The Keeper of Conscience

  • Smriti Mallapaty
  • Tuesday, December 24, 2013
  • 1 Comment
NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati
Image: NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati

Hutta Ram Baidya, Nepal’s first agricultural engineer and indefatigable campaigner for the restoration of the Bagmati River’s environmental and cultural health, passed away this morning due to complications arising from a chronic lung condition at Norvic Hospital in Kathmandu. He was 94 years old.

The following article by award-winning environmental journalist Smriti Mallapaty was published in the first volume of La.Lit in January 2013.

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In Kathmandu, Hutta Ram Baidya is known as the “Bagmati man”. He has spent decades trying to restore the cultural status and environmental health of the Bagmati, the capital’s principal river. The High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization (BCIDC), responsible for implementing river restoration, formally acknowledged Baidya’s contributions in 2007. At an event organized in his honour by the Nepal Water Conservation Fund in June 2012, director Dipak Gyawali lauded Baidya as “the keeper of conscience”.

But the degradation of the Bagmati is a problem Baidya has not been able to solve.

The Bagmati has become Kathmandu’s sewer: it pools in the winter, rots under the summer heat, then swells in the monsoon, flushing away untreated sewage and solid waste produced by millions of Kathmandu residents. People protect themselves from the river in various ways: they pinch their noses, wear face masks, speed-walk, shut their windows, move further away, treat their water, dig deeper wells. Hardly any living organism can survive the worst-polluted stretches of the river in the city’s dense urban core.

To get to Baidya’s house I have to cross the river at just such a stretch. There’s tension under the Thapathali bridge – two days after my visit the government will send in riot police and bulldozers to evict squatters settled along the river bank, as part of its river rehabilitation work.

What does Baidya think of the river’s state? What of his own attempts to save it?

 

Hutta Ram Baidya leads most of his casual visitors to a waist-high cement platform on his patio to show them the model of Gandhi’s spinning wheel he smuggled out of Allahabad in his college days, and the “khutruke” chest he designed for collecting coins – named after the sound the coins make as they drop – khutruk, khutruk.

If the visitor stays longer, she will be shown more. The gluey lids of Baidya’s swollen eyes lift – the left more than the right – and peer through the thick lenses that rest on a tripod of high cheekbones and beaked nose. His slim lips tighten. “Have I shown you my workshop?” he asks, meaning “May I?” No. Yes. He gives me a wide smile.

There was a time when Baidya would flit down to his workshop to hammer, chop, or boil a solution out of any problem. These days he can’t trust his worn body of 92 on the narrow staircase, and can do little more than dictate the hypothesis of a solution. When he stands up with the help of his cane, I follow, and then lead him carefully down the stairs. “I designed this house myself,” he says of the open-terraced, two-storey building. All the doors we pass are padlocked, except for the one to his workshop. Baidya’s gaze softens as we enter the dark, dusty room.

He tunes his ensemble of instruments as we pass them – from the carpenter’s clamp to the chemist’s flasks, from the butcher’s knives to the gardener’s rake. He lifts a saddle as if to go riding, then peers into an incubator. He shows off a few of his creations: the model of a smokeless chulo, or stove, which he invented for his rural development projects, and a pineapple cutter he designed for a friend’s factory. There are several sculptures developed for interactive learning programmes, including a 3D flower with moveable parts, as well as a light tracer box and a stand to which goat jawbones of various sizes have been nailed. His latest invention is a modification of a blowtorch for zapping weeds.

A rat scampers past us. Baidya lunges at it with his cane. His execution is as slow and feeble as his wit is quick and cutting; the rat simply skips past the raised stick.

“I am a negative man,” he says as we exit the workshop, perhaps depressed by the undermining effects of age on his body.

 

Diminished by age or not, Nepal’s first agricultural engineer has always been a man committed to finding technical solutions for human problems. Dhan Bahadur Magar, a journalist who believes that the future of Nepal lies in agricultural development, has spent the last two years chronicling Baidya’s life for a forthcoming biography. Magar admires his subject’s moral integrity – he calls him (father) out of respect – and checks off the life lessons illustrated by Baidya’s experiences, only occasionally questioning his unyielding character.

Baidya didn’t follow the family trade. “Hutta Ram always wanted to be an engineer,” says Magar, who traces his subject’s lineage back to the ayurvedic physicians of the mediaeval kingdom of Simraunghad, in what is now Parsa district. Baidya’s father Ratna Das served as the first medical doctor of Nepal.

Born on January 10, 1921, Baidya was a playful, curious child. He would play with his best friend Krishna by the temple behind his house, among the grapevines, holy basil, and pomegranate plants, where a green snake would sometimes bask in the sun with them. The Tripureshwor complex he lived in had a palatial setting. Tukucha, a tributary of the Bagmati, flowed past the property, and Baidya would visit it regularly for ritual purification, prayer, and play. “My Bagmati”, he called it.

In the kitchen, Baidya would admire how his mother and sister used the grinding wheel to make wheat flour for roti. And he loved to play with the John Crouch microscope, binoculars, and toolbox his father had brought back from a trip to England with Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana in 1908 – a state visit undertaken, among other reasons, to open imports for industrial, agricultural, and scientific machinery.

Ratna Das passed away when Baidya was 14. While his two elder brothers went on to study medicine in Calcutta, Baidya decided to nurture his childhood interests. On a trip to Birgunj, he slipped away to Uttar Pradesh to inquire how Nepalis could get scholarships to study agricultural engineering in India. In those days, access to education in Nepal depended less on wealth than on the social standing of one’s family vis-à-vis the ruling aristocracy. Eventually, Baidya was able to secure permission to enrol in the agricultural engineering programme at the University of Allahabad.

Enterprising as he was, Baidya felt insecure because his English was much weaker than that of his classmates. He remembers his first presentation, when he stared at his class in anguished silence for the whole two minutes allocated to him. A mediocre student, he regularly failed his practical exams, and would have failed the course entirely if not for his professor’s leniency towards foreign students. Since Baidya expected to become a government bureaucrat, he saw little value in the applied areas of his education. He describes his attitude at the time: “I thought to myself – I am not going to drive a tractor. I am going to be a boss of the people who drive tractors.”

 

Back from India, Baidya joined the civil service in 1947 and married a very young Sharadha Rajbhandary the following year. As an agricultural engineer, Baidya earned 1500 rupees per month – a princely sum in those days. “To get a job at the time, you needed to make an offering of coins and bow to the Ranas,” notes Magar. “He did all of that.”

Baidya spent the next 14 years as a government bureaucrat in rural agricultural development, then two decades as a consultant, before working for the Peace Corps. His professional experiences informed his worldview, and he developed a set of standards to live by. “In a systematic, scientific way, I developed this philosophy after I returned from college and started handling agriculture extension,” he says, referring to the services provided by the government to farmers.

An engineer at heart, Baidya has a fundamental faith in technical solutions to solve human problems. Even in recounting the moment of his wife’s death, he appears to blame a defective washing machine and the fact that he couldn’t fix it in time.

“She died in this house,” he recalls. “We had a washing machine. I was in the courtyard when my wife cried, ‘Come up, the machine is wrong.’ I said, ‘I will come and look at it – don’t cry, don’t shout.’ But then I heard her shout, ‘Call my second son!’ In our culture, the younger son is closer to the mother. When I went back up she fell from the chair she was sitting on. I took her on my lap. She cried out, ‘Where is Bijaya? Where is Bijaya?’ and collapsed.”

“What happened? Did the machine do something to her?” I ask.

“The inner part of the washing machine that mixes the water was missing. It was not working. The machine is still on my rooftop.”

“But what happened to her? Did she have a heart attack?”

He pauses, perhaps grasping for an alternative history, the possibility that she might have lived had he fixed the washing machine. “Yes, a heart attack. The doctor had told her not to work. But the pressure from the machine was stronger than her heart could withstand, and she died.”

Baidya understands, of course, that technical solutions are not the whole story. His position is qualified by three simple requirements – that solutions be achievable, sustainable, and universally applicable. Achievable, in that the problem solver is personally invested in solving the problem: ideally, one should be solving one’s own problem. Sustainable, if problem-solving is an active process. One can’t learn to drive without sitting in the driver’s seat, Baidya says. And universally applicable when it is simple, and achieved using or reusing minimal resources in as socially inclusive a manner as possible. “What can you do with what is available in a poor man’s house?” He suggests turning the bed over to make a board on which children may learn to write with charcoal picked from the hearth, for instance.

Of the three conditions, the last is the most surprising to find a man of his stature living by. A casual observer might confuse his principles for miserliness, especially when he suggests using the nib of a dried-out highlighter as a paint brush, and refuses to throw away even the smallest scrap of paper. But his principles take shape as human qualities, and have become the standards by which he judges others.

On one of my earliest visits to Baidya’s home, I manage to fit all of his microscope slides into a tiny box. He pats me on the back, grateful, but also pleased that I should be able to employ my hands to solve his problem. The next day, I am asked to fold a sheet of paper in such a way that it may be cut into a five-point star with a single snip – if I manage it once, I will never forget how. From then on, he welcomes me not so much as an interviewer than as an apprentice. My “training” continues, with regular inquiries into whether I am “satisfied with the progress”.

I want to know how these principles relate to the river that brought me to him. But at meeting after meeting, Baidya resists talking about the Bagmati, eventually withdrawing from it entirely. “Just for a few hours, maybe even a few days, can you forget about the Bagmati? Shift your programme from Bagmati to non-Bagmati,” he says.

Magar is no different. He ends weeks of a thorough narrative with a rather short spiel on Baidya’s Bagmati-related work – allocating a minute per year for Baidya’s 20 years of work on the river. Baidya, too, seems resigned. One day, he declares, “I might die any time, any minute.”

“Are you not afraid of dying?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Now, there is nothing left that I can do,” he says, referring to the Bagmati.

I wonder about this. With all his purpose and drive, how does Baidya address death? How does a man who can’t but apply himself retreat from the challenge closest to his heart?

 

In the early 1990s, when the effects of rapid urbanization and population growth began to transform the river, Baidya attempted to reverse the damage to the river. By then, his wife had passed away, his children were abroad, and he had retired from the Peace Corps.

Naturally, he took the approach that had worked so well for him in the past.

He started by trying to bring the public closer to the river. On a trip to Egypt, he had been astounded by the public’s rejection of their ancient civilization, and their apathy towards the Nile. He drew the conclusion that attachment to a coherent historical identity was integral to maintaining riverine health. The notion of a “Bagmati Civilization” was conceived to unify Kathmandu Valley denizens in a shared cultural heritage that revolved around the river.

“Everybody knew about sanitary discipline along the river,” Baidya recalls, but amnesia had now settled over the civic conscience of his childhood. In 2011’s Reigning the River,* Anne Rademacher relates how the Bagmati Civilization theory “identifies two consequential strains of forgetting: a general social forgetting of the rivers and their significance and an administrative forgetting – a failure of the state to adhere to its river stewardship responsibilities.”

Baidya believed action was necessary, but, as Rademacher explains, such action “could only be taken by a populace fully conscious of the unique cultural attributes of the Kathmandu Valley and its rivers. Baidya referred to this consciousness as “remembering the Bagmati Civilization,” and he elaborated the details of Bagmati Civilization history in widely circulated publications, interviews, and speaking engagements.” By tying issues of river health to long-held social and religious traditions, Baidya was suggesting that the way forward was to journey backward.

In 1997, Baidya wrote a paper titled “The Endangered Bagmati Civilization of Kathmandu Valley”, which summarized the genesis of the Bagmati Civilization, tracing it to the legend of the Bodhisattva Manjushree who is said to have drained the Kathmandu Valley’s waters by slicing into Chobhar. Rivers took shape and the fertile land proved ideal for human settlement. Over the centuries, Buddhist tantrics, Hindu saints, royal dynasties, traders, and plunderers added character to the Bagmati Civilization. But the narrative of cultural maturation ends around the time of King Mahendra’s reign, beginning half a century ago. The socioeconomic dynamics that followed engendered only disrespect for the river, Baidya claimed.

Besides evoking a sense of a collective loss, Baidya called for active public involvement in river improvement using low-cost home-grown technologies. Early on, as part of the “Save the Bagmati Campaign”, he organized the community for a Pashupati clean-up, shaving bamboo poles for garbage-pickers himself. He suggested that people collect discarded shovels to build barriers against riparian sand and water loss. He wrote articles about the need to construct gabion dams to prevent rapid sediment loss, plant trees, and prevent construction along the river banks.

But Baidya could not transform the awareness he had raised into a popular action-oriented movement. Disillusioned, and without a workforce, he gradually withdrew from public engagement. He felt sidelined by a force too powerful to resist, a force that defined all modern interactions with the river, especially those involving the state.

Money, he thinks, was the cause of his isolation.

“People have started believing that the Bagmati is simply a source of money,” he says. Society has pinched Saraswati to plump Laxmi, forsaking knowledge to pay court to that quick-drawing gambler of a goddess: “Money is honoured. If a person has money, he is honoured.” This new value system has created incentives that encourage people to mine the riverbed for sand, extract water, and skimp on wastewater treatment and solid waste management.

 

One afternoon, a pair of reporters for Kantipur Television charges into his room unannounced. They ignore me and point their camera and microphone at Baidya for an impromptu interview. He warily agrees to engage.

“What was Kathmandu’s environment like when you were young?” asks one of the reporters as she helps him sit up. She is probably looking for a generic comment about its formerly pristine state.

“Are you going to pay me?” Baidya inquires with a wily smile.

She smiles too, a courteous guest. She’s been here before and he has never asked for money.

“The other day I was ignorant. Now I have become knowledgeable. Without money I won’t do anything anymore.”

Her bangles jangle. She tries to be patient, but she is short on time. Her mobile rings. The driver is waiting for them on the busy street outside.

Baidya doesn’t back down. He has the whole day to spare, and he is beginning to enjoy himself. “What productive value do you get from this visit?”

She rephrases her question.

He responds, “We were disciplined. For us –”

“No, Kathmandu. How was Kathmandu?”

“It was disciplined.”

He leans back and eases into his usual lecture about Saraswati’s virtues and Laxmi’s vices, except this time Laxmi is wearing pants, evidence of cultural unravelling. “They’ve been swallowed by fashion.” He has a guilty audience before him – both the reporter and I are wearing pants.

Another ring on her mobile. Her time is up. She signals to the cameraman to stop recording, quickly ties up the conversation and thanks Baidya. She backs away, concerned about the decline of a man who’s just acted the fool before her. “He used to respond so eloquently,” she murmurs to me. “He’s really aged since then,” she says, as if to justify his behaviour. Or hers.

 

Before the reporters arrive, Baidya is telling me a story:

“An educated bird raised in a rice paddy flew out and landed on a coconut tree. He started pecking at the coconut, but ended up breaking his beak. His expectations were not fulfilled. He was educated, he could have done it, but he did not do it right.”

Though this is not his intention, I take the story as a useful metaphor for why Baidya’s efforts to save the Bagmati have been unsuccessful. As Rademacher points out:

An implicit effect of the Bagmati Civilization narrative is a clear accounting of which identity, class, and caste groups could stake legitimate claims not only to the riverscape but to the Kathmandu Valley itself. If the crisis of the rivers was a crisis of forgotten history, only those with a legitimate claim to that history could undertake effective restoration.

In using the Bagmati Civilization as a device for inclusion, Baidya excluded a large portion of the population of the Kathmandu Valley. This limited participation in what was meant to be a grassroots campaign.

In the last 60 years Kathmandu’s population has grown from less than 200,000 to almost two million (three million in the whole Valley), largely as a result of migration from the villages. In his 1997 paper, Baidya stops short of including these migrants in his historical and cultural narrative of the river:

Unfortunately, however, for the last three decades immigration became an influx of unmanageable dimension. Different ethnic groups from all over the present day Nepal and beyond its national boundaries moved into the valley. No attempt was made by the new comers to understand, to accept and to respect the Bagmati Civilization of Manjushree. There was no time for cross-cultural orientation between the immigrants and the old residents. They could not understand and accommodate themselves within the available civil facilities and the cultural structure of the valley.

Since Baidya’s efforts, other groups have formed that draw on various associations with the river. At Sankhamul, the volunteer Bagmati Sewa Samiti is reconstructing the ghāt, the steps leading down to the river. The Nepal River Conservation Trust is run by a group of river guides who host the annual Bagmati River Festival. Actors such as the state (which Baidya dismisses as having contributed to the devaluation of the river) have appropriated the civilization narrative to buoy their own efforts. The government’s latest Bagmati Action Plan (BAP, 2009-2014) describes a familiar story of kings and commoners building inns, travellers’ shelters, stone water spouts, and temples along the river. “It is widely believed that the civilization of the Kathmandu Valley starts from the Bagmati river,” it asserts.

The BAP also draws on concern for nature and aesthetics, and on the potential for economic development through river development – an idea Baidya was loath to incorporate into his arguments. “Conservation of the Bagmati river system is one of the pressing issues we have to deal with in order to transform this city into a real capital city,” Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai said at a recent symposium organized by BCIDC, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the Asian Institute of Technology’s Alumni Association. Work on the Bagmati needed to be “directed to emancipate people from socio-cultural discrimination and poverty.” River restoration, Bhattarai felt, was not only part of Kathmandu’s modern development, it would also improve the socioeconomic condition of the city’s inhabitants, including the very poor.

Baidya’s small-scale solutions did not match the scale and complexity of the problems facing the Bagmati either. Arbitrary and diffuse pollution of the river is now institutionalized and systematic – sewage and stormwater drainage networks funnel straight into the river. Wastewater treatment infrastructure is mostly non-functional, even while the infrastructure for water extraction is expanding exponentially. Activities like sand mining, solid-waste dumping, and washing along the river banks are unregulated. River transformation is no longer possible without coordinated action with strong support from the state.

 

On September 8, 2012, the government bulldozed 250 squatter homes under the Thapathali bridge, barely a few hundred metres to the east of Baidya’s Tripureshwor home. According to BCIDC chairman Mahesh Bahadur Basnet, the long-term plan was – and still is – to resettle the squatters on the outskirts of Bhaktapur. But the government had made no arrangements to provide shelter to the evicted squatters in the interim. A hasty decision was taken to move the now-homeless squatters to the abandoned Himal Cement Factory at Chobhar.

When I ask Baidya why he doesn’t like talking about the Bagmati, he brings up the Chobhar decision. He points to a large banner in his room, printed with a picture of himself and his three children at a religious event. He has glued a white A4 sheet over a dark blotch on the side of his daughter’s face – the result of unfortunate lighting – explaining that the mark “hinders my direct communication with my daughter.” Baidya says the government’s efforts to resettle the squatters at Chobhar is disfiguring the face of the Bagmati, and disturbing his relationship with his river. “Chobhar is the outlet of this valley. It is like Bagmati’s tika,” he says, referring to the religious mark Hindus wear on their foreheads.

Resistance from the locals eventually prevented the squatters from moving to the cement factory. After similar rejections at alternative sites, the government decided to relocate them to squatter settlements still standing along the river corridor.

 

In 1995, the Nepali daily Kantipur published a brief letter by Baidya titled “Let my Bagmati survive, even if I die.” It begins:

Dear Editor, I have had neighbourly relations with orphan mother Bagmati for the last 74-75 years. I cannot break this closeness.

Baidya continues by regretting the lack of government commitment to river protection, and ends on a sharp note:

We should be ashamed to see the destruction of culture in the name of development, but we are not. We should be sad, but we are not.

Let not tomorrow anyone say to us – thukka Nepaliharu! (Shame on Nepalis!)

Let my Bagmati survive, even if I die.

Neither Baidya nor the government have much to show for their efforts to save the Bagmati. But for Hutta Ram Baidya, it is a public loss, as well a very private one.

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*Rademacher, Anne. Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu (New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century), Duke University Press Books, 2011.

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Smriti Mallapaty is currently based in Japan and is an environment and science journalist. She was recently awarded the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation/UNCA Gobal Prize for coverage of climate change (Bronze).

One comment on “The Keeper of Conscience

  1. Pingback: Occupy (yourself) | la.lit

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