Accessible commons in what once used to be the Charkoshe Jhadi—approximately the 12-kilometer north-to-south swath of dense forest—have begun to be privatized in the name of community forestry.
The adjoining national parks or wildlife reserves are relatively well protected. That leaves trees precariously perched on fragile slopes of the Chure Hills vulnerable to the greed of forest officials and timber mafia.
Compared to the risks associated with felling trees in the flatlands, uprooting perennial plants off their gravelly bed on Chure hills is rather safe. Digging the ground appears harmless. One can always claim that the gravel is for paving the courtyard, or the soil is needed to plant holy basil (Tulsi) in front of the house.
If a couple of trees fall in the process of collecting earth, it can always be blamed on unstable soil whenever someone not on the payroll of a timber dealer is watching.
Dozens of villages have sprung up along the Chure foothills in Bara, Parsa, Makwanpur, Chitwan, and Nawalparasi districts where maize fields often function more as a ruse than indicate the real occupation of settlers. Prosperity of many “farmers” in these isolated settlements depends upon illegal but open transactions in timber and other forest products.
Unlike government officials who rely upon law enforcement machineries, foreign-funded NGOs have to be innovative in order to be effective. One of such NGOs correctly identified where the problem lay and began to concentrate upon schoolchildren to save the Chure’s greenery.
Children would be asked in class to take a vow that they would not allow their parents cut trees or sell illegal wood. The result began to show within a few weeks: Attendance in school dwindled. Many parents withdrew their children from school.
A few perceptive teachers called local executives of the sponsoring NGOs and told them that if their students had to participate in the forest protection program, some private schools would have to be shut down permanently.
Apparently, parents had started telling their children that if trade in timber was to be stopped, they better begin tending to goats rather than go to school. Without easy access to the resources of the commons, these settlers would have no money to buy school uniform or pay for the stationery, let alone afford school fees.
The forest officer that narrated this story insists that no NGO has seriously taken up the “Save Trees” campaign in the Chure Hills ever again.
Within half-a-day’s walk from this site of tree protection experiment, a group of businessmen have invested billions of Rupees in setting up what is claimed to be the most modern cement plant in the country. A consortium of banks must have been involved in an industry of this scale.
Despite scheduled and unscheduled power cuts that its other consumers have to put up with, the Nepal Electricity Authority ensures uninterrupted supply for this import-substitution industry.
The government too must have provided adequate incentives to lure capital away from the casino called real estate business in Kathmandu and make investors risk putting their money in an industry with relatively long gestation period.
In technical terms, the collaboration seems to be working, and the factory has gone in production, despite all hurdles, in record time. Its executives, however, have nothing but harrowing tales to narrate.
The “locals” in the vicinity of the factory is made up of a few scattered houses of immigrants from the hills who had appropriated forest clearings with the connivance of their distant cousins in government offices.
The Village Development Committee (VDC) is made up of first, or at most, second-generation settlers in the plains. They are antagonistic towards the factory to the point of being inimical.
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
The factory uses one of the most modern filters. Yet, villagers sometimes complain that smoke from the chimney emits dust. Since uninterrupted power supply is assured, high-powered generators are used only in emergencies.
Houses located almost a kilometer away, where residents have no problem with heavy trucks thundering along the highway, grumble about the “noise pollution” of the power backup system.
The hostility of settlers towards the factory is so pronounced that whenever executives see any locals—even their own workers—they begin to tremble with fear. Locals employed in the factory feel that their wages are compensations received regularly for allowing the enterprise in “their” area. They are “workers” who do little work other than threatening the management periodically to protect their privileged status.
As if all this was not enough, the VDC has decided that the management must get its consent before hiring anybody not from within its administrative boundary. On this issue, all political parties—from right, left, and center—are in agreement.
Apparently, it’s not enough for the entrepreneurs to honor laws of the land; they must also put up with unlawful diktats of “political consensus” as well.
Angst of the free
Unlike the working class of the capitalist order, “workers” making a living off isolated factories or “peasants” dependent upon illegal farming of forests are not wage-earning proletarians.
Financial status may be different, but their mental makeup is similar to that of the urban rentiers whose income is essentially unearned and consists of house rents, dividends, bank interests and protection or patronage amounts received in lieu of their name, fame and lineage.
Free of obligations that bind feudal lords with their serfs or mill owners with their workers, rentiers and rootless settlers are not weighed down either by traditions or by contractual commitments. They are free, and extremely fearful about their fate.
Similarities in the attitude and behavior of lumpenproletariat (The “social scum,” according to Karl Marx, who often act as “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue”) on the one hand and comprador (An intermediary; a go-between; a local agent of a foreign business house) on the other are also striking. Both groups tend to work in ways that may not always be illegal but are usually extralegal at the very least.
The lumpenproletariat has no roots but has a very high sense of self-worth. The British were lured exactly by these traits of maniacal confidence and ferociousness without qualms among Gorkhalis when Ochterlony was fighting them in 1814-15 in the western hills.
The Gurkha Brigade grew from the Nasiri Battalion formed for the deserters from the Gorkhali Army that had decided to fight their former employers. For these soldiers of fortune, it hardly mattered whether their masters were imperial forces from the Nepal Valley or from beyond the seven seas.
In Marxist formulations, “lumpenization” occurs due to the deterioration of economic and social conditions of the proletariat under capitalist order. In Nepal, its rulers chose to be compradors and helped transform serfs into soldiers cut off from their socio-cultural roots.
Lumpenization remains as residue of the process that continues to draw hundreds of thousands young men and women to foreign shores every year in search of work—any kind of work—that can help them keep body and soul together.
The comprador too is unmindful of antecedents of its principals as long as compensations are attractive and are paid promptly in acceptable ways. It does not take long for the comprador to deteriorate into what has been called the lumpenbourgeoisie—the comfortable class that has little self-awareness and even less scruples.
Law for the lumpen, whether of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie antecedent, is an inconvenience: One finds ways of fleecing the commons and taxpayers; the other invents ways of duping commoners and evading taxes.
Another trait that binds the fallen proletariat and the rogue bourgeoisie together is primacy of fear and consequent affinity towards violent methods.
Fear is the key
On the face of it, militants who burn school buses, vandalize offices, manhandle medical personnel or set fire to vehicles involved in road accidents may appear to be aggrieved parties expressing their anger and frustrations. The Dash Maoists have tried to put an ideological cover over their acts of arson.
However, its fear and self-loathing—deep-rooted, debilitating and unnerving fear of their own worthlessness—that propels the lumpenproletariat towards acts of mindless violence.
Skilful political manipulators use their urge of annihilation for partisan purposes. The society tolerates all such excesses because lumpenbourgeoisie does not inspire confidence.
“Fear,” says Bertrand Russell, “makes man unwise in the three great departments of human conduct: his dealings with nature, his dealings with other men, and his dealings with himself.” It shows in the behavior of lumpenbourgeoisie, too, but it is clearer among lumpenproletariat who goes about with a hammer as if smashing things would somehow solve socio-economic problems.
The sickle was abandoned along with the plough long ago. In its place, there is Khukuri, a useful implement, no doubt, but more often used as a deadly weapon.
The middleclass could have helped initiate a conversation to get lumpens of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie talk to each other. However, the Nepali middleclass, apart from being too small to be a significant player and too ambitious to be useful agents of social change, also suffers from double jeopardy: The bourgeoisie considers them beggars thriving off their largesse while the proletariat disdains them as instruments of exploiters.
It is not very difficult to demand that schools and hospitals be declared “zones of peace” or that criminals be brought to book. Human Rights organizations do that with unfailing regularity, often to little or no avail.
Taking out rallies too end up being exercises in exhibitionism that do little else than make the petty bourgeoisie feel good about itself.
Mindless violence, as Marxist-Leninist extremism and Maoist insurgency in the past have shown, seems to be a cultural trait of populations cut off from their roots.
If it acquires communal or religious overtones, handling such instances would be an even bigger challenge. The tinder seems to be awaiting miscreants with matches.
Lal contributes to The Week with his biweekly column Reflections. He is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.