Making a differenceKashish Das Shrestha wears many hats: he’s a photographer, curator, policy analyst, entrepreneur, social activist.
Kashish Das Shrestha wears many hats: he’s a photographer, curator, policy analyst, entrepreneur, social activist. The list goes on. Currently, he’s busy researching and analysing independently—the potential implications of various public policies; he’s also busy running the City Museum Kathmandu, while continuing to photograph people and places and travelling across the world. In this interview with the Post’s Gaurav Pote, he reveals how he has been able to channel his diverse efforts to make things work for him, and most importantly, to take up the cause of the general Nepali. Excerpts:
You have worked as a writer, photographer, policy analyst, curator and creative entrepreneur. Among these many roles, which one are you most comfortable with?
I grew into all of them without ever planning to, driven simply by my interest, so they all feel like natural interconnected extensions and expressions of me, where each one is the means to the other, and an end in itself too.
What keeps you busy these days? Anything interesting that you’re working on?
At the end of June, after the exhibition at the International Conference for Rebuilding Nepal, I came to the United States. I am an international collaborator for Stanford University and my main collaborator, Prof. Elizabeth Hadly, and Stanford’s Office of International Affairs, have been instrumental in helping engage faculty and students on issues pertaining to sustainable development and Nepal. With their help, I am also coordinating efforts to establish working relations between the Governor of California’s Office of Sustainability & Research and the Livable Kathmandu campaign, led by the Valley’s elected representatives.
Prof. Hadly’s Department also organised a pop-up photo exhibition on the Nepal Earthquake. This was an excellent way to promote tourism in Nepal, I think. One of the visitors at that exhibition is now trying to start a process where she and her friends will help build schools in Nepal though the Let’s Build Schools campaign, which I am volunteering for, and is led by MP Gagan Thapa. Between May-July, the campaign built over 200 Temporary Learning Centres in quake-hit areas. In September, I have been invited to speak at a conference in University of California- Berkeley, followed by a speaking engagement in New York City.
What do you do in your capacity as an independent policy analyst?
To say that I am an independent policy analyst means that I am neither affiliated with any organisation nor funded by a third party. The only time I have done policy research through an institution was as a Niti Foundation Policy Fellow in 2012, where they generously let me retain my independence and offered valuable guidance to help me largely finish my work on the Net-Metering policy in Nepal, which I had begun prior to the fellowship. I constantly read about international developments in areas of my interest and try to connect the dots on various issues and look for their relevance to Nepal. Domestically, I try and keep up with policy developments and try to examine them from a sustainable-development perspective. When I have a response to a particular idea, I try and engage the public and policy makers on it. When I work as a photographer for organisations like WWF, I am able to spend time in places with communities I may not be able to on my own. So I use it to my advantage to conduct interviews for my research. I travel every chance I get, to see how things are on the ground so that my arguments are informed by what I find. It is very important to me that my policy work is based on research and my understanding of the issues, and not driven by a grant cycle or a donor’s agenda.
Tell us about City Museum Kathmandu.
The idea for the museum came after hours and hours of conversation with my grandfather, before he passed away in 2004. I spent most nights of the following two years cataloguing everything that remained of his works in a small hand-held luggage. So vividly had those images portrayed the visual story of Nepal’s urbanisation process, that I saw them as windows to our past that could contextualise the present and inform the future. I had been shaping this idea in my mind for almost 10 years before, with the help of a few friends, it came to being last year. However, it has been closed since May. We were supposed to have moved to a new location over the summer, but after the earthquake, that has been put on hold. With the quake’s damage to the city and heritage sites, there has been a lot of interest in visiting the museum, so we hope to reopen as soon as possible. In our first year, we hosted an average of two to three events per week—concerts, movie screenings, talk programmes, art exhibitions, book launches, you name it. When we reopen, we will narrow the focus to sustainable-development policy events and exhibitions of our permanent collection.
What do you think about all the young Nepalis leaving for abroad?
We live in the most globalised era yet. I think it is important to go abroad and to live in worlds that are beyond our comfort zones, as long as it does no harm to others. Nepalis comprise one of the largest international student groups in universities abroad. Much of this is through a privileged choice—which is why my concerns are less about the supposed brain drain. I am more worried about the young Nepalis, largely belonging to ethnic groups and communities who have faced systematic discrimination, leaving Nepal in desperation to become migrant labourers because they see no hope at home. The circumstances they face while leaving, and at their new places of employment, tend to be deeply disturbing. Remittance may be keeping the economy afloat, and the workers’ immediate families may benefit financially, eventually, but I think there is also the danger that in accepting this model we are giving up on real meaningful job creation and wage increment at home, and that we are accept that this is what it is for the indefinite future. That, I think, is a much bigger problem than Nepali students graduating with a degree and getting jobs in foreign countries.
Lastly, share with our readers a life lesson that you have learned.
I like to remind myself to do what I can, best I can, and as long as I can. That way, irrespective of the outcome, at least I will know I tried. And if it turns out I have made a mistake, I make sure to stand corrected and apologise.