The Invisible Nepalis

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One of my teachers in middle school used to say, “Everyone can’t become a doctor. We also need rickshaw pullers.” I didn’t think he was funny.

As I reflect on the opportunities available to most Nepalis, I realize that most often don’t have a choice but to end up becoming rickshaw drivers or laborers. They are people who don’t have access to resources to make their lives better. They remain invisible in our country.

Only 12-15 percent of Nepalis live in or around urban centers; 23 million live in rural areas. Most of them are poor. Traditional social hierarchy prevents them from climbing up the economic ladder. How people treat them, or which water pump they have access to, is determined by their caste and gender, rather than their character. And their economic interests are not advocated in Singh Durbar and mainstream media.

Inequality has risen in the last decade. Nepal is one of the most unequal societies in the the world. According to the latest Nepal living standard survey, its top 10 percent population takes up more than 40 percent income, while more than 25 percent of the population doesn’t even make Nrs 54 per day.

Those who believe that poverty is confined within certain geographic regions are misguided. It’s everywhere. But you have better odds of not being poor if you live in a certain region or if you were born to a certain caste.

Your per capita income as a hill Brahman is likely to be two times higher than a Madhesi Dalit's. You are 10 times more likely to live in poverty if you are in Mustang or Saptari than if you are in Kaski

These numbers paint a picture of persistent exclusion of those at the lower socio-economic ladder. Inequality is a powerful threat to our stability and progress.

It’s useful to keep in mind that exclusion isn’t the only cause of inequality in Nepal. We often believe that getting into a good school or securing a good job is only possible if you have social ties to people in powerful positions. I know a lot of people who simply believe that hard work would not improve their life prospects; they believe that one's chances are determined more by one's caste and ties with someone wealthy.

Economic mobility can change inequality and nepotism. It will happen when we eliminate barriers that prevent people at bottom of the economic ladder to fully participate in the economy.

Yet we barely talk about ways to empower people economically. Today the country is largely embroiled in discussion about ethnic representation. We know that all 125 caste/ethnicity in Nepal have hierarchy within themselves. Political representation alone will not lead to economic mobility of those at the bottom of each of these ethnicities. We must address economic inequality as we work to address political representation.

I believe whether you are a Manadhar or a Magar, you are looking for ways to earn a decent income. Whether you are born in Mahottari or Morang, you deserve a chance to succeed in life. As we continue to debate about ethnic representation in Nepal, we must ensure that there are no barriers to live a dignified life for every Nepali despite of his/her gender, ethnicity and religion.

@RaviNepal

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