The Holy Hike

This monsoon, combine a trek with a pilgrimage in the mystical dales of Khaptad National Park

Binita Dahal in KHAPTAD

Pics: BINITA DAHAL

If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and want a trek that detoxifies you both physically and spiritually, there is perhaps no destination more worthy than a holy hike to the Khaptad in the far-western mountains of Nepal.

In the past, Khaptad was just too remote: only the privileged — those with access to helicopters — and the really devout made it there. Now, with new roads, Khaptad National Park is surprisingly accessible and a fabulous way to see a part of Nepal that is literally off the beaten track.

About 100 trekkers visited Khaptad last year. The facilities are basic, but that is the whole point: to get away from it all, to a place with no mobile phones, no electricity, no concrete and no sound of the internal combustion engine.

No wonder Khaptad Baba, one of the most revered holy men in Nepal, lived here for 50 years of his life, meditating in an ashram in the forest. It is said he first settled on the banks of Rara Taal, but found the view there too distracting and came to Khaptad, drawn by its biodiversity and treasure of herbs.

Khaptad Baba was a healer and used medicinal plants to treat villagers from the surrounding districts of Doti, Bajhang, Achham and Bajura, who brought yoghurt and food in exchange.

King Birendra flew here frequently to seek Khaptad Baba’s blessings. Today the ashram itself is a shrine maintained by the Army, and serves almost as a museum of books and daily utensils used by Baba.

Khaptad soars above the surrounding districts, its thickly forested flanks bathed in clouds this time of year. The top is an undulating plateau of pine forests and meadows with crystal clear streams and ponds. During this season, the place is crowded with pilgrims, as well as livestock that are brought here to graze.

The easier trail is from Bajhang in the north, but one can also climb from Doti to the south. The rains have come after a long winter drought, and the submerged paddy terraces shine like mirrors. But soon, the trail climbs into the tree line. The forest is so thick that people have gotten lost here, so it is best to keep to the main trail.

There is none of the sophistication of Nepal’s more popular trekking routes; only basic tea and buckwheat pancakes with — if you are lucky — chutney made from the cannabis plant that grows wild here.

As the monsoon rains have started, the trails were slippery and leeches dropped from the canopy. Thousands of pilgrims from surrounding districts hike up to the plateau for the Ganga Dashara Mela to offer prayers at the Sahashra Linga, Nag Dhunga and Kedar Dhunga. They take a ritual dip in the Khaptad Daha and Triveni Dham.

Besides cleansing them of sins, the festival also traditionally serves as a gigantic match-making opportunity for young men and women. There is a lot of singing and deuda dancing, and love blossoms in the fields of flowers (known as patan) that characterise Khaptad in the rainy season.

Rich biodiversity — attributable to altitude variation — is one of the reasons Khaptad is a national park. It has 224 species of medicinal herbs, 266 bird species, and more than 20 species of mammals. From 3,200 m the terrain dips down to 300 m on the banks of the West Seti River down in Dipayal.

Getting there

Fly or take the night bus from Kathmandu to Dhangadi, then the bus to Lamatola of Bajhang which takes 12 hours. Return via Doti.

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This article was originally published in Nepali Times (http://nepalitimes.com/article/Nepali-Times-Buzz/The-Holy-Link,3153)

Wombs for rent

Commercial surrogate motherhood is moving to Nepal because of restrictions in India

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Binita Dahal

After India tightened rules on commercial surrogacy two years ago, foreigners seeking such services have started trickling into Nepal where rules are murky and regulation weak.

Nepal’s cabinet decided recently to allow foreigners to have surrogate babies as long as the mother is also a foreigner, arguing that this would promote medical tourism in the country. Since then the Department of Immigration records show that many foreigners, including 20 Israelis, have had surrogate babies in private hospitals in Nepal.

Senior Advocate and Activist Sapana Pradhan Malla says many Nepali parents seek her legal advice on surrogacy. “I have no answer for them because there are no laws,” she told Nepali Times. “But I find it really suspicious that foreigners are allowed to have surrogate babies here when there is no provision for Nepalis.”

Activists are worried that in the absence of laws, the cabinet decision on surrogate babies can easily be circumvented. Nepali women could be exploited by unscrupulous middlemen and male relatives to carry and deliver babies for foreigners.

Compensated surrogacy is a process under which a woman rents her womb to another couple to have their baby delivered. There are two methods: one where the sperm is artificially inseminated into a surrogate mother, and in the other the sperm and egg from the parents first go through in-vitro fertilisation and the embryo is inserted into the uterus of the surrogate mother.

Doctors say both methods are done in fertility clinics in Nepal, but they don’t want to be quoted saying it. The lack of laws haven’t deterred many Nepali parents without children to secretly use surrogacy to have children in hospitals in Nepal and India, while Indian mothers routinely come to Nepal to give birth (see adjoining box).

After cases of fraud and exploitation, India’s Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill is now in parliament and will allow surrogacy only for married, infertile and Indian Origin couples.

“Many people think the act of surrogacy involves sexual intercourse so they are hesitant to talk about it,” says advocate Sadeep Kharel. “Doctors and hospitals keep quiet because surrogacy is illegal for Nepalis.”

The cabinet decision makes it easy for foreigners to be surrogate parents by processing exit permits for their babies born in Nepal: the Health Ministry writes a recommendation based on the birth certificate with DNA proof issued by hospitals to apply for a passport at the resident embassy.

 According to sources, the cabinet hurriedly decided last year on a draft on surrogacy prepared by the Health Ministry. Cabinet decisions are supposed to be in the public domain, but lawyers say the Health Ministry is reluctant to divulge details and provide a copy of the decision.

Praveen Mishra was secretary at the Ministry of Health in the previous government when the draft first came up for debate, and remembers facing intense political pressure to pass it. Mishra and Minister Bidhyadhar Mallik stood their ground, but with the new government the cabinet quickly approved it last August.

Sources say surrogacy in India and Nepal are managed by middlemen working with political protection, and there is a nexus between them and private hospitals. It is a question of supply and demand: there is a demand in rich countries for babies, and there is a supply of poor families in developing countries willing, and sometimes forcing, their women to become surrogate mothers.

Many European countries have banned surrogacy and it is strictly regulated and expensive in the United States. While it can cost up to $150,000 to have a surrogate baby in the West, in India and Nepal it can cost as little at $6,000 with the surrogate mother often not getting the money that her husband is paid as fee.

Commercialisation of motherhood through surrogacy is lucrative, but raises cultural, social, economic and political questions which are probably why Nepal’s private hospitals and the government are so hush-hush about it. “We must be careful not to allow surrogate mothers to be exploited as baby producers,” Sapana Pradhan Malla warns, “there must be laws in case mothers don’t want to give babies to parents, if babies are disabled, and about the legal status of the baby.”

There is one case of surrogacy which is sub-judice in the Supreme Court in a dispute about whether the baby born from a Nepali surrogate mother will get the parent’s property or not. This could be a landmark case in which the Court may direct the government to pass a new law for Nepali surrogate mothers.

But till then it will be women who will be more vulnerable to exploitation.

“Surrogacy is needed,” says Renu Adhikari of WOREC (Women’s Rehabilitation Centre), “but in the absence of proper laws it can lead to trafficking and women can be forced to go through with it for the money.”


Nargis’ baby

Twenty-seven year old Nargis came to Nepal six months ago from the slums of Mumbai. Her husband had left her after she gave birth to their first child after which she moved in with her parents. After her father died, she had to take care of the whole family.

“We were so poor there was no money to even feed my baby,” Nargis remembers. One day, her mother told her that she could make money renting her womb for nine months. She was introduced to a middleman who assured her there was no sexual intercourse involved, and she would earn $6,000 carrying and giving birth to someone else’s baby.

After she was convinced to go through with the procedure, she stayed in a Mumbai hospital for a month for her insemination procedure, and was discharged after she got pregnant. She was paid INR 6,000 per month for the duration of the pregnancy.

Nargis came to Nepal in her fourth month of pregnancy along with her own first born. She stayed at a hotel in Thamel with other surrogates like her who had come to give birth in Nepal because of restrictions in India.

Their agent advised them not to get emotionally attached to their babies as they had to be given away. Nargis gave birth via caesarean in a private hospital in Kathmandu, and was paid only $3,000. Still, she told us she will go through it again so she can send her own child to school.

Middlemen look for women between 25-30 in Mumbai’s slums, and convince their families to go through with surrogacy. The Indian agents get a $1,000 fee for every successful birth in Nepal.

“I don’t care if surrogacy is legal or illegal in India, but it is easier for a woman like me to deliver a baby in Nepal so no one finds out in Mumbai,” Nargis admitted. “Sometimes when I am alone, I look at the baby’s picture that the agent gave me. I never had the chance to be with him or breastfeed him. Still, I have less of an attachment to this baby than my own first child.”

Nargis is a pseudonym.

This article was originally published in Nepali Times  (http://nepalitimes.com/article/nation/wombs-tolet-surrogacy-nepal,1991)

Judicial match-fixing

By giving in to political pressure Chief Justice Kalyan Shrestha has failed to uphold the integrity of the Judiciary

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Binita Dahal

After months of dithering, the Judicial Council finally nominated 11 justices to the Supreme Court this week. Chief Justice Kalyan Shrestha, who heads the council, nominated seven sitting judges from the Appellate Court and four senior advocates.

They are Dipak Kumar Karki, Kedar Chalise, Meera Khadka, Sharada Prasad Ghimire, Hari Krishna Karki, Biswombar Prasad Shrestha, Ishwor Khatiwada, Ananda Mohan Bhattarai, Anil Kumar Sinha, Prakash Raut and Sapana Pradhan Malla.

As per constitutional provisions, the senior-most Justice becomes the Chief Justice after the retirement of their predecessor. Which means Hari Krishna Karki, Bishwombar Prasad Shrestha, Prakash Raut and Sapana Pradhan Malla are next in line to be future Chief Justices.

This clearly shows that the members of the judicial council were very strategic in placing the nominees’ names in order of seniority. It also shows that there has been political manipulation in selecting the names and ranking them. It is like match-fixing in the judiciary.

This is deadly serious as the politically affiliated nominees will give verdicts according to their political affiliation, thus continuing to undermine the judiciary and the rule of law.

The Judicial Council apparently recommended political figures for the first time. Sapana Pradhan Malla, though highly regarded as one of the most competent female lawyers of her generation, has already played the role as the parliament member from CPN-UML. She is a member of that political party.

This means the principle that appointments to the Supreme Court must be non political and not from political cadres has been flouted and creates a precedence for future appointments. What is even more ironic is that it is Chief Justice Kalyan Shrestha, known for his integrity and professionalism, who made this decision under his watch.

Shrestha got to lead the Supreme Court at a time when its image had been tarnished by two of his predecessors, and there were high expectations on the part of the Bar and Bench from him to do better. His predecessor, Damodar Prasad Sharma, was criticised for recommending some controversial figures to the Apex Court, and the person he replaced, Justice Ram Kumar Prasad Sah, was also similarly tarnished.

Unfortunately, like them, Shrestha also gave in to political pressure. Many career judges and senior advocates who are in line for Chief Justice were seen lobbying to be appointed both in the Judiciary and political parties. It is an irony, and a sign of the times, that we have seen career judges visit offices of political parties to thank the leadership for recommending their name to the Judicial Council. The current list as in the past has been made with some vested interests from the JC.

Whatever precedence he set in many of the human rights and women’s issues will now be forgotten because of his politically motivated appointments. Shrestha failed to exercise impartiality and reward judges for their merit and integrity.

The Judicial Council has brought in two women, two Newars and a Madhesi, but has failed to make its nominations truly inclusive under guidelines of the new constitution. It has also nominated only people from the judicial profession and not those with academic backgrounds, civil servants and the Attorney General’s office. There are also no senior advocates from outside Kathmandu.

It was comparatively easy for Chief Justice Shrestha to take the decision as only the law minister was from the political side in the Council. But he failed to seize the opportunity.

The Supreme Court which has a massive backlog of cases is waiting for some qualified and capable justices who are willing to give justice to the people, not ones who have political or personal ambitions.

This article was originally published in Nepali Times (http://nepalitimes.com/regular-columns/Legalese/judicial-match-fixing-Nepal,674)

Enter: Chief Justice Shrestha

Kalyan Shrestha has the challenging task of restoring the integrity of a tarnished Supreme Court, and protecting the separation of powers

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Binita Dahal

The recent decision by the Supreme Court that the existing Truth and Reconciliation Bill did not meet international standards for human rights and justice has sent shock waves through the establishment.

The two former warring sides are now part of the state, and they are on the same side when it comes to evading being answerable to wartime crimes. Predictably, the UCPN(M) and the CPN-M are the least happy with the verdict of the apex court. In fact, the latest collapse of the negotiations over the constitution and the announcement of a series ofstrikes next month by the Maoist-led opposition alliance is an attempt to show this displeasure.

They argue that wartime excesses should be under the jurisdiction of a future TRC, and asked for a repeal of the verdict. They and the other parties want the TRC to just be a dispenser of amnesties and pardons. When the members of the newly formed TRC went to meet the UCPN(M) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, he directly rejected any move to resolve conflict-era cases through the TRC for which he only wants a limited mandate.

According to the Supreme Court verdict, the TRC cannot investigate already pending cases in the courts and it cannot ask the government to withdraw cases and recommend for amnesty as well.

“We were confused initially about the parallel jurisdiction of the court and TRC but now it is clear that the already pending cases can only be solved by a court, not the Commission,” TRC Chair Surya Kiran Gurung told me last week.

The Supreme Court has struck down provisions in the TRC Act that gave the Commission the right to recommend amnesty to cases of serious human rights violations, and declared that no amnesty can be given without the consent of victims.

The latest verdict has cleared three points:

The TRC has no right to see and investigate the cases which are already pending in the court system.

Conflict era cases will be investigated by the TRC, but if it decides that the case must be filed in the courts then it will recommend this directly to the Attorney General and not through the Ministry of Law as cited in the Act. The Supreme Court has thus taken out the involvement of the government.

Victims consent is required for both reconciliation and amnesty. One of the main dissatisfaction among victims was the provision in the Act which gave the TRC the authority to grant amnesty. The SC verdicthas ruled out the TRC’s role in general amnesty.

Even if the Maoists urge the ruling parties to review the court’s verdict it is not easy for them to file a review petition. Previous SC verdicts have also ruled out political interference in the transitional justice mechanism. There are approximately 1,000 criminal cases from the conflict period pending in the court system and the District Police Office.

Advocate Raman Kumar Shrestha says the verdict will impact on the constitution drafting process since it will open all cases which are currently closed due to the absence of a TRC. As PM, Baburam Bhattarai made history in 2012 by withdrawing nearly 200 cases involving 1,700 people, according to the Ministry of Law. Now, all these cases can be re-opened, and that is why the Maoists are against the verdict.

Another fallout of the SC verdict is that it has brought the two factions of the Maoists closer together, with talks of reunification opening despite their serious differences. This is so that they can pool their combined strength to oppose the Supreme Court verdict. This opens up the question about what the real reasons were behind the split in the Maoists if they have a common stance on war crimes. Maoists of all factions and some sections of the ruling NC-UML combine would like to see all conflict-era cases to be resolved through a political understanding and not through the judiciary.

It is rare for the Supreme Court to review a verdict of the special bench, even when the government agrees to file a review petition. This means the Maoists will try to put pressure on the government by obstructing talks on the constitution and through street protests to try to overturn the verdict.

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This article was originally published in Nepali Times (http://nepalitimes.com/regular-columns/Legalese/new-Chief-Justice-Kalyan-Shrestha,519)