Redefining Social Activism

We are on to a heavy topic today. So let us start by taking a deep breath. Take one more! And one more please! Thank you!! Do you feel the air, do you feel more awake, do you feel more strength in your body? Great!

Okay we are ready then. If there is one thing I want you to remember out of everything I am going to say here today, it is this — Similar to the air you took in to keep your body going, social activism is the air for any society. It makes the society function and not fall in the hands of injustice, inequality and barbarism. It is NOT a profession that someone’s job is to “fix” the society. It is your promise to yourself, to the society you live in, to your forefathers who have struggled, worked hard, lived through many tyrants of their times and protected you, and it is a promise to the future generation that will walk this land, that YOU as an individual will do your part to build a society that is fair, just, and compassionate.

When I was young, your age probably, I used to believe someone who worked for I/NGO, UN or other development agencies are the social activist. Today, I will tell you about my journey that has led me to radically rethink this concept and definition of social activism I just gave you. I will tell you three stories that have shaped my beliefs on social activism and is driving the work I do in Nepal.

Let’s start with my first story. You know when I first got to the US 13 years ago, I was very surprised to find out there were so many subjects I could major in — way too many choices — it felt incredible. Then there was this major called political science, I always thought of politics and politicians as people who sip tea, do big inauguration speeches, cut different deals and represent Nepal in international forum. I used to probably somewhat condescendingly think what is there to learn in political science. I used to nonchalantly say to my friends who were majoring in political science, I am not interested in politics, it is a dirty game. I’d rather do economics and mathematics that has practical implications. Little did I know, I was just quoting what I had heard in movies, and what is usually said in our society. That was in my first year as an undergraduate. Come summer of my sophomore year (2nd year), I came back to Nepal volunteer at a children shelter. It was a good way for me to be back with my parents. Volunteering there, interacting with the street children who were then almost my age — was eye opening. They would talk about the life in the street, how they came to call streets their home, how physically and mentally difficult it was to live in the streets and most surprisingly hear about their family. That was the first time, I asked myself, how come we as a society have allow children to be left so unprotected. Most of the children were not orphans, they were run away children from their homes because of their step parents or harsh life of rural Nepal. That was the first time, I got pinched in my conscience. I cannot say anymore I am not interested in politics. Had we had strong child protection policies that protected children from their abusive parents, that promise them a life of hope, we wouldn’t have had street children I was interacting with then. Now let us revisit that statement I had told my friend — “I am not interested in politics. It is a dirty game”. If I were to say that I’d be just closing my eyes and turning my head away from the suffering of all the children in the street? And I cannot do that! Now there is a human face to social activism. This was my first lesson. What is the moral of the story here — When we talk about social activism or politics in Nepal, we talk about being affiliated with a political party. If we are not affiliated with a political party, we say we are not interested in politics. That experience corrected me. We need to have views on what we believe should be society’s norm towards every aspect that governs us. How we get it instituted is via policies that are guided by politicians we elect. We have to be political but not necessarily affiliated to a political party. And we need to hold anyone we elect responsible. What is absolutely wrong and unacceptable is this concept of being apolitical. Unless we choose to live in isolation like Henry David Thoreau, we live in a structure where others action and INACTION impacts us directly and our action and INACTION impacts others directly. So how can we shirk from responsibility which is as inherent to us as breathing?

Now comes my second story. You know we all get super angry when India claims, Buddha was born in India. And rightfully so, Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal. But I wonder what brings out so much passion about Buddha, whether it is just a marketing gimmick amongst ourselves to give us this false sense of security, that we are peaceful citizens of peaceful country. It feels like we live in a society of deep contradictions. My experience at the children shelter made me revisit and rethink about the 2004 beheading of Nepali man, who was going abroad to make a living and 11 others who were shot point blank (Read more here — http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3614866.stm). For those of you who were too young, I will recall the story 12 young Nepali migrants who were on their way to work for some contractor in Iraq doing simple things like cleaning and cooking. They were captured and brutally murdered without any negotiation without any demands. It also goes to show how cheap terrorists take Nepali lives. They usually demand ransoms or have negotiations when they capture hostages. But in our case, they killed the Nepalese. I am sorry to be recalling this horrific incident from past. But you have to know your society’s history. And I am recalling this unfortunate incident because there are two major learnings for us as individuals and as a society. We have created a society that has failed.

We always blame politicians, we blame the nepotism, incompetency, we blame what we can see and shirk responsibility. But here is the first lesson for us. We as a society failed to react to this traumatic incidence. What was Nepal’s reaction to the brutal massacre of Nepali men in Iraq? We saw religious riots. Yes, let others not tell lie to you or let you tell yourself this lie and let us remember — a land that we are so quick to point out is the land of Buddha — saw religious riots. Our Nepali Muslim community felt threaten not only in Kathmandu but outside Kathmandu as well. Here we clearly failed as a society to react to a traumatic event. What happened to us back then? I believe these are the problem that politicians can’t solve. This is a problem that needs to be solved by us. We looked for someone to blame and we choose to blame an entire community who was equally traumatized by the news of massacre.

There is yet another hard question that points towards us. Let me ask why is it that Nepali men and women who would go work as domestic servants without ANY holidays, clean the toilets, work in ungodly heat of Saudi Arab and Dubai to earn a living, but would hesitate to do so in Nepal. Sure pay is a reason, but I believe another reason which we shy away from talking in Nepal is asking do we as a Nepali society give those jobs the respect that they deserve. How much are people who tend the fields paid? The landlords pay them a handful of grains to feed the family at the end of the day. Is this not clear disrespect towards the farmers who tend the land? Do we bother to say hello to the sweeper sweeping the streets of Kathmandu, do we bother to say thank you to the janitor who cleans our office toilets, do we smile or wave a small acknowledgement at the person who is selling pau-bhaji? Let’s be honest. Rarely, do we do that. Unfortunately, we don’t respect certain profession here because our caste system has led us to believe certain professions are better than others, without teaching us it is really a full circle. Each component is equally important for a society to function. These are problems we as individuals who make up the society needs to solve.

When you stand up for these professions give them the respect they deserve, we create a society where everyone is respected regardless of their job. That is one way we are doing our duty of creating a society where everyone has space and everyone is respected.

You know how can we claim so much pride in Buddha, when we forget his biggest teaching — compassion? Compassion towards others by respecting their profession, forgetting the bounds set by the caste system, and learning to mourn together and learning to look inwards for solution. When you do this, then only you can be so proud to be from the same land as Buddha.

Perhaps it is one way to prevent losing our young men and women to Gulf and creating an inclusive society. This is social activism in my mind. It is your small acts that matter how we live and how the future generation will live. Through the small acts, we make sure such things don’t happen again.

Let me come to the third story. No doubt, our politicians have failed us, and we have failed to hold them accountable, we have gotten ourselves in a situation where our standard of living is a hostage to India’s whim. There was an unofficial blockade for 6 long months. A lot happened in Nepal — both good and bad. But one thing I learned is the cost of inaction is too high. It is too high that it keeps me awake at night and makes me work 20 hours a day. First sign of blockade was halt of the vehicle movement. The solution was in-house carpooling solution, it worked amazingly. It brought out the best in people. Suddenly, people became helpful they tore down their barriers and asked and offered rides. Second sign of blockade, no gas, again we were inventive, we went for electric, we went for woods, we went for dauas and churas. Third sign of blockade, no medicine. This was something where I scratched my head and said I don’t know how to make medicines, we need real technical knowledge for this. I forced myself into various coordination meetings at Ministry of Health. I was kicked out of few and I managed to stay in few. I realized quickly, government did not want to declare medical crisis, it did not want to have an honest discussion of who had stock of what and what hospitals needed which item. Any coordination meeting I went to was nothing more than figure pointing session. Amidst all of this, it was patients who were suffering. No one was asking the patients, whether they were being able to get the drugs they needed. Let me tell you the situation was bad, it was very very bad. If your grandmom got a heart attack and had to be rushed to hospital — first no vehicle, even if you manage vehicle, then you don’t know if she will get the life saving medicine to keep her alive. So imagine losing your grandmother to greed and mismanagement. UNACCEPTABLE, isn’t it?! Exactly.

We need to change regulations so that it never happens again, but all of us know change takes time. And like someone has aptly said — “You get the politicians you deserve”. Changing legislature, to change how bureaucrats work takes time. While we work on this, we also have to realize the cost of this battle. People fall sick, people need medicines. They can’t wait for system to change. Now know this, what we faced in Kathmandu for 6 months, is a chronic problem for people in rural Nepal. You have read probably in many newspapers, districts are out of drugs, patients are having to walk 8 hours to get medicines. Btw did you know there is law that says, government of Nepal will give out 72 different types of drugs for free from primary health post, health posts and sub-health posts? So how come districts have shortage? How come patients have to die due to simple curable illness?

Is it not our responsibility that we take care of each other? Medication for Nepal came to life with a very simple belief — basic health care is a human right and while we fight the larger fight of advocacy, empowerment, and change, we can’t let people who don’t have means and access to simply die, simply be a sacrifice of the society we have created. That would be the most discriminating society we live in.

So what can you do? I am sure the audience here is a diverse crowd, we are gathered here in the capital from various other districts. Here is the call for action — you can do something about it — Call your District health officer and ask, do you have the drugs you need to treat the patients? What is the stock level? Reach out to the health posts in your district and ask if they have the drugs? Go to logistics management division of Ministry of Health, it is in Teku, and ask when are they sending drugs to your district. Come volunteer at Medication for Nepal. More importantly, go ask the community from your district, if they are finding the drugs they were promised for free. See if someone is getting in the cycle of poverty to get better health. Take action! Redefine social activism by taking responsibility for your society.

I believe we all have extremely compassionate side that has been buried. All we need is to find that side of us and let that lead us to our actions and decisions. Let us create a society that is a compassionate one, not only a society that just calls itself Buddha land, else we will have laws but no law enforcement, we will have rules, but nobody will follow.

It is not enough to feel sorry and not act. Don’t think I am saying these things to make you feel guilty. Just working because you feel guilty is not sustainable. Instead find the compassion that, trust me, exists in you. And then work for the society you want to create. You might say, I am a student, I don’t have time, I have pressure from my family to earn and provide. You know I understand, but what you need to consider is when you do not actively participate in society, somebody else will make the decision for you and it might be the decision that you absolutely disagree with. For some time, you might be inclined to believe that everything is fine and dandy, but in society everything comes back — ACTION and INACTION. I’d like to quote Martin Niemoller, who spoke out against Hitler -

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — 
 Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — 
 Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — 
 Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Even if it is an hour in a week, or whatever it is, get creative, take time out to be an active member to shape the society. It is a long and hard battle, but it took us a long time to get here as well. So let us fix us first to fix the society.

We live in a country, where you can’t NOT wear an active social activist hat. Whether you are an engineer, anthropologist, doctor, carpenter, plumber, a teacher, a poet, or a student, you also need to be a social activist. We are not in a country, where most of our laws and law enforcement are in order. No unfortunately, we don’t live in such a society. I hope I have managed to do one thing for you — stop seeing yourself as separate from society, that no matter what profession you hold, you have a duty to become a social activist as well. Social activism is a concept. It is a thought that as an active member of society, you will form your opinion and convictions. You will NOT give the power to mold the society to someone else because it is a tough question to think about. Yes, molding society is not as easy as saying politicians shouldn’t be corrupt, there should be no nepotism, we should have competent leaders. These are the easiest things to say and point out, especially when we have 10th graders and 8th graders in important positions. But what is not easy is finding a spot for ourselves in that machinery called society. Molding society means how do each of us become the tiny wheels that helps to run the large wheel smoothly.

Now let me just briefly introduce myself. While I have agreed to be labelled social activist, I don’t see anyone in the panel who is not. Actually I am working in my start up, rolling the big ball called my idea uphill, and I am trying to launch a platform to connect patients directly with the helping hands — future of Medication for Nepal. But I still think of myself as a social activist. If you were to look at my academic career or my professional career, you will not see a bachelors or masters in social work. While I worked for an NGO, I left that sector with a realization that a larger scale change requires an entrepreneurial intervention, not a typical NGO approach. So all of my background should say — I am not a social worker or a social activist in traditional terms. But today in the terms of social activism that I have just defined — where I do not see myself as separate from society, where I am taking responsibility for the society I am building, where I DO NOT see social activism as a profession, I very proudly wear that title of social activist. I am a social activist, who is a socially and politically responsible citizen who feels the duty and the commitment to take action and make decisions that will make our society more just, equal, and respectful of all lives. I hope I have convinced you to do the same, along with your other titles such as engineer, doctor, manager or a student. And I will give you few very well-known names and not so well-known names whom you’d be very surprised also wear that title extremely proudly just as I do.

Mausham Shakya — he is always the first one to reach out, find community links to ensure help reaches. Denis Prajapati (on the right) — has used his social capital to negotiate with distributors every time to get drugs for the best rates to send to places that are facing big medicine shortage.

Go ahead be the social activist this society needs.