Nepal: a yam between two stones

Nepal's natural beauties and friendly peoples make it a magnet for visitors, tourism increasing at least ten-fold in the last decade. But the country as a whole copes with severe problems - economic, environmental, and political. Its future also requires the forbearance of two powerful neighbors, India and China, as well as restraint by the more distant powers.

The Nepalese are among the world's poorest, with per capita income about $140 yearly. Many consider themselves lucky to earn $2 daily portering 70-pound loads in mountain snow outfitted in Chinese tennis shoes and Indian cotton. Even university professors earn only $150 per month. Government officials earn modest salaries, supplemented with fringe benefits, some extralegal.

Some upper-class Nepalese are against ''development,'' lauding instead tradition and survival of the fittest. They are not among the 150 Nepali babies who, from every 1,000 born, die in their first year. Despite high infant and child mortality, population grows at over 2 percent yearly, outpacing production of Nepal's fertile valleys and terraced hillsides. Demographic pressures accelerate deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution.

The root problem may be the lack of education. Nepal spends only $3 per capita yearly on education, compared with $5 in India and $8 in Sri Lanka. Only one in five of Nepal's nearly 15 million people is literate.

Only half the people speak Nepali as their native tongue. Anxious to promote the official language, the government has ordered private schools to stop teaching in English. The result is that most students wanting to attend university in Katmandu or abroad cannot follow lectures or write essays in English. Morale of prep school teachers and professors has plummeted. Members of the royal family have asked one school to resume teaching in English, but the government does nothing to defray costs of importing native English speakers or reduce visa harassment for foreign teachers.

Many educated Nepalese despair over their country's prospects. They try to leave or, if that is not feasible, to send their children abroad. Of those too poor or unqualified to attend Western universities, hundreds accept grants each year to study at Moscow's Friendship University.

Many Nepalese lament their country's dependence on foreign aid. For two decades, half the development budget has come from abroad, with considerable siphoning into private pockets. The United States was the first big donor, helping to eliminate malaria and build higher education. India and China are now the biggest donors, each building roads and other tangible projects such as hydroelectric plants. The US has slipped to ninth in dollar value donated, but it now seeks to strengthen institutions for health care, rural development, and maternal care - all vital areas where progress is hard to measure.

Though the USSR plays only a minor role in development in Nepal, the Soviet Embassy compound is larger even than China's, rivaling a feudal Malla Dynasty palace in size if not grandeur. Its functions? Moscow not only recruits students but tries to direct those who agree to work for Soviet aims. The embassy's cultural programs endeavor (in the words of a local attorney) to ''soften up our middle class.'' The embassy also contains powerful electronics to eavesdrop on the rest of Katmandu.

Of the great powers, Moscow has been the odd man out. India and China need Nepal as a buffer between them. Washington wants detente between Delhi and Peking generally, and hopes that the two will follow parallel paths in Nepal. The Kremlin, by contrast, prefers that India and China be estranged so that Delhi tilts north and Peking must look south. Moscow probably wants ferment in the Himalayan Kingdom as in the Middle East - neither peace nor war.

The deepest needs of India, China, and the US converge: All need a peaceful and independent Nepal on the road to development - the same goals espoused by Nepal's planners and leaders.

Since the late 1950s Nepal has pursued genuine nonalignment and sought, against geography and other forces, to maintain a political equidistance between China and India.

As in many countries, Nepal's greatest dangers and resources lie within. If Nepal cannot solve its own problems - provide improved living standards, greater political participation, justice and equal opportunities for all castes and ethnic groups - the fragile social peace that now prevails could be shattered. India might then exercise its rights under a 1950 treaty and intervene. This could trigger a confrontation with China, with the USSR ready to pick up the pieces, as in Indochina.

In the apt phrase of a former Nepali king, the country still resembles a yam between two stones.

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