A Profile of the Nepali Middle Class

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A Profile of the Nepali Middle Class

This phenomenon of conspicuous consumption among rural families has awakened in them the need to make money by any means.

--BY JAGDISH PRASAD AGRAWAL

A Nepali middle class family is no less or better than any middle class family on the Indian sub-continent including South Asia. An important part and parcel of Nepal’s evolution from the end of the Rana Regime to this day of democratic modernism, the Nepali middle class family has have been at the forefront of spearheading all the social and political transformations that have taken place so far, be it the downfall of the Rana Regime, the restoration of democracy, the end of monarchy, federalism, Maoist insurgency and Terai-Madesh movement. 

These are very important events in the history of Nepal and Nepali middle class families have not only conceived those events but executed them meticulously, undergoing trails and travails in between. Not only in political transformation but also in the areas of social and economic development have they provided the lead and shown entrepreneurship, and, as a result, Nepal, though a least developed country, has progressed leaps and bounds in the last two decades in the human development index. Because of expanding economic activities in the country and remittances from abroad the poorer section of our society has scaled up to be included in the middle income group of families and the latter has swelled to create a bigger market for consumables in the country itself. 

The satisfying part is that this swelling of the middle income family group is happening across the country and especially so in the rural areas. The aspirations of the rural sector have gone up exponentially and consequently the whole of Nepal and its economy seems to be morphing into an urban milieu. The pleasantly surprising fact is that the women folk of the poorer section of society have woken up to their potential and are lending their voices to their demands for inclusiveness. They are adventurous, enterprising and risk takers. They are getting educated and taking the initiative to participate along with the men-folk in any national developmental work. Unlike in India middle class families do not represent demand only but also social resurgence. This is a new positive development in an otherwise individualistic salvation seeking Hindu middle class whose emphasis had always been on the self rather than his/her relation to society.

In Transition
The Nepali middle class is in a transition where the urbanites and especially the educated youth have developed a scientific outlook and rationality in their approach to conducting their day to day life. They are no more idealistic and face conflicts more pragmatically. The past exists as a curiosity, experience as a backdrop. The traditional values of austerity, renunciation, sacrifice no longer appeal to them. The middle class in Nepal as in India also is torn between faith v/s rationality, means v/s ends, ethics v/s pragmatism, secular v/s religion. With the supremacy of the older generation in the decision making process in politics and governance still there, there is simmering unrest among the youth to assert themselves.

The ideological framework in which the Nepali middle class families grew in the past, imbibed as principle element, an acceptance of the role of ethics in society, probity in public life, sensitivity to the poor, belief in austerity, rectitude, charity and dharma. The feudal nature of the social structure percolated in a hierarchical management of the families. As happens in any feudal society the families become more and more status conscious, lost on substance and the value system as they came in conflict with modern competitive liberalism. Today it cannot be said that a Nepali middle class family is committed to the old ideals as tenaciously as their fore-fathers used to be. The irony is that we swear by those ideals but in practice follow pragmatism as a matter of convenience. This erosion in values of the past and the absence of any replacement by a next set of principles has made trust and interrelationships fragile.

However, a middle class family in Nepal as elsewhere in neighbouring countries is marked by a few traditional characteristics which they have inherited from the past and howsoever hard a family may try to bury them, these characteristics have been reinforced so many times through many generations that to obliterate them also will require many years. Some of them relate to an individual’s probity and integrity while others concern his social behaviour. Integrity in personal life, religiosity in family life and conservatism in social life were the characteristics they imbibed from their allegiance to religion Belief in the other world, faith in a super protector and fear of the omnipresent overseeing any wrong doing was the fountainhead of the innocence of middle class families till a few years ago.

90 percent of Nepali families observe the Hindu way of living. Rai, Limbu, Magar, Gurung, Tharu and Newars, though have their own rituals and way of worship but all of them relate these to originating from Hinduism. Even Buddhism which many Nepali families follow has precepts which are part and parcel of Hindu scriptures. Over the years Hinduism has become an ocean, a big melting pot into which many tributaries of different shades of water have poured in. The characteristics of Nepali middle class families have had a lasting impact from the Hindustic milieu in which they flourished unlike as in India where the impact of Muslim culture and the British modern colonial concepts were also significant. However, Pawan Verma in his book “The Great Indian Middle Class” has succinctly asserted, to paraphrase, that there can be no real assessment of some of the identifiable traits of middle class without taking into account the legacy that Hinduism, the religion of the overwhelming majority of masses, has bequeathed and the influence it continuous to have even today. The individualistic religious fervor in Nepali middle class families becoming more and more ingrained socially is evident from the number of collective festivities that are organised and participated in by a cross section of society today. These festivals have contributed enormously to social integration. 

Conflict Induced Migration & Post-Conflict Consumerism
A Hindu state till a few years ago, the secularism enshrined in the newly promulgated constitution is not fully understood by the people but in practice they are tolerant of any other religion and co-exist with their followers without any malice towards them. This is secularism at its best. Nepal has been ruled by Kings for the last 200 years and it is only after their reign ended that the power has come into the hands of the people. During monarchical rule Nepal was almost a closed country for many decades. The rural families considered Nepali Kings to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It was in the interest of the Kingship also that these rural families remain surrendered to their fate. But during the Maoist conflict, the youth from the villages, though unskilled and uneducated had to venture out to distant promising lands which proved to be a boon in disguise not only for the economy of the village but the nation as a whole. This migration to distant lands has had social pros and cons but the remittances that poured in changed the total ambience of poverty into affluence. 

Simultaneously, with the opening up of the markets and the end of conflicts, land prices skyrocketed and the rural lands started to be sold at very high premiums for purposes other than agriculture. This sudden influx of money from abroad and the sale of land has ballooned the number of middle class families to an extent where they have become a force to be reckoned with in Nepali politics. Migration achieved for Nepali scheduled castes and tribes what the reservation system in India could not do for the last six decades.

The rural sector in Nepal is witnessing an unprecedented consumerism with international styles of clothing /fashion /eating etc changing the rural landscape which is in no way different from the urban cities. The import of vehicles, cars and motorbikes in the last decade vouchsafes the growth in the purchasing power of the rural as well as urban sector. The rising trend of owning a vehicle reflects not only growth in income but surplus income which is invested in conspicuous consumption for status. This phenomenon of conspicuous consumption among rural families has awakened in them the need to make money by any means. The rural families which kept aloft the beacon of honesty, integrity and hardwork and were always trustworthy, have lost their credibility in the rat race of making money.

The redeeming feature is that the middle class families whether urban or rural have become a prime source of contribution to the development of the country. It has dawned upon those living in villages that by educating themselves they can also avail of the opportunities of scaling up the ladder which so far they had thought to be the privileged domain of the urbanites. Today’s middle class families provide the bureaucrats, politicians, academicians, professionals, intellectuals and what not. They are the opinion-makers, law-makers, and judges. They have excelled in sports, music, and writing. The service industries such as banking, tourism, insurance, and financial services tap their human resources from the pool created by it. They are self-employed as well as entrepreneurs. They work abroad. The profile of the average Nepali middle class youth is that of a person who has skills, style and can compete with anybody else from anywhere. Global exposure has given them confidence as well as skills.

But despite these achievements the journey of a middle class family seems to be patchy because amidst affluence and modernity there are the scars of untouchability based on caste and creed, social segregation, extreme poverty, urban slums, human trafficking, smuggling across the borders, cases of rape and other criminal activities. Inequality of income is glaring. There is a nexus among politicians, bureaucrats and the contractors in siphoning off public money. Corruption is rampant. Society is still feudal and rent-seeking. Though the migration from Terai / Madesh had been as swift as from any other province of Nepal, the modernity in this region is slow to come, may be it is so because of illiteracy and the rigidly conservative social structure. It may also be that developmental efforts in these regions have been less enthusiastic or that the political leadership from these regions has been poorer or a combination of all of them.In today’s milieu the new generation of young people has been struggling on the one hand to make both ends meet and, in parallel, they have chosen to deny themselves the convenience and assurance of the joint family.

Strengthen The Social Institutions
The social institutions of the past are falling apart. Marriage is a contract, child-birth is a hassle, social-media is close to their heart whereas inter-family communication has come to a standstill. This is universal and the Nepali middle class family is not untouched. In order to catch up with others, federalism will definitely help but the initiative will have to be taken up by the awakened middle class families by being more rational than sentimental at work. A work culture has to be inculcated thereby segregating the personal and professional. Efficiency and merit and not favouritism and group allegiance will have to be the guiding principles in our decision making process. There is no reason to believe that the patches that we see in our society of poverty, ill health, illiteracy, caste, creed or untouchability etc in pockets can definitely be removed if we focus our attention on them and seek their help to improve their fate by themselves. 

Unlike in British India, where the middle class was created by the British colonists to perpetute their regime, in Nepal the poor people themselves have stirred up to upgrade themselves. However, we have to be cautious that once socially and upwardly mobile, the expanded domain of middle class families does not start to flamboyantly copy the nouveau rich denuded of any principles and morality- this has to be avoided at any cost.

The skepticism in Hinduism has found an endorsement in whatever one does, sometimes invoking Rama for the supremacy of means and other times invoking Krishna for the supremacy of ends. This quality in the Nepali middle class has to end in order for members to firmly establish themselves as contemporary modern individuals. Modernity demands that he/she connects with society and the community at large more meaningfully than he/she does now even for his/her own individual salvation.

The writer is the Chairman of Nimbus Group.

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