Nepali Times
Here And There


One of the abiding mysteries of expatriate Western life is why an otherwise environmentally-minded, sensitive person employed abroad on a generous contract by a humanitarian or aid organisation insists on the worst possible type of personal transport. I refer to the vehicle known in the West as a 'Sports Utility Vehicle' or to us cynics in Kathmandu as an 'Aidwagon'.

Sometimes I think the United Nations and all other large international bodies have a secret deal with Toyota, Nissan and other producers of these monsters. That at least would make the whole thing comprehensible. The profit motive. We've all seen them. Many of us drive them. And I'm sure that we tell ourselves that they're necessary for the Nepali terrain, the hills, that road to Dhunche and of course, for safety purposes. Yes, they also negotiate the huge potholes on the Sanepa road quite well, don't they.

Hello! Your vehicle made those holes. Your vehicle helps make the roads of this city uninhabitable for the vast majority of Nepalis who walk. Or live and work next to the road. Your vehicle consumes about tens as much petrol as any other. Your vehicle eats up resources that your organisation could otherwise spend to help poor people. Remember them? The reason that you're here?

And don't give me any guff about Dhunche. I've been outside the British School or the Lincoln School when you couldn't move for a phalanx of fuming Aidwagons dispensing children. You use them for mundane household chores. You use them to go to Bhat Bhateni. You cruise on household business, hermetically sealed from the world around you, apparently without a thought for the effects of your actions.

A little mea culpa. I've owned two regionally-produced four wheel drives. One was a Tata Sumo, the other a Maruti Gypsy. Neither holds a candle to the Landcruiser or Explorer for comfort, ride or aerodynamic styling. But I'll tell you one thing. At least people in the region got jobs from my vehicle, not some import-export middleman. Both were purchased from my own funds, earned by the sweat of the brow, or at least the typing fingers. I also paid duty and taxes on both, because I have no special status with any government, save as minor annoyance and occasional supplicant. Now I own no vehicle, and get around by taxi and battered Chinese bicycle. An economic decision that has served me well.

In America, people who drive SUVs are loathed by other denizens of the road. It's pejorative, to call someone an 'SUV person'. The connotation is greedy, uncaring and dangerous. Someone who would drive such an impractical and unwieldy beast, it's assumed, cares nothing for the amount of petroleum they consume, or the impact on other drivers and users of the roadspace. They probably vote Republican or Conservative too.

Now I put it to all you Aidwagon folks that you do not fall into these categories. You are here because you care about the world. You want to help. Yes, you enjoy your life abroad with all its perks and exotic extras. But you have a conscience. All this is leading somewhere. To a suggestion, a humble request that you reconsider a few things. I know, I know. You bought the vehicle from your predecessor for a fraction of its cost back home (duty free, therefore no benefit to Nepal even in its purchase). You have to think of the kids safety when you are on Nepali highways. And you never know when the office might want you to go on a field visit to some distant spot where your organisation is doing good work. Okay, I give you all that.

But try one thing. Have a good look at your vehicle and assess its impact on the roads and very limited petroleum stocks of this troubled land. Get out and survey the damage to the roads from the parade of Aidwagons that are making their way around the gin mills and bazars of Patan. Watch the plumes of pollution that spew from the exhaust pipe as your driver revs it up on winter mornings. Then consider whether it's worth it. Why not buy a Maruti Gypsy or something small and economical? Use the office four wheel drive on business trips to rugged bits of the country. Better still, buy some bikes and hire a car when you need one. I wonder if fewer Aidwagons wouldn't make this city a better place to live.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)