It was the summer of 2009. Up in Lami Dada, Khotang, a mass of local villagers had gathered at the front yard of the Village Development Committee (VDC) office. It was the third day of the meeting; a final one that would select and fund local development proposals received from the villagers. To an outsider like me, the meeting seemed immensely intriguing.
To begin with, of over a hundred attending, only three were women. All three playing mere audience, watching nonchalantly from afar as proceedings began formally. Two of them would later serve tea during the break. Apparently, a family health workshop was taking place at a different place in the village. May be that explained why there were no women at the VDC meeting, which is also perhaps indicative of the ways in which gendered spaces are created in/through meetings like this. It is mostly men who attend such important deliberations. Decisions made on that day were supposed to determine what development trajectory Lami Dada was to take during the following fiscal year. Such meetings take on a masculine identity where ‘development’ is discussed and debated, while ‘family health’ becomes further feminized.
Of those attending, a stout man in his sixties stood out immediately. Standing up and shouting, he looked around and questioned rather sarcastically, “what is the meaning of ‘Naya Nepal’?” Some nodded in agreement, few couldn’t be bothered, others simply seemed to find yet another amusement in a meeting filled with myriad emotions. For the old man, meanwhile, ‘Naya Nepal’ seemed just a rhetorical connotation. In this day and age, he had to rely on a traditional grinder while the local mill lay unrepaired for years, he claimed. The VDC wouldn’t find a single rupee for repair. As the old man’s voice grew thinner, perhaps a case of sore throat after constant yelling, the committee members started to move into a private room. Someone told me they had stepped inside to make a final decision for allocating funds, of course, after public deliberation outside. As the fate of funds was being discussed inside, those outside murmured anxiously.
All of a sudden, the murmur was reduced to a dramatic silence as a speeding jeep appeared out of nowhere and came to a screeching halt outside the VDC office. Two middle-aged men stepped out of the jeep, surrounded by three or four others. People started speculating about the new arrivals. One claimed that the taller of the two was a big businessman of a nearby town, while another shook his head in disagreement. It later turned out that one of them was an executive of the chamber of commerce in Diktel Bazaar, while the other was the son of an elite village headman of a neighboring village in Khotang. They were soon ushered in to the room where the confidential meeting was taking place. After sometime, the two men stepped out of the room, followed by a dozen other men. The man from Diktel took center stage, confidently advising the villagers to be bold and not fight over ‘small’ projects. Oozing immaculate confidence, the big man then emphasized the importance of collectively agreeing on bikas, “like roads or electricity”, because it would eventually benefit the entire village. He concluded that everyone should come to a rational consensus on spending the development budget. Before signing off, he reiterated the bikas ‘advice’. The two men then cranked up their engine and drove off, leaving a trail of dust behind.
In so-called democratic meetings, ‘democracy’, ‘equality’ and ‘change’ become conspicuous by absence.
I had to leave early, so I couldn’t wait to find out the outcome of the meeting, and the proposals that ended up being selected and funded. I am not sure which ones were left unfunded and whether any resentment as a result led to violence of any sort (according to a local police officer, fist fighting is a normal post-meeting event). But if it turns out that the VDC council ultimately decided to fund a road or an electricity project, while ‘smaller projects’ like the local mill were left out, one need not be amazed. It is possible that the bikas ‘advice’ may bode well for the village in days to come because road and electricity are signs of progress. However, it would also mean that one moment of a powerful man’s advice had trumped three days of democratic debate, as flawed as it may have been.
In a way, the meeting served as a microcosmic moment that revealed prevailing relations of power along caste, class and gender lines that have cast a dent on our will to collectively improve as a society living in a nascent democracy. The meeting ended up becoming a place where thulomanchhe identity was re-enacted, the ‘unintelligent villager’ subjection was reproduced, and gender lines further emphasized. What the meeting ought to have become instead was a political space to place and dissect ‘politics’ that privilege different forms of power, as a condition for decentralizing VDC budgets. Allocating funds should not merely be a technical process of handing down money from top to the lower levels. The meeting would have been an ideal place to reflect on, understand and question the way we make sense of ourselves in relation to others, to the budgets and projects and to the state; not to reaffirm and reproduce prevalent politics and power structures, but to challenge and reshape them.
If we were to sketch a narrative about our collective achievements in recent times, we would end up making arrogant claims about emerging as a substantive democracy owing to the transformative political change that Nepal is witnessing. However, we also need to humbly accept that the Lami Dada meeting is just one of the many identical meetings that take place almost everywhere in Nepal—a manifestation of the twisted democracy and power dynamics in the country. In such meetings, ‘democracy’, ‘equality’ and ‘change’ become starkly conspicuous by their absence. We may have come a long way, but we still have miles to go.
The author is a student of urban geography focusing on South Asia