NEPAL IS OFTEN CHARACTERIZED as a country caught in two different worlds, having one leg in the sixteenth century and another in the twentieth century. Entrenched in a feudalistic social structure, the deeply tradition-bound society increasingly was experiencing the pervasive influence of Western material culture. Most affected were the parts of the population that came in regular contact with Westerners. Nowhere was this juxtaposition of local traditional values and Western material culture more pronounced than in the Kathmandu Valley–the country’s most urbanized region. In the Kathmandu Valley in 1991, hordes of people took ritual baths in the highly polluted Baghmati River, especially near the temple of Pashupatinath, and walked to temples that dotted the valley’s landscape. Numerous peasants carried their produce to the market on bicycles or on what is locally called a kharpan, a device that resembles a large weighing balance and is carried on the shoulder. Yet, young boys wore T-shirts emblazoned with Michael Jackson or other Hollywood celebrities and watched “Miami Vice” or other American television shows. The skyline of urban areas such as Kathmandu, Siddhartha Nagar, and Pokhara was interrupted by television antennas. Copying Western popular culture and values had become the thing to do. Nepalese youth even took drugs, and the number of drug addicts had increased significantly in the 1980s. The adoption of Western popular cultural values has not, however, translated into much-needed technological and economic progress and a consequent reduction in pervasive poverty. Although youths, especially those living in and around urban centers, readily adopted Western consumer habits, they appeared to have little knowledge about more productive habits that the West exemplifies. Entranced by the tide of consumerism, Nepalese youths seemed poorly prepared or unwilling to do hard work and make sacrifices that were imperative for establishing dynamic economic production and development. As a result, consumerism outpaced productive capacity–a process that was clearly contrary to sustained socioeconomic progress–and the country remained in a state of economic backwardness.
Despite Nepal’s increasing contact with the West since liberation from Rana rule in 1951, the feudalistic yoke has not been broken. Even after thirty-five years of economic development planning, poverty remained throughout the country. Government intervention in economic development under the rubric of planning has led to a breakdown in the traditional patron-client relations. In the past, this relationship provided some security of survival–or what Karl Polyani termed in 1957 “the absence of the threat of individual starvation”–for the clients, although they were placed in a subservient position. In 1991 such patron-client relations had been replaced by wage relations, but planned development had not been able to create enough employment opportunities to gainfully absorb the clients who no longer could rely on their patrons. There was no doubt among observers that only an increasing flow of foreign aid and loans had kept Nepal from bankruptcy. Yet there seemed to be little evidence suggesting that the aid had, despite good intentions, alleviated mass poverty and uplifted the society as a whole. Unemployment among the educated was partially addressed through the continued expansion of government jobs, but such expansion resulted in bureaucratic redundancy and, in fact, hindered economic development. Furthermore, such a strategy had only a limited ability to reduce the mass unemployment and underemployment that typified Nepal’s society. Widespread unemployment and underemployment, which fueled poverty, further were exacerbated by continued rapid population growth. Despite a long-term and vigorous family planning program, the population had been growing at an increasing rate. Such population growth contributed to increasing environmental deterioration, given the frailty of the country’s mountainous environment.