Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The long, sad Nepali winter of discontent, with scattered rays of sunshine: an essay.

You try to be an optimist, keep your chin up and put a smile on, this winter in Nepal tested even the brightest of lights to keep their glow. Blow after blow fell on the national psyche and just when you thought it couldn't get worse... it did; the general corps d'esprit fell to complacency and fatigue, a sense of hopelessness complemented fatality adding depth and hue to the long used and abused Nepali phrase 'ke garne', what to do? Amidst it all there were rays of sunshine that blasted through… we’ve all seen it happen on the darkest cloudy day when the sun finds space and a brilliant ray shines down…

I am returning from a few weeks out of the country and returning into a spring time that can only hold hope and promise for things to get better. The story started last spring with the earthquakes that sent the nation into shock and then continued over the bungled response period and into the recovery phase of the humanitarian emergency that ensued. The government did not rise to meet the challenge and proved itself distracted, dispassionate and entirely a disappointment. None of this was really anything new and while it would not have been wrong to hope that a massive earthquake would literally shake the political class out of its self-absorbed, out-dated, corrupted ways and spur it into action, to harbour such hope would have been na├»ve. The idea that government should help the people they govern rather than simply rule over them and take advantage of their plight… Well that seemed a bit far-fetched, after all it has only been 70 years since Nepal opened to the outside world, 25 yrs since the devolution away from royalty began, and 8 years since the end of an acrimonious civil war, and in 2015 was it realistic to believe that the dinosaurs still at the helm were able to learn new tricks?

Open the opportunity for a ray of sunshine… the earthquake pulled out of nowhere an amazing response from regular people… Nepalis, expats, tourists came together in the early days of the response gathering relief materials and convoys of civilian vehicles delivered to many hard to reach locations. It was amazing, the Yellow House group…Himalayan Disaster Relief Operation was one such group that saw over 200 ‘mission’s go out in the first 3 months of the response… all volunteers, all self-organized, all materials donated including vehicles and fuel…http://www.wired.com/2015/05/nepal-earthquake-aid/ It is no secret that the money raised privately (including through ‘gofundme’ type initiatives) equalled the money committed through official channels, some $273Million. Notably, in the early days the Army too, quite separate from the government, stepped up rescuing many people from the rubble in Kathmandu and the districts. Unsung heros were many. Ironically, the government, seeing the success of private initiatives, tried to stymie this forcing money earmarked for the emergency, requiring all newly formed NGO's to funnel their funds through what they called the 'Prime Ministers Disaster Relief Fund' and while it may be that money still got through to those that needed it, this announcement was ill-timed and the backlash it caused revealed the broad mistrust the population has for its government.

Government 'action' did eventually come, it was not to help the earthquake victims or to facilitate the reconstruction phase... rather it came seemingly as a realisation on the part of certain senior political aspirants that this was their moment to take advantage. While the population and other influential actors were momentarily distracted by the humanitarian crisis they ended 7 years of wrangling over the formulations of a new Constitution pushing through a draft that gained a 90% approval from the Constitutional Assembly. Unsurprisingly congratulations on the birth of a new democracy did not come whole heartedly from the Indian government nor from the United Nations in Nepal, both of whom felt (for their different reasons) that the Constitution fell short of its mark in ensuring proportional representation for groups long marginalized (due to caste and ethnicity) and on the rights of women.  And neither thought it politically impudent to be vocal, a sign of frustration I think. Mindful that this came after years of donor and institutional support to a painful Constitutional process to try and come up with a modern progressive un-acrimonious document that would set the stage for an easier and prosperous future. Sadly this wasn't to be the case; when people say Nepal is 30 years behind... this is the kind of thing they mean, the politicians are 30 years behind. There is much discussion about Nepal being left for Nepalis to determine their future but they are dominated by a ruling class that is narrow-minded, uninspired and uncaring for the poorest of their constituents, they are stuck in a paradigm of exploitation and control.

As an anomaly of sorts (another ray of sunshine?), Nepal is the only ASEAN nation and one of few in the world to recently recognize transgender people with the gender box 'other' available to be ticked on visa and arrivals forms and passport applications. Go figure. It remains to be seen how well this is reflected in social policy but it is at least a start.

To mention only briefly the beginning of what sets the bleak background for the winter's discontent was the post-earthquake period through the summer of 2015 when for example, Nepali Customs charged duty on incoming humanitarian assistance supplies, and Immigration couldn't figure out the visa waiver for aid workers so most ended up working illegally on tourist visas. When coordination of the humanitarian mission became a political football (even the UN was a player in this game). The years of multi-level (VDC to National) capacity building (training) to deal with a major disaster fell by the wayside as did leadership of the Reconstruction authority. This latter causing a delay of several months with the Reconstruction bill, that critical document providing the legal framework for the receiving and disbursing of $4.1 billion of committed donor funding. The bill, ready to be passed and promulgated back in August, only made it onto the floor of Parliament in January... reconstruction can now start in April… a year later.  The cynic humourist would wonder if it just took that long to figure out how to milk the money... the government in Nepal is considered endemically, systemically corrupt and $4.1 large is like dangling a dumpster full of carrots in front of a donkey.

I think my own discontent and frustrations are beginning to show through and I have barely begun. Indeed this is partly because the 800,000 people (demographically this number indicates more than half are children and elderly people with a disproportionate number of women-headed households in the mix) left homeless after the earthquake suffered and continued to suffer immensely and needlessly. Never mind the deprivations of basic human rights, they had to pass the chill of winter under tarpaulins and corrugated tin when they were ready to start rebuilding in October but couldn't because the money for bank loans wasn't there, NGO's requiring the release of funding to implement reconstruction projects waited, men, desperate to work, disappeared over the horizon to Malaysia and the Gulf states rather than stay and help rebuild. Interestingly the International Council of Jurists is pressing for an investigation into whether the government in its actions (and lack thereof) denied its citizenry of its basic rights to food, shelter and health care.

Instead the government got on with passing the Constitution (ray of sunshine potential!), denying the Reconstruction bill a reading until the Constitution got through... as if that were a good reason. And when it was finally passed, the next blow came... uproar, protest, violence and up to 40 deaths as those groups re-marginalized by the Constitution, the Madhes and the Tharu, took to the streets. The resulting insecurity blocking the vital supply link to India. The Indians, for their part were alarmed enough to close the border on their side to protect transporters from the insecurity. However this went on so long and even border crossings where there was no insecurity were closed as to betray a clear agenda of political patronage, India, the much bigger brother, sanctioning the youngest in the fold. While India is Nepal's biggest trading partner, Nepal is far from relevant to the Indian economy. What India worries about is water; the himalayan watershed that feeds the great rivers of India, the Brahmaputra, Indus and Ganges rely on Nepal keeping the proverbial tap open. Control of hydro development in border districts is a huge concern and so Delhi needs a compliant government in Kathmandu. The under-representation of populations along the border, those people ethnically more akin to India's plains people, makes control more complicated and less likely.

The blockade was curious because the shelves of the big department stores were only missing a few things, but there was food aplenty, no one was lacking but prices started creeping up, inflation soaring over 10% of many staples. In an already poor country, it is estimated more than a million people have been pushed into extreme poverty. Through it all, somehow the organizers of the annual Kathmandu Jazz Festival were not deterred, neither was the first annual Photo Kathmandu http://www.photoktm.com/ event both of which went off in fine style as if nothing was going on. If the ability of some Nepalis to carry on as if events such as a blockade were just part of the new normal is a sign of resilience… then wow, there is some amazing resilience in Nepal.

What wasn't available due to the problems on the border and affected everyone was fuel, diesel and petrol for cars, buses, motorbikes and cooking gas also used for heating. Initially the ‘fuel crisis’ was quite a respite, the streets were quiet, such a relief from the daily congestion and the lung choking pollution. But, as time passed and winter descended it became worse, a tourist season came and went and guess what?? …there were few tourists. Internal flights were reduced because there wasn't enough aviation fuel so people from far flung districts had less chance of coming to the capital, International flights reduced frequency (or in the case of South China Air they stopped completely) due to the lower numbers and higher cost as they had to make an intermediary stop to refuel. Air fares went up. The impact of a downswing in tourism reaches from the hotels and restaurants of Kathmandu to the handicraft makers of the valley, to the trekking districts and of course to unemployment. Unemployment causes, particularly young men (needed for reconstruction) to seek alternatives off-shore. Nepal has proportionally one of the largest migrant worker populations in the world, prior to the earthquake it was 3rd in the world.

The black market flourished and to demoralize people who were struggling, fuel became available but at inflated prices; at one point gasoline was 4X the usual cost and cooking gas 8X, far beyond the ability of the average Nepali to pay. To add insult to injury, like a spit in the eye, it appeared clear that officials of all stripes, including the Nepal Oil Corporation, the Police, border authorities, etc had all jumped on the black market bandwagon and were having a hey-day... it is no wonder the blockage of fuel went on so long... who was motivated to stop it!? It is only now, months after the blockade that you can get petrol… diesel and cooking gas remain scarce… amongst rumours of trucks waiting now at the border because there is too much fuel in depots... so where is it going? Queues at fuel stations persist, and no one can really explain why.

As cooking gas ran out and as the temperature fell with the advancing winter, the government in its seemingly infinite mission of national disservice started to sell firewood from national forests rather than focus on solving the crisis at its root. The cost of wood doubled and people were using it to cook and to stay warm so that whatever air pollution gains had been made due to the lower vehicle numbers was lost to the smoke from fires. Whats more, all over the Kathmandu valley you can see trees either felled or denuded of branches to provide people food and warmth... in the 21st Century. A sadness descended when the previous Prime Minister Shushil Koirala who had been succeeded by the ambitious K.P. Oli in February as part of the Constitution signing agreement, died shortly after Oli's installation. While a firmly established member of the political elite at fault, Koirala was also an architect of the Constitution, a key player and prevailed over its signing... his loss was respectfully mourned nationally. 

Rays of sunshine thinned out…  and bad got worse in February 2016, 2 domestic aircraft crashed. When aircraft go down in Nepal it is felt like a blow to the solar plexus, across the nation people gasp because lots of people fly in Nepal or know someone who flies; the first incident occurred on a very popular route accessing the Annapurna and Mustang regions which my family had also been on in March, it could have been us. Tourism to those regions took a hit. People know the pilots, they are national heros, their loss is tragic and widely felt. Nepal is already struggling to gain its IATA accreditation for flights to Europe, and I recall a conversation of well-travelled aid officials once who posited that how an airport runs is indicative of how the country runs... this seems to hold true in the case of Nepal... the CAAC (airport authority) has a reputation of being rife with corruption, inefficiency and neglect.

My sense is that Nepali's soldiered on but wearing 'resilience' like a badge of honor. Was it misplaced? Many (Nepalis and non-Nepali residents) asked... why were there no protests in the streets. Previously when the government tried to raise the price of cooking gas there were loud public protests but this time, nothing. Queues at petrol stations were literally kilometers long, people left their vehicles for days and weeks in queues, I thought blocking the parliament with vehicles and non-violent protest at the gate would have gained results much quicker... but that would have required two missing ingredients... one the leadership to do it (and a game plan if it went pear-shaped), and two, such an action would have perhaps been construed or co-opted as an act in solidarity with the Madhes. Ahh, it does get complicated, and far moreso than I have written here. Indian border State elections didn't help when they disempowered the Hindu BJP party, in power in Delhi but struggling in Bihar with its long and porous border with Nepal.

And then there is the ruined economy having taken a double blow with the earthquake and then the blockade, I could go on but I think you get the picture. If you live above 2000m in Nepal as most of the earthquake victims do, how much do you care about these complexities when you are trying to feed your children, keep them warm and get medical help for your elderly parents? In Kathmandu how much can you protest when you know the suppression will likely be harsh when it comes, when you know there is no one to replace these entrenched leaders anyway, and when your main concerns are finding fuel for your motorbike so you can get to work lest you lose your job, and finding fuel so your wife can cook dahl bhat for dinner.

Like many resident expatriates we look on with dismay at the discontent of the population, and disappointment that there aren't alternatives to the leadership on the horizon for the change that has to come. I admire those amazing individuals, those rays of sunshine who crack on regardless organizing treks and expeditions, a mountain bike festival, international photo festival, and celebrate their festivals and hold music events (chapeau) to buoy up the youthful, diverse spirit of the nation and keep feeding the creative stream that is very vibrant in Nepal.

Nepal is a special place, with such amazing advantages and opportunities that are not being realised on a the scale necessary to transform the country into a regional example of so many great things.. like extensive micro-hydro projects, grand scheme hydroelectric power, like sweeping visions of high potential in tourism, like preserving for posterity the incredible vibration in the power centres (temples, monasteries and stupas) in the Valley. What about building a new capital elsewhere and leaving the Valley for tourists, anthropologists, spiritualists and its residents and for those wanting to develop the arts and hold space in this special place. Something has to give, the Valley has reached a critical mass, it is overburdened with humanity, the question is will mother earth express herself again in the form of another massive earthquake or will she let it continue to burn slowly; the elite constantly consuming what they can feed off until it all falls to ash. Embassies are closing their doors, fewer in number than ever before, donors are dismayed in a country where foreign aid income is as big as revenue gains through tourism and corruption is rife.

I hope for a breath of fresh air, for young educated well-spoken Nepalis to step up and step graciously almost fraternally, like a young person relieving his/her older tired respected elder to take on leadership roles which may not come easily. Then they can take on the challenges facing Nepal with gusto, diplomacy and vision.

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