learn of the 'fatwa' sentence the 'world leader of democracy' has imposed.

5. This unnecessary scapegoating and retaliation seriously damages the affinity between Nepalis and Tibetans. A large population of Tibeto-Nepalis currently reside happily with their mixed identities for whom to choose one side over the other is to curtail their identities. The alienation that the bill introduces brings serious rifts among the ethnic communities already divided during the Maoist conflict. It also dispirits the Tibeto-Nepali families both among the Kathmandu Valley elites and the high mountain dwellers who have continued to maintain their family ties through thick and thin.

Mallika Shakya,
London School of Economics

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)