Sunday, July 18, 2010

Democracy Dialogue in Dadeldhura District

I'm sitting on a hillside in remote Dadeldhura district, in the Far Western hills of Nepal. It's taken me a few decades to get here, but it's worth the wait...

My Save the Children work never brought me here, even though it's only a four hour drive from Dangadhi in the terai (the Nepali plains), where we worked for many years with the rural, agrarian Tharu communities. From the East-West highway, the road to Dadeldhura starts almost immediately up an astoundingly steep mountain with cliffs dropping off a few thousand feet below while we climbed up in our UN van on a relatively smooth road. After reaching the forested summit, the road glided into a series of remarkably beautiful valleys sweeping to west toward India, not that far away.

Now, a half hour down a winding dirt road below the less attractive concrete and tin Dadeldhura town, I'm in one of those stunning valleys, the hillsides covered with lanky pine trees above rolling meadows tumbling gently to a river strewn gorge below. There is a quiet beauty here so far from the congested, urbane yet painfully polluted city life of Kathmandu. Although I know better, it's easy to project an innocence on these hillside communities. But, as we learn, human life is never quite that innocent and the daily realities of a Nepali villager, almost anywhere in the nation, is often one of toil, limitations and crippling isolation.

Once again, as I've been doing regularly this year, I've come out for the field-based constitutional dialogues that we (UNDP) have been sponsoring around the country since last year. These are programs that my colleagues and I have designed to bring the work of the Constituent Assembly (CA) out to the villagers of the country, as well bring the villagers recommendations and submissions back to the leaders of the CA constitution-drafting process.

As I often say, "Nepali is the biggest small country in the world", given it stretches over the foothills of the Himalaya, so the distances are often much greater than they appear on maps. The other day it took us 12 hours to drive from Surkhet, the proposed capital of the proposed Karnali province to Dadeldhura, part of the proposed Khaptad province. Of course, we had a slight delay, typical to driving in Nepal, when we had to wait at a river, since the 200 m. bridge hadn't been completed in the two years they'd been working on it. The trucks raced through the knee-high waters without a second thought, but the smaller vans waited reluctantly, hoping that the waters would recede, until the dark clouds gathered and then we, too, raced through the waters with only our hopes and Shyam's good driving to see us across.

Today is our second day in the ridgetop town of Dadeldhura. Our three day Federalism Dialogue led by my friends and colleagues, Professors Krishna Khanal and Krishna Hachhethu, continues with 70 selected provincial civil society and political party leaders. But, for a change, I've stepped away to attend a Democracy Dialogue ("Loktantric Sambad") taking place on this rustic hillside by a small Durga mandir (temple) near a Dalit village full of ochre and white homes with grey slate roofs. This is the magical image of Nepal, lush green forested hills with the earth tones of the simple villages above the rice fields below. The scenes that attracted me so powerfully when I first came to Nepal a few decades ago and still resonant, even after all these years.

Love, it seems, as the poets over centuries have tried to warn us, is both blind and timeless...

The villagers are sitting around the small temple shrine as the facilitator begins to explain the purpose of this Democracy Dialogue. He lifts up the colorful, over-sized flipcharts which provide visual explanations of various components of the new constitution framework for all to see. He explains to the audience that this constitution is meant to be drafted with the support and input of all Nepalis, not just a small circle of 'neta-haru' (leaders) like the past constitutions in Nepal's short modern history. He tells the attentive villagers that the members of the Constituent Assembly, who they elected in 2008, want to hear from the people of Nepal while preparing this new constitution.

The villagers stir uneasily. They are unsure of the purpose of this gathering and politics is still an uncertain and, at times, dangerous activity in Nepal. The civil conflict between the government and the Maoists lasted from 1996 to 2006 spreading fear and loathing across the country. Although Dadeldhura was not at the epicenter of the conflict, every district and VDC was affected with youth being drafted into the war and people threatened by both the Maoists and the security forces as they were caught in between. Although a Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed in 2006 between the Maoists and Government and CA elections were held in 2008, real democracy and freedom of expression take much longer to establish the trust necessary to ensure firm roots.

Yet the young facilitators are well-trained, soft-spoken and concentrated. They gently coax and encourage the villagers to express their thoughts on the new constitution and their lives out here in the village. The facilitators, both men and women, note that this outreach initiative is supported by the UN, international donors, the government, the CA, local NGOs and some of their community leaders are here among them. Slowly, voices begin to speak and expressions heard.

The women dressed in the bright colors for which the Hindu world is famous are sitted together on one side of the hillock while the men in t-shirts or Nepali vests and the occasional Nepali topi (cap) sit in front of the facilitator. They are all Dalits (ex-untouchables, the lower rungs of the traditional caste system) from the nearby village.

Ironically, my friend and colleague, Tek Tamata, who I first hired to be the Program Manager for the UNDP project supporing the National Human Rights Commission and is now a Program Officer in the UNDP Country Office, comes from a village nearby. While chatting, one of his relatives points out that the home below us is his mother's maiti (parent's original home). Some of the people attending the Democracy Dialogue are his close relatives.

The facilitator takes the community through the flipchart page on the rights and duties of the citizen explaining what has been described in the CA committe reports. Afterwards one man speaks up, "Sir, may I tell you that we Dalits have been good and loyal citizens of the Nepali state for decades. What I want to know is when will the other castes in the country who have all the power learn about their duties and responsibilities to us, as well."

With no subtlety this village man is reminding the facilitators that Nepal's Dalits have never in the past been given equal opportunities under the Nepali Hindu state because of the long-standing caste discrimination against them. In a respectful tone, but firm words he is asking that the new constitution do more than the other previous constitutions to provide Dalits the equal opportunities from which other dominant castes have always benefited.

Another woman, sitting a bit far away starts talking in loud voice until the facilitator takes notice of her. "When will we, the poor people of the country, ever get the equal services that other people receive in Nepal. You don't need to talk about electricity, we'll never see that here in our village -- but what about government health and education facilities? When will the leaders of the country remember us after they return to Kathmandu. They always come to see us during their elections, but then then forget us. When will they remember their promises and send these services out to us?"

Another rather distinguished looking gentleman dressed well, until I notice that his pants and shirt are stained with overuse and a lack of washing, stands up. He has glasses, a greying beard and a quiet demeanor. "We have heard the commitments made in earlier constitutions. There are always good words to assuage the Dalits that the State will no longer discriminate against us. We have heard those before, as well. But, now, this time, we want more specific actions in the new constitution. We want to be assured that Dalits will have their proportional representation in all the structures and institutions of the State. We can ask for that. Will the drafters of the constitution hear us? Will they make this commitment when they write the constitution?"

While these community members speak their minds, one of the facilitators is writing on the brown paper taped to the stucco wall of the shrine. He writes down the various recommendations that the villagers request. Each one noted in simple, but clear Nepali script for all to see. After four hours, when the Democracy Dialogue comes to a close, all the participants come up to sign the sheets w/ their signature or a thumb print for those who never learned to write.

I'm asked to speak at the end, as their foreign guest. I speak in my village Nepali, "I'm sorry my Nepali isn't great, but I don't speak Doteli, your local language and you don't speak English, my language. But isn't that like the constitution? If you don't know what is in the constitution, if you don't know the rights that you are granted in the constitution, if you don't know the content of the new constitution, it's like not speaking the same language -- you can't communicate. Someone else can take your rights to benefit themselves. You need to know the language of your constituion so your family and your community can benefit from it. You can't depend on someone else to protect your rights. Because democracy begins here, out in the villages. This is where the roots of democracy take place and grow. It takes time to create a democracy, but unless you learn what is in your new constitution, until you insist on what you want in the constitution, you won't have democracy in Nepal. This, too, is your right."

So, the village disperses. I take a last 360 degree look at the simple beauty of this Himalayan landscape, as an eagle flies by hugging the ridge, so far from the casually modern world in which I grew up in America, distant, too, from my daily life in the bustle, congestion and power of Kathmandu. There is a graciousness here, no doubt, a sense of humanity, where people know each other all too well -- but society is a complex terrain, anywhere in the world, here no less than on the streets of American suburbia, and in those worlds resources are rarely shared fairly, evenly or generously.

As constrained as Nepal is, in its history and geography, there are real opportunities out here in its antipodes, potential unrealized, people unchained and future possibilities.

I only hope that our constitutional dialogues pry open these latent hopes and aspirations a bit and long enough for them to dig deeper roots in their local communities, for the sake of the future democracy of Nepal.

Jai desh!


Anonymous said...

Great, Keith! Thanks. Beautiful explanation, great images. Miss you all!

Keith D. Leslie said...

Miss you, too -- but who is 'you'? ;-)