Smith Fellow Spotlight: Basanta Adhikari

Vats and Adhikari
Tarun Vats (left) with Basanta Adhikari.

The Smith Fellowship, one of the many programs of Atlas Network’s Leadership Academy, brings up-and-coming leaders from around the world to Washington, D.C., where they receive varied training in marketing, fundraising, management, and other relevant skills.

An alumnus of Atlas Network’s Smith Fellowship in 2017, Basanta Adhikari, is founding chairperson of Bikalpa – An Alternative, a partner organization based in Biratnagar, Nepal. Atlas Network’s associate director of training, Tarun Vats, recently caught up with Basanta at Asia Liberty Forum 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia to discuss the challenges in Nepal, how Bikalpa aims to remove the barriers to entrepreneurship in the country, and how the Smith Fellowship has created new opportunities to help Basanta in his work.

Tarun Vats: What can you tell me about your campaign to remove the luxury tax on motorbikes in Nepal?

Basanta Adhikari: Umesh is a milkseller, every day he sells around 450 liters of milk and earns a profit of $36 (USD). Six years back, Umesh was working on a cow farm for $50 a month. Today he earns 21 times more than his previous job. This is all possible due to the mobility provided by his motorbike. Imagine – Umesh selling milk in a bicycle – could he be so productive? Of course not. Today, Umesh is financially secure and has a good social reputation. Many Nepalese cannot afford motorbikes for their livelihoods because they are very expensive. Due to high taxation, the same motorbike that costs $820 in the Indian market costs $1,700 in Nepal, all because the government sees it as a luxury good. If the taxation is lowered, it will reduce the cost of the motorbike so even the low-income earner can afford it. Like Umesh, he/she can be more productive with a motorbike than with a bicycle; he/she can earn more and have more leisure time, which they can use for their benefit and comfort. They will have greater choice and may provide better education to their children, who will not be forced to sell milk in the future.

During the Elevator Pitch competition at Asia Liberty Forum 2018 I talked about the high taxation on motorbikes in Nepal and our campaign, “Motorbike is not a luxury but a need.” We seek to educate people and pressure stakeholders to bring down the price of motorbikes, so all low-income Nepalese can afford it and be better able to pursue their livelihoods.

You mentioned that the city of Biratnagar wanted to paint every house the same color – can you tell me more about that?

In the month of January 2016, Biratnagar Sub Metropolitan City (BSMC) announced the process of declaring Biratnagar a single-color zone city, meaning that everything would be painted the same color. The officials provided an explanation that such a move would make the city a first of its kind in the world, bring uniqueness, and attract tourism. Furthermore, the government chose 4 finalist colors without following any procedures and put them to polls on their Facebook and webpage. Bilkalpa was one of the first amongst the civil society to raise the issue in public and vehemently criticized the government for encroaching upon citizen rights to personal choice. The move was also an attack on the personal liberty, freedom of choice, and an example of unproductive public spending. Bikalpa was quick to take the matter to the local print and social media, engaging people to discuss the issue. Bikalpa also conducted a survey poll and regularly updated its views on the topic on social media sites. A press meet was organized in collaboration with civil society members and organizations to highlight the issue. Articles and views were published in local print news and magazines. Our multifaceted approach to fostering a public debate on this issue was effective in swinging public opinion.

Due to many obvious reasons, the BSMC has for now abandoned the plan. Bikalpa played an instrumental role in building up an opinion amongst the online and offline citizens as well as civil society members which made the BSMC to reconsider its decision. Hence, nearly half a billion rupees were saved from being wasted.

You also had a win in pushing back e-rickshaw registration quotas, right?

Yes, we have been able to influence policy change on e-rickshaws. Previously, a barrier to entry in Biratnagar [the city in which Bikalpa is based] existed where the Biratnagar Municipality fixed a registration quota of 300 e-rickshaws. This hurt the low-income drivers who wanted to pursue a livelihood through this means. After being engaged in several advocacy and campaign efforts along with other stakeholders, the Biratnagar sub-metropolitan city opened up the registration for 1,665 e-rickshaws on May 26, 2016, and it has made life easier for those low-income e-rickshaw drivers.

What are the biggest challenges that Nepal is facing?

In Nepal we lack three key things: political stability (having changed governments 25 times in 28 years), rule of law, and sound economic policy. As demonstrated by our rank of 105 in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, we are not an investment friendly country.

We have not been able to encourage trade, entrepreneurship, and employment within the country [and that is the reason why] many Nepalese are forced to live in the gutter of poverty. We have several hundred Nepalese youth who leave their country every day for the labor market, and the policies we have can do better at retaining this talent.

How does Bikalpa's work help in addressing those challenges?

We educate people, conduct research, and conduct advocacy campaigns to reach our target audiences. We explain to people the issues of political economy, public policy, entrepreneurship, accountability, and economic freedom through our programs. We organize workshops, discussions, interactions, write blog and articles, create videos, conduct street campaigns, and reach policy makers. We have reached around 3,000 students with our program activities, and our videos have around five million views, and we have conducted 3 research programs (with one policy win on the e-rickshaw issue and three more in the pipeline for this year.

How has the Smith Fellowship helped your organization to address those challenges?

The Smith Fellowship has turn out to be a great opportunity for me. I got a chance to do networking, visit organizations, take part in programs, explore Washington D.C., and learn about American culture. The program was very useful in that it helped to enhance my personal and organizational capacity and I developed an organizational strategy with the Atlas Network team members, as well as taking home to Nepal useful management tools.

Being a new organization, Bikalpa has lot of challenges regarding networking, funding, lack of clarity, and focus. After going through the Smith Fellowship, I got a chance to revise the vision, mission, and goal of the organization. I also identified our thematic area of work and overall activities. During the fellowship, I got a chance to network, I had 12 meetings with different individuals and organizations, which helped me to present my organization to an international audience. The program also helped to define the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of each staff member. The RASCI (Responsible, Accountable, Support, Consult, Inform) responsibility matrix was one of the best gifts given to me by the Smith Fellowship.