Needed: a free flow of booksIf the government follows through on its plans to levy a customs tax on books, Nepali readers will suffer.
The Nepali state should not see books coming from outside Nepal as bogies. The reasons for that are very strong, and it is very urgent to review the policies that might cause great damage to the educational practice and culture by seeking to customise tariffs on books by making their imports and purchase difficult. I want to present my views as an academic, teacher, educationist and literary writer regarding that in this short article. And I have done so over the last 20 years mainly by publishing discourses about the campaign in The Kathmandu Post and other forums.
This time, to use the title of Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s satire, The Battle of the Books started after the quiet, and scholarly Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada announced to ‘levy 10 percent customs duty on the import of books printed abroad’. Ironically, Khatiwada has repeated the lines used by Madhukar S Rana, finance minister in king Gyanendra’s government, in his budget speech for the fiscal year 2005-06, on July 16, 2005. Rana’s lines read, ‘To promote the printing industries, arrangements have been made to levy 5 percent customs duty on the import of books printed abroad’. It sounds as though these lines wake up like Rip Van Winkle in American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story suddenly after 14 years of slumber in Khatiwada’s speech. Ironically, the spectre of the customs duty on books is looming larger today. That the finance minister of the first republican government elected overwhelmingly by the people should use the same language used 14 years ago, shows how little have the rulers realised that books have kept the people from gravitating into the turfs of those who do not have a reading culture. Earlier, the very well known finance minister and economist Ram Sharan Mahat of the Nepali Congress government also levied 10 percent customs duty in his budget speech of the fiscal year 1997-98. But reminded by booksellers, publishers and readers, and realising that it was caused by bureaucratic folly, both ministers had arranged for the immediate withdrawal of the provision of levying custom duty on books. Both the booksellers and readers remember their cooperation with a great sense of appreciation today. Our hope was that books would not be targeted again. But alas, a good learned finance minister like Yubaraj Khatiwada who looks like a teacher going to give a lecture at the Central Department of Economics in Kirtipur every time I see him walk to the rostrum of the parliament to speak, has come up with the same weapon in a different political context, different era and different age of light and learning in Nepal.
Nepal learned to read mainly because books have come here for roughly 130 years from the outside. As it was not easy to print and freely market books here during the Rana regime, Banaras became the most important city for the printing of Nepali books. A scholar and friend from SOAS University of London, Rhoderick Chalmers in his articles and unpublished PhD dissertation writes about Banaras as the birthplace of modern Nepali writing and printing. The late Uttam Kunwar, the editor of Roop-Rekha, had first published a short essay about that in the early seventies. But by using Francesca Orsini’s interpretation of the German scholar Habermas’ theory of the public sphere, Chalmers has shown how the Nepali publishers printed books and literary magazines and imported them into Nepal. I do not have space here to discuss that at length. They call this practice ‘print capitalism’. Towards the end of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century, Banaras became the hub of printing and marketing books bound for Nepal. They used techniques of promoting sales of books into Nepal and selecting subjects to write books. Books published then and their umpteenth reprints still flood Nepal’s book markets. Records of the commercial success of the epic Ramayana written by Bhanubhakta Acharya (1814-1866) can be cited here. This epic printed outside and marketed in Nepal had run into its 21st edition by 1925. Books and magazines printed outside, especially from Banaras and later from Darjeeling helped to spread literacy and reading culture. I grew by reading Parasmani Pradhan’s textbooks. To say that books printed from outside should be discouraged is to ignore the great heritage of literacy in this land. To customise levying tariffs on imported books in the name of promoting printing and publishing in Nepal is a wrong process. Books printed and published in Nepal are not allowed to sell even in India. We have tried hard for that in forums in Nepal and India for decades but failed. The main reason for that is the puerile calculation of the Nepali government ministers and bureaucrats, which say that by levying customs on imported books, can they do magic for the Nepali print industry.
The second aspect is alarming; the finance minister and the republican educationists should understand that since India does not levy customs duty on the foreign-printed books, they are reprinted in India under agreements made with the original publishers like Oxford, Cambridge, McGraw Hill and others. Since these books have great educational quality, Nepali schools and university classes have introduced them as textbooks. My learned colleagues and I introduced several of these standard texts in our English curricula in Nepal. That practise continues today with different degrees of success. Students buy them at the affordable Indian price in Kathmandu and elsewhere in Nepal. Booksellers fear that if these books became expensive owing to extra custom duty, a bad culture of piracy will reign in Nepal making it difficult to correct later.
Exemption from or elimination of taxes and VAT on books is the avowed principle of the UNESCO Florence Agreement and its Nairobi Protocol. But the promotion of the free flow of books in Nepal is more important than that. A slight mistake now will plunge Nepal into uncanny darkness that results from a practice of making it difficult to acquire books. Promoting a reading culture is the greatest need. Otherwise, whatever achievements we boast of making to enhance reading and literacy it will be a fiasco. The UNESCO book policy document makes an apt remark, ‘teaching someone to read and then not to provide them with reading material is as cruel as making someone thirsty then denying them water.’