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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Q & A: Alok K. Bohara

bohara_small.jpgThe head of Nepal Study Center tackles questions about Nepali academics in North America, as well as cotemporary economic and political trends in Nepal.

Alok K. Bohara, the founder and director of Nepal Study Center at University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, NM, is a familiar name in the Nepali diaspora. He is a professor of economics at the Department of Economics at UNM. He holds a Ph.D. in economics, awarded by University of Colorado at Boulder, for his dissertation entitled Time Series Models and Structural Econometric Model Specification (1986). He began teaching at UNM in 1987.

Dr. Bohara has watched Nepal closely over the years. His own hometown in Nepal is Tansen, Palpa. In this Q&A with Dharma Adhikari of Nepal Monitor, he tackles questions about Nepali academics and research in North America, as well as cotemporary economic and political trends in Nepal, including the recent Madhesi uprising in the Terai region.


Photo © Alok K. Bohara

You began teaching at University of New Mexico in 1987. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up in the USA and at UNM.
After getting a Masters in statistics from Tribhuvan University, I taught at TU for two years. But, I began taking interest in policy research, and started applying for Ph.D. programs in the US. After getting my Ph.D. from the U. of Colorado, Boulder, I spent a year as a visitor in the economics department, holding a joint appointment at a Research Center at CU. Following some American fellow students’ advice, I applied for some academic and non-academic positions. The University of New Mexico with its Ph.D. program turned out to be a good match for me.

Tell us also about how you managed to “survive” initially as a foreign faculty member, and rise to the ranks of a full professor.
In technical fields like engineering and IT there are a lot of opportunities because of the private companies’ needs and demands. Plus, you do not need Ph.D.s to land a good job in these fields.

In social science, however, most international students with Ph.D.s tend to go for the academic jobs. After landing a job in academia, they need to work hard to be ahead of the game by publishing in reputable journals. In addition, these faculty members on a tenure track position also need to teach and provide service to the university. That is, the competition is fierce, especially at a research university, and they can always terminate your contract at the mid-probationary stage after 3 years. At least for the first 6 or 7 years, we rarely had any free weekends. Substantive journal articles take at least 2 years to get published in our field, and you are expected to publish in high visible journals. Some of these journals have less than 10 percent acceptance rate. The bottom line is that you are expected to publish, publish, and publish. I tried my best and was able to create a sound research plan, and publish them in good journals. In addition to research, I also had to mentor and produce Ph.D. students and get involved in research grants. Anyway, after five years of receiving tenure and promotion to Associate professor, I applied and rose to the rank of full professor.

What are you doing at the moment, both in a personal and professional sense?
After getting full professorship and publishing more than 60/70 articles, I thought I could afford to think outside the mainstream publish-or-perish academic box. This new found flexibility has allowed me to explore other options such as 1) promote knowledge sharing through a research center like the Nepal Study Center and 2) reconnect back to Nepal by trying my best in whatever small way I could to analyze the political economy issues of interest (e.g., federalism, electoral reforms, corruption, poverty, conflict, and education).

How did the idea of Nepal Study Center originate? Who are behind this undertaking?
I was intrigued by the influx of the Nepali young generation students in the (US and elsewhere). Many are bound to stay here just like many of us. Furthermore, Nepal being in the middle of the Himalayan region had much to offer to the world in policy research issues in areas like: water resources, social justice, democratization, community forestry, conflict, fragile eco-system juts to name a few.

Many young scholarly minds from our part of the world tend to get lost in this vast land, and I felt that an academic platform could bring all of these minds together and promote Himalayan-related policy research and share it globally, especially with those in Nepal. I registered the Center under the College of A& S (University of New Mexico) as a not-for-profit organization.

I also began to talk to some Nepali friends about the idea and they encouraged me. There are too many names to mention, but one name that comes to my mind is Dr. Gaury Adhikary of the U. of Michigan. Upon his encouragement, I began to go to various Nepali association gatherings and began spreading the news about the Center. I even went to NRN conference in Doha out of my own expense. Also, having established the Center at a major research university like the U. of New Mexico, we were successful in networking.

Currently, there are several Nepali and non-Nepali scholars who are affiliated with the Center in various ways. The link to the Friends of NSC has a list of names. But, the NSC’s strong support also came from the UNM side – Department of Economics and Department of Political Science. Around the same time, a push to promote international education and linkages on the UNM campus also gave me the moral support. I began presenting the NSC idea to the UNM officials whenever I found an opportunity.

Can you describe the current programs and future plans of NSC?
The idea of the NSC is to provide a platform to promote knowledge sharing. To that end, it conducts high quality research, publishes journals, and organizes annual conferences and e-seminars, etc. A list is given below.

a. Annual Himalayan Policy Research Conference
(First conference concluded at Madison in Oct. 19 2006; second slated for Oct 11, 2007)

b. e-Seminars
(First concluded February 15-28 2007 on the Role of Private Sector Development in New Nepal.)

c. Publication of e-journals (Himalayan Journal of Development and Democracy (HJDD); Liberal Democracy Nepal Bulletin (LDNB)
(Several issues and postings are already online; LDNB has been catalogued by the Columbia Library, and has been included in the FirstSearch engine through the WorldCat.)

d. NSC seminar series at UNM
(Invited and facilitated talk programs by Dr. Ram S. Mahat, Dr. Shankar P. Sharma, and Dr. Devendra R. Panday)

e. Collaboration with the Liberal Democracy Nepal (LDN) to promote informed debate and deliberation about the political economy issues on Nepal.
(Oct 2005 DC workshop in collaboration with the NDI/DC)

NSC is also trying to focus on some additional efforts such as:

e. International collaboration with Nepali institutions and promotion of knowledge sharing;
(Discussion underway to help initiate a Graduate Program in Economics and Public Policy in Nepal)

f. Smart Village Initiative
(Discussion underway to promote telemicrofinance, telehealth and environmental research and educational awareness)

g. Research on Nepal and training of high quality future policy makers
(Nepali student recruitment into the UNM's doctoral program to produce high quality well-trained policy makers. NSC has already attracted 5 doctoral students into economics and political science programs of UNM)

h. Research post-doc and visitorship
(NSC has received several inquiries for visitorships at NSC (UNM))

i. Grant writing activities
(Has submitted an NSF grant for conducting annual Himalayan Policy Research Conference)

j. Himalayan Policy Research Papers Archive
(We are working to create an electronic archive to store Himalayan related policy research)

NSC is also contemplating in opening a sister NSC organization in Nepal within an academic setting.

Obviously, running a Center is not possible without adequate resources. You seem to be pretty good at grant writing, but how do you ensure a steady flow of funds to sustain the programs? Who underwrites the activities of NSC?
It is a very good question. The word Nepal on its title makes it sound very narrow, and presents difficulties in seeking grants. In the process of looking around for resources, I was offered resources if I were to change the title to something like the Asian Studies. After talking to some diaspora friends we came to conclude that having a name like Nepal Study Center is the best way to promote knowledge transfer to help Nepal and the surrounding Himalayan region. But still, the NSC’s scope is not narrow and its global approach to scholarly connectivity has far reaching implications.

Still, I urge the Nepali diaspora to be more forthcoming in providing financial support to keep it afloat in this highly competitive academic world.

Despite all of these, NSC has managed to secure about $6,000 from the Dean and the Chair of the Economics Department for staff support for the next two years. I have used my own faculty development funds ($2,500) into its development (computer, lock system, and projector).

Some members of the Nepali diaspora (e.g., Dr. Upendra Mahato, Aditya Jha, and Jiba Lamichhane, and also ANMA and many others) and some non-Nepali scholar friends have also given gifts both in cash and kind (totaling $15,000). Now, the NSC is focusing on programmatic related grant writing activities (e.g., A NSF grant has been submitted for the annual Himalayan Policy Research Conference). The website under giving has some details and the names of the donors.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that especially in the past few years, the numbers of Nepali faculties in US universities have grown dramatically. What is your assessment?
That is true, and it will gradually increase as more and more young generation students arrive in the US for higher education. I don’t have hard data, but the Nepali faculty in the US may be around 30-50. But, remember there are more than 100 to 200 non-Nepali scholars in the US (a guess) who are interested on Himalayan-related policy research with South Asian focus. And, if we expand this to include Europe and Australia, the number increases into several hundreds. Furthermore, there are many Nepali faculty in UK, Canada, Thailand and Australia. We include all of them within our academic fold.

Can you describe the nature of your contacts and involvement with other Nepali professors in the USA and in Nepal?
NSC is creating a strong network by organizing academic events such as the annual Himalayan Policy Research Conference (U of Wisconsin in Oct 19, 2006) or by publishing journals. And, we also send out newsletters. The latest e-seminar on the Private Sector Development involving the US and the Nepali scholars and policy makers is also an example of networking.

We have been trying to involve more Nepali scholars into our core academic activities. The Friends of NSC section on the web lists many names of interested scholars from around the world and Nepal. But the key is to receive active help, which is not always that easy. But, we are trying hard to reach out through the word of mouth, conferences, and other means.

Currently, we have scholars like Mukti Upadhyay from Eastern Illinois University, Vijaya Sharma of U. of Colorado, Gyan Pradhan from Westminster College, Kamal Upadhyaya of the New Haven University, and Ambika Adhikari of Arizona State University involved in the annual conference like the one in Wisconsin. In addition there are many others (e.g., Robert McNown of the U. of Colorado and Jeff Drope of the U. of Miami, Dale Alverson –director of UNM TeleCenter, Jennifer Thacher, Dr. Ram B. Khadka of Environmental Institute in Kathmandu, Kishore Gawande of Texas A&M), who are engaged in various activities of the NSC. These are just some examples.

Do you think it is about time that Nepali professors in North America form some sort of an association to learn from each other and grow professionally?
Yes, and NSC has already begun the process. Our goal is to form an Association of Himalayan Policy Research. We are going to devote some time during the upcoming conference in Wisconsin in October 11, 2007. Our idea is to then become a member of the ASSA (Allied Social Science Association). It is open to anyone from anywhere in the world (and Nepal) who are interested in policy related research on the Himalayan region and the countries in South Asia.

What is your assessment of US universities recruiting and retaining Nepali students in recent years? Many universities across the USA are making efforts in “internationalizing” their campuses. How could USA-bound Nepali students benefit from this? What are your suggestions to many Nepali students who would like to come to the USA for higher education?
Many universities have a strong presence of international students. The main focus has been in the area of engineering, IT, pharmacy, and other technical fields. But, the growing problems around the world and the increased globalization of world economies have both forced the US universities to expand its “international interests”. The rising economic clouts of countries like China, India, and Brazil have forced the US universities to create collaborative programs not just in the US but also in those countries. Nepali academic institutions have begun collaborative programs with the US universities. This includes video streaming of classroom instruction and some online courses. Nepali student should get some of these experiences in Nepal to stay ahead of the game when they finally arrive in the US.

What are your current research projects on Nepal?
We are looking at various issues such as the linkages between conflict, poverty, and geography. We are also working on health care access issues for women and children. Other ideas under exploration are food security, micro hydro, ethnic and gender discrimination, and environmental degradation in the Himalayas.

You have studied the Maoist conflict from a causal perspective, analyzing data on poverty, vulnerability and conflict. Can you describe in layman’s terms your approach, and what you found in your study?
There are three types of polarization that took place in Nepal: social, economic, and political. Thus understanding conflict will require a comprehensive approach in dealing with these polarizations, which requires us to go deep into the causal links. Our paper published in Journal of Conflict Resolution finds that the conflicts in Nepal are linked to rugged geography. But most important finding was the effect of social capital. In that, a place with high level social capital did provide less opportunity for conflict. Thus, erosion of social capital (e.g., community oriented program and activities and participation) in the rural area is the big loss for us, and we need to do everything in our power to build it up again.

From your theoretical perspective, do you see any difference or similarities between the recent Madhesi conflict and the Maoist conflict?
The Maoist conflict started out as an ideological war to create a class-less society, and to do so they used poverty, political corruption, social marginalization, and feudal exploitation as their rationality to enlist various ethnic groups for their cause to overthrow the ‘establishment.’ The Madhesi movement is for dignity and their ethnic identity against the socio-economic exploitation, and the exclusionary policy of the Kathmandu-centric power base.

Politics and public opinion in Nepal continues to be volatile. As a statistician, how reliable are polls that seek to aggregate public preference for a republic, democracy or a ceremonial monarchy, etc, especially since media polls within a week report contradictory findings?
Some Nepali organizations are trying their best to gauge the public opinion and assess them using various polling data. These organizations have collaborated with the international polling agencies to do such polls. This is a good sign that there is recognition of need for conducting polls based on some sound sampling framework. But still we need to be careful in making sweeping inferences. In politics, things move very fast, and these polls are just snapshots

How do you assess the state of the country’s overall economy? What is the real extent of economic damage caused by the conflict— $2 billion or more? How reliable are these numbers?
India and China are both growing to be the economic super powers. Both have been moving ahead with a double digit growth rate. Our political turmoil, on the other hand, has hurt us in taking advantage of these linkages. A conflict ridden country loses its charm as a place for investment. In fact, rural areas have suffered much in terms of basic development activities. As a result, people are either fleeing the countryside to go abroad for employments or moving their liquid assets in the urban areas. This will create more development gap between the rural and the urban areas. So, there is a direct cost of war in terms of damaged infrastructure (buildings, bridges, roads, communication, towers), but the bigger loss is in terms of opportunity cost. Furthermore, extortions, robberies, intimidations all add to the bad business environment and raises the cost of doing business in Nepal.

You also have watched Nepal’s development and environment closely. What are the current challenges and the prospects?
I am assuming you are referring to the environment in terms of ecology and not the business environment. As the conflict deepens or does not get resolved in a timely manner, economic opportunities in the mountain and the hill areas become scarce. Reliance on the environment (forest product) increases, and it puts migration pressure from the hills to the Terai. This ecological dependence between the mountains and Terai cannot be brushed aside. It is the lack of political-economy development that will devastate our fragile ecology.

How about out-migration? In recent years we often talk about foreign remittance—as much as Rs. 500 billion a year-- benefiting the country. How credible are these figures? Lahure Economy has historically been a major source of foreign revenues and it has a long history in the Gurkha mercenaries bringing their earnings back home. Are the migrant workers, the new Lahures, truly superseding other relatively modern sources of foreign revenue earners such as tourism or manufacturing (rugs, etc.)? What are the full potentials and side-effects of such an economy? Have we even exploited a fraction of it? Do you see any need in the shift in policy to make the best out of this economy?
Even a booming economy like India has seen much growth in its people seeking jobs in other countries and regions like the Middle East. This phenomenon will continue for a country like Nepal too. The only question for us is how to institutionalize it so that the country and the Nepali workers get the best out of it. The figure of around $1 billion may be in the ballpark. Nepal needs to decentralize its education system, and focus on the technical vocational education through a public-private sector partnership. Otherwise, illegal emigration to these countries (through India) will continue, and we will not be able to reap the benefit.

You also have studied conservation and the community forestry in Nepal. Any progress in this area? It is reported gobar gas is back and people are embracing it more than in the past.
One of the achievements of the post-1990 democratic era has seen in the area of community-oriented programs. Some statistics shows that the percentage of households with an access to electricity has reached around 40 percent. We should also make note that a big contribution has come from the small scale micro units (micro hydro, solar, and bio-gas). A rugged country like Nepal should continue to promote small scale community efforts, and the locally suitable technology like small scale hydro and gobar gas should be supported. But, Nepal also has a tremendous amount of potential in wind power, and perhaps that too could be exploited.

One last question related to ideology: What type of economic system do you see emerging in Nepal, specially since the political parties as well as the Maoists reflect a myriad of forms? What do you think is the best way to go?
We have our comparative advantage mainly in the following areas: water, hydropower, tourism, cash crop, and geographic vicinity to two super powers. We also have tremendous amount of untapped entrepreneurial energy that has come to bear fruits in various growth sectors like IT, banking, education, and media. Nepal could develop into an attractive financial mini capital of the region. Just as an example, Nepal needs to invest in broadband technology, highway infrastructure, and education to make it an attractive place for both China and India.

But, Nepal does have more than 80 percent of its people living in the rural area earning less than $1 a day. Poverty is rampant (32 percent below the poverty line) and some basic needs like water, health, and education are still not within the reach for many millions of these impoverished Nepalis.

We should and can find a way to solve these problems without sacrificing one for the other.

But, a protective, controlled, closed and highly regulated economic system is not the answer.

Posted by Editor on March 30, 2007 7:53 PM