‘Jhiti gunta’I must admit I struggled to pick the right title for this article. I toyed with two others: ‘Think like Mahendra’ and ‘Economic empowerment of the mountain poor’.
I must admit I struggled to pick the right title for this article. I toyed with two others: ‘Think like Mahendra’ and ‘Economic empowerment of the mountain poor’. The first one sounded like a eulogy to the late king, and the second one sounded more like the title of an essay of a development organisation. There is an interesting legend behind ‘jhiti gunta’. Apparently moved by the destitution of a certain mountain tribe living in a desolate, barren, beautiful land on a Himalayan plateau where nothing could be grown at the time, Mahendra launched the scheme with the noble intention of raising their living standard. Today, this tribe is one of the most successful business communities in the country, and their land is pregnant with the finest varieties of apples and other healthy, lifestyle foods as well as niche tourism.
Back then, ‘jhiti gunta’ not only empowered and enriched them, but also employed and offered opportunities to a large number of youths across the nation at a time when there was nothing much to do except discuss politics and wolf whistle at damsels. Industrious youths travelled mainly to Bangkok and Hong Kong and carried back a set of prescribed goods for personal use, at little or no customs duty that found their way into the markets of Kathmandu. As more people became aware of the benefit of the trade, youths from other ethnic groups embraced the travelling trade. They took couriers or human mules to bring back personal wear, electronic and household appliances, gold and silver within the duty exempt limit. The mules entrusted their passports and sold their foreign exchange facility, limited to $200 or so, to the youth traders. Often, the traders also made deals with people working in embassies and on foreign shores to buy their personal privileges to import expensive goods. At Hong Kong and Bangkok airports, it would be an amusing sight to behold. Heavily clothed mules could be spotted huddled together, each wearing as many as five shirts, layers of jackets, trousers, socks, saris, three-tola gold chains and bracelets, a silver bar, watches, caps and sunglasses with price tags dangling on strings.
Upon landing at Gauchar, there would be a carnival scene, a pleasant pandemonium, with everyone from immigration and customs to loaders brimming in anticipation of a windfall. After they emerged from the airport, the mules would be herded into a bus and driven to a safe location to be stripped of all they were wearing including the gold ornaments. ‘Jhiti gunta’ eventually gave way to watch, dollar and gold smuggling. But the mountain tribe has joined the constellation of the nouveau riche here and abroad, thanks to Mahendra’s initiative at poverty alleviation.