Is Nepal a small country?

Nepal should not feel small. In fact, it is happier, freer and less corrupt than many other countries of the world, who claim themselves as bigger.

Zhou Shengping

  • Read Time 6 min.

“A small Hindu-majority nation” is an oft-told introduction of Nepal by big Western media. And “Nepal is a small country” was the refrain of most politicians and government officials interviewed by me, a Chinese journalist during my nearly a decade’s stay here.

Be it events, speeches or newspapers, most of the talks started with such a cliché. Whenever the political leaders have to speak about the Himalayan country, they use this platitude, be it in formal or informal spheres. In the problem, they mention Nepal is a small country. In the solution, they share the same.

In an interview with India’s Zee News in Kathmandu in January this year, the then Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli stated that “Nepal can be small but as a nation, we should always talk in terms of universal equality” as both India and Nepal are “two sovereign nations.”

Some Chinese don’t buy into the idea of ‘Nepal is a small country’ idea. I vividly remember the statement of former Chinese ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai: Both China and India want to develop better relations with Nepal and this would be the best time to promote cooperation among the three countries, which could be led by Nepal.

No confusion. He had opined that China-Nepal-India Trilateral Economic Corridor should be led by Nepal in one public program on July 5, 2015.

While others would have said that the Asian giants China or India should take the leadership of such initiative, his voice for Nepal gave some confidence that Nepal should not undermine its capability.

Encouraged by such a strong view, I excitedly shared it with many Nepali friends, especially those in power, only to find myself on a collision course.

“We, Nepal is a small country, for trilateral cooperation what we can do are very few,” said one minister, whose name I can’t remember now.

Is Nepal really a small nation? While we rank any country as big or small, some quotas must be considered, namely land, population and GDP.

Land and population

Nepal has 147,516* square kilometers of land ranging from east to west, bordering India and China. With this area, Nepal, as a middle-size country, is bigger than some popular ones like Greece and South Korea.

In terms of population, Nepal is not small at all. It has a population of around 30 million, which is larger than the population of many other countries. As per Worldometer, Nepal ranks number 49 in the list of countries (and dependencies) by population. After all, many of Europe’s wealthy countries have fewer than 10 million people.

While talking about GDP, its figure in 2020 was $34,465 million. Nepal is ranked 99 in the ranking of GDP of some 196 countries, which is not bad either. Nepal’s GDP per capita puts it about halfway up the rankings of other countries.

Nepal is regarded as small as it lies between the two giant economies with over a billion populations each. However, we need to understand that the world is bigger than India and China. Nepal should get out of the illusion that since it lies between the two giants, it is small. Rather it should be open and confident, and see far and wide.

Nepal should get out of the illusion that since it lies between the two Asian giants, China and India, it is small. Rather it should be open and confident, and see far and wide.

Big or small cannot determine the prosperity of the country and people. Are bigger countries really wealthier, happier, or more orderly than small countries? The answer is no.

Even compared with India and China, Nepal has a lot of things to feel proud of.

The poverty rate in the South Asian region is significantly higher than those of East Asia and Pacific, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Middle East and North America.

However, within South Asia, Nepal had reduced poverty incidence from 81.0 percent to 7.26 percent during the period of 1984-2010 accounting for the highest poverty reduction (73.7 percent). The number was far ahead of India, where poverty still persists.

On the contrary, India is one of the few countries in the world for which the World Bank traditionally reports international poverty rates by urban and rural regions. In rural and urban areas of India, 24.8 percent and 13.4 percent of the population live below the international extreme poverty line respectively.

According to official figures, the international poverty rate is the highest in India among the eight countries in the region. India also has the largest number of extreme poor among these countries—239 million—which is about 28 percent of the world’s extreme poor, a comparative report named International Comparisons of Poverty in South Asia stated.

In 2020, life expectancy at birth for Nepal was 71.07 years, while the life expectancy for India was 69.89 years. This is just one achievement among many to cherish.

Regarding comparison with China, Nepal does have a good show. One glory is in forest coverage. The forest area of Nepal is estimated to be 37.4 percent of the total area of the country. The “other land” category covering another 15.7 percent has good potential for development into forest or pasture. These lands include shrub lands, grasslands and uncultivated areas.

On the other hand, China has increased its forest cover from 157 million hectares in 1990 to 220 million hectares in 2020, the coverage below 23 percent. China’s forestry and grassland authority has vowed to increase the country’s forest coverage rate to 24.1 percent in the next five years.

In the international arena, some achievements cannot be ignored. Nepal has emerged as the third largest Troops and Police Contributing Country in terms of the number of peacekeeping forces sent to serve in various 12 UN peacekeeping missions in different parts of the world. India is behind Nepal in the largest troops contributing countries to the UN Peacekeeping Operations.

Small country syndrome

The question is then raised—how does “a small country” become the pet phrase of some Nepali politicians? Are they pretending to be small and poor? People often say pet dogs use the “puppy-eyes” to manipulate their owners and other men into giving them affection and attention. And it works!

Let’s see Switzerland, another reasonable example. Both Switzerland and Nepal are mountainous and landlocked, but they differ in economy and culture. However, Nepali politicians often sell the dream of turning Nepal into Switzerland.

Switzerland only has 41,285 square kilometers of area. It is bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. Though Switzerland is smaller in size, politicians from Switzerland never say they have a small country before France, which has the size of 643,801 square kilometers.

Let’s talk about tiny Singapore. Nepali political and business leaders say Nepal can be a hub like Singapore in view of its location between India and China.

The interesting part is though Singapore is only 728.3 square kilometers, politicians from Singapore never say Singapore is a small country before Republic of Indonesia, its southern neighbor, which is 1.905 million square kilometers in size.

I had read somewhere: bigness is not necessarily an obstacle to relative safety, prosperity, and social cohesion. Whenever there is any big disaster or crisis, it’s true that economies of smaller countries suffer the most. However, these countries tend to be more interconnected with other countries in terms of trade and investment, which is again good for recovery and growth.

Big or small cannot determine the prosperity of the country and people. Are bigger countries really wealthier, happier, or more orderly than small countries? No.

In his new book American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Break-up, writer F H Buckley wrote, “The United States is overly big, one of the biggest countries in the world. If there are advantages to bigness, the costs exceed the benefits. Bigness is badness. Smaller countries are happier and less corrupt. They’re less inclined to throw their weight around militarily, and they’re freer.”

Nepal should not feel small. In fact, it is happier, freer and less corrupt than many other countries of the world, who claim themselves as bigger.

As Chan Gailey has stated, “Size is definitely relative. If you are bigger, the world can see you easily. ” Nepal is renowned for mountaineering activities as it has the highest mountain on earth—Mount Everest. For this, Nepal doesn’t need any additional introduction or briefing, rather all the people in the world can notice easily.

There are few thoughts, which have highly influenced me in regard to bigger or smaller terms. Josh Ryan Evans had once said, it is not the size of the dreamer, it is the size of the dream, which holds so much of significance. This exactly matches in the animal kingdom, where if measurement was done only in size, then the elephant would be the king rather than lion or tiger.

Not limited to animals, if we examine the human world, size doesn’t matter too. For instance, Russia’s geography spreads across 17.13 million square kilometers, while the United States is only 9.834 million square kilometers, but still the US is the superpower of the world, instead of Russia.

In this rough and slippery world, a state to prosper must be built on foundations of a moral character, with warm and vivid desire as well as sober self-recognition.

Great Nepal, you are not small, don’t fool yourself or be fooled by others, which may imprison your future. Do dream bigger and walk unencumbered among all bigger counterparts including India and China today onwards.

Zhou Shengping, a Chinese journalist, is the author of a recently published book “Mend or End: Nepal in the eyes of a Chinese Journalist.”