Bhaskar’s tunnel

From The Kathmandu Post (23 October, 2014)

The time may have arrived when the professional diaspora can contribute to Nepal’s economic growth

As you drive westward from the California t own of Concord on Highway 24 towards Oakland and San Francisco, the road enters a tunnel that takes traffic under the Berkeley Hills. This tunnel was inaugurated last November to provide release for northern California’s ever-increasing road traffic, and is called the Caldicott Fourth Bore.

To many of his family and friends, however, this is ‘Bhaskar ko tunnel’. Its design and construction supervision was the work of geotechnical engineer Bhaskar Thapa. He had been handed a challenging job as lead engineer to tunnel through three layers of unstable rock strata in the seismic region, requiring high level of geological expertise and managerial skill.

Bhaskar oversaw the design, excavation and alignment of the Caldicott Fourth Bore, and was also responsible for the project’s excellent safety record. He employed the latest in tunnelling technology, using massive boring machines that chewed their way through rock on both sides to meet up with flawless precision at the heart of the mountain.

Bhaskar was proud of his achievement and had looked forward to driving his wife Sumira and two boys, Barune and Siddhanta, through the tunnel when it was completed. He died of a massive heart attack just short of his 50th birthday, on June 18, 2013. He was eulogised at the tunnel’s opening inauguration five months later, and his family and colleagues walked Bhaskar’s Tunnel. On a rock on a hillside above the western exit of the tunnel is attached an inscribed brass plate that highlights Bhaskar’s contribution.


Holding pattern

Bhaskar Thapa died at a time when Nepal was finally putting the post-conflict transition behind it and looking to a time of political stability, which in turn has led to economic projections that point towards infrastructure programmes. Nepal is finally coming out of its hydropower slumber, and Bhaskar’s up-to-date expertise in tunnelling technology in seismic terrain would have been vital in the design, evaluation, and oversight of so many upcoming projects in the home country.

Beyond hydropower projects, tunnels will also be needed in the proposed ‘fast tracks’ to Nijgad and Hetauda, highways elsewhere, and railways lines planned in the east-west and north-south corridors. Down the line, tunnels will have to be built for irrigation, mining, and underground urban transit.

The year before he passed away, Bhaskar was in touch with his engineering peers in Kathmandu, looking for ways to contribute what he knew. He was essentially on holding pattern to land in Kathmandu, while honing his skills in California as one of North America’s foremost tunnelling experts. He was in a hurry to return, but colleagues involved in infrastructure-building in Nepal advised him to wait a couple of years so that the dust could settle on politics following the promulgation of the new constitution.


Subsistence migration

While the Nepali landscape was populated through in-migrations from different parts during pre-history, the last two centuries saw out-migration from a country abundant in natural resources but driven to penury by autarchy and oligarchy. The departures began with ‘Gorkha bharti’ and continued in the clearing of lands from the Duars to Burma, to the Kalapahad of Himachal-Uttarakhand, and the Gangetic heartland and peninsular India.

Throughout, it was the poorest of hill and plain that left home and hearth for the plains, a subsistence migration to save the family. The larger home economy got sustained in the process. In the latest instance, during the conflict years of 1996-2006 and continuing to this day, it has been the additional remittance from labour migrants in the Gulf, Malaysia, and further afield that has helped the nation remain solvent. As many have said, it was not lord Pashupatinath who saved the country in this time of travail but the migrant labouring class.


Wheel of time

While the poorest helped sustain the economy, the migration of the better-off middle and upper classes of Kathmandu Valley was on a somewhat different trajectory. The latter category departed as permanent migrants, in order to settle down in the Shangri La of Western Europe, North America and Australia. They went as settlers, not as guest workers that had no choice but to return.

The families who moved overseas faced challenges like all other immigrants, and like the rest, their concentration over the first decades was on a safe landing in an alien land, completing studies, building careers (often in middle-age), settling down, managing the mortgage down-payment, raising children, and building savings. While there may have been indirect benefits, the permanent migrants to the West were not able to immediately provide either expertise or liquidity to the home country. The wheel of time had to turn somewhat for that to happen.

It is important to understand that the migration of Nepali middle- and upper-class professionals to Western shores began in earnest in the late 1970s, two generations after the rest of South Asia. This is why the impact of Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs) on the home economy and society is as yet less than that of the Non-Resident Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans. Simply put, and by and large, our diaspora has not had the time to consolidate livelihoods and earn big bucks. The quicker this is understood, the more realistic will be the expectations from the Nepali diaspora.

While Kathmandu looks to the NRN with great expectations, the fact is that on the whole, non-resident Nepali families have struggled to strike root in new soil, achieve economic stability, find leisure time, educate the children, and generate disposable income. Some continue to struggle hand-to-mouth while others have gained expertise in diverse fields as professionals, from banking to insurance, IT, engineering, medicine, civil service, and entrepreneurship. Nepal, which has thus far had to rely on the toil and remittance of labour migrants, would benefit from the contribution of these professionals.

Given the expectations, NRN professionals face the constant barrage of challenges from Kathmandu’s querulous—what have you done for, or are you going to do, for your country? First off, in the globalised world, let us not expect that everyone who has migrated needs to feel loyalty towards the mother country. For a person of Nepali origin doing well overseas, that is satisfaction enough and carries ancillary benefits without having to lay on the guilt trip. Further, when the level of income of the NRN professional rises, the benefits will tend to flow without anyone making demands.

But it is also important to consider whether Nepal has created the proper conditions for NRN professionals to be able to contribute. No one will disagree that those of us who ‘stayed behind’ have managed to rather mess up the polity and economy, whether as part of the political class or civil society. Rather than create the right conditions, if anything, we have diligently worked to make Nepal a country a nightmare for those contemplating packing up and moving back, or investing some hard-earned savings.

It did not help that, even as the NRN professionals were consolidating themselves in foreign lands, Nepal entered the long and dark winter of the ‘people’s war’ and the extended post-conflict transition. These were not the circumstances to encourage overseas professionals to take the risk and jump.


Sustenance and fulfilment

For too long we have romanticised the return of the NRN to ‘Nepal aama’. What we need to do rather un-romantically is to ensure political stability in a democratic state, which will ipso facto raise economic prospects. When that happens, we will find that there are enough professionals of Nepali origin out there who will make the required sacrifice, making compromises to return to a country that can promise them sustenance as well as fulfilment.

Bhaskar Thapa was one such person who was concretely planning a return. He had his hand on Nepal’s economic pulse, knew that the time was coming when the country would be able to utilise his cutting-edge skills as a geo-technical engineer. In his case, it was not to be. But there are many others like Bhaskar, waiting for the opportunity to contribute. And, fortunately, the conditions in Nepal are ripening.


Visit for a video of Bhaskar’s tunnel


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