Nepali Times
State Of The State
Fatalism, capitalism and altruism


Males of the species of higher-caste Hindus are called dwij-the twice-born ones. The second-birth ceremony is actually a rite of passage that commemorates the coming-of-age when a dwij becomes eligible to wear the consecrated thread. At an elaborate bratabandha (penance-bound) ceremony, the sacred Gayatri Mantra is whispered into the ear of a batuk-literally, the young one-by the family priest or a respected elder. Once this commemoration is complete, a dwij is entitled to receive something for nothing and he learns to become a beggar for life. In fact the ritual of begging is an integral part of the bratabandha ceremony and the batuk is made to do so disguised as a mendicant.The bratabandha ceremony is symbolic of the veneration of culture of begging rampant in Hindu society. A dwij boy grows up with the belief that it's his destiny to receive while those lower down the caste ladder are duty-bound to give. It's not just the cobbler; even important occupational castes of agricultural society, such as ironsmiths and tailors are considered untouchables.

The natural human urge to help the weak is dampened by a blind belief in re-birth. If my advantageous position in this life is a reward of my good deeds in an earlier life, why take pity on the suffering of a lesser being? Why interfere in god's scheme of things and try to improve the lot of someone who may be enduring punishment for past sins?

Despite our guthis, we simply don't have a tradition of taking care of the less fortunate amongst us. Christians have a missionary tradition, Muslims have their zakat tradition of giving, one so noble that the faithful are urged to give in such a way that "the left hand should not know what the right hand is giving". But all we have are remnants of the monumental vanity of our ancestors shouting for attention from the tops of now-crumbling temples.

Sadly, even our enlightened Hindu rich have failed to learn from the philanthropic traditions of other societies. Rather than charitable hospitals, free privately-funded schools, or endowment-run old age homes, we have trusts that dispense prizes to all and sundry. Those instituting prizes often do so in the hope that some of the luminosity of the winners will rub off on them. It is a naked attempt to buy glory and immortality on the cheap-the prize-giver belittles the achiever by showering cash on him.

All this didn't matter much as long as the ruler (and later the state) took care of the disadvantaged, though admittedly in a very small way. The rulers were venerated as protectors and providers, but they had to please the poor in order to justify their control over the state. Thus, Chandra Sumshere established a high school and a college and released slaves, Bir Sumshere set up a hospital, and Juddha Sumshere patronised schools outside the Valley. Governments that came to power after 1951 aspired to build a welfare state. But the post-Berlin Wall period has seen a withering away of the socialist dream. In the new paradigm of politics, the people's representatives reign, but it is the market that really rules.

So, most schools that have opened after the mid-eighties are business enterprises selling education. Instead of hospitals, we have private health care on an industrial scale. Engineering, technical and medical schools have suddenly materialised out of thin air, but these are actually ill-disguised factories churning out profits for the promoters. Welfare doesn't figure in their calculations.

Meanwhile, the poor, the children, the disadvantaged, the physically or mentally challenged, the aged, and the sick-all "non-economic persons" in the parlance of the free-market-have been left to fend for themselves. It's depressing but true: the rich in Nepal pay lower taxes (maximum 40 percent) than in France (maximum 60 percent), live better (more servants than family members) than those with equivalent gross income in Japan (almost no servants), and contribute less (almost nothing) towards social welfare than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. So it isn\'t at all surprising that most Nepalis believe their welfare is in the benevolent hands of Lord Pashupatinath.

But even in this darkness, a lamp of hope has been burning bright for sometime at Jorpati. Established by the late Khagendra Basnet, the Nepal Disabled Society Hospital is run on the traditional pattern of doing good rather than following the modern trends of cost recovery and profit maximisation. Kanak Mani Dixit has set up a home for his dream of establishing a spinal injury rehabilitation centre within its welcome premises.

This week, the inauguration of the Nepal Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre showed once again that Nepali society is not completely bereft of a culture of philanthropy. The tradition begun by the Sah brothers of Janakapur-Ram Swaroop and Ram Sagar-the Shahas of Nepalgunj, the late Dayabir Singh Kansakar and his Paropakar team in Kathmandu may not be thriving, but it's there. What Nepal needs is socialism, but if that's too much to ask, capitalism with a human face may have to do.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)