The hatches were closed today at Boudanath, the Tibetan town adjacent to Kathmandu. Shops weren’t open, restaurants didn’t serve anyone, tourists were wondering around mostly unknowing of what was happening. Today was a surprise strike in Nepal, at least in the Kathmandu area.
So there’s a strike going on. I mean, just another strike. They come like fleas over here and quite honestly I can understand very well why people strike here as often as they do. Ok, striking does bring a serious backdrop on income if one is depending on daily income. But in a country as paralyzed as Nepal is there is little reason needed to have people become irritated at the government.
The continuous problems concerning energy are an issue in daily life. Everyone adjusts their agenda to the availability of electricity or the lack of it. And if that wouldn’t be enough to test peoples stress resistance there now is this crisis on fuel as well. Every other day government officials state that there will be extra fuel being imported in the country and in the process blame the gas pump owners for obstructing life by making the fuel crisis artificial, claiming that there really is not a shortage in supplies.
People just don’t buy it anymore. Because also every other day gas station stay closed and the promised extra imported fuel doesn’t flow into the gas tanks of their cars and motorbikes. Without transport Kathmandu as the countries main economic hub is totally immobilized. People can’t get to work and tourists wonder around the city to find one of the rare places that are still open for business. Getting a meal is a challenge and shopping is out of the question. It learns one to always have some food to spare.
The background to the prolonged energy crisis seems to be a tragic composition of circumstances, bad policy and the dire economic situation of the country. The current state of the economy is only partly due to the international financial crisis. Being a poor country, Nepal has to face the hardship of not being able to attract foreign investors enough. Investors simply do not invest in a country with a lack of infrastructure, a lack of money in the bank and political instability in its government. Besides that, contrary to what the west may think, the international financial crisis hits hardest on the poorest of countries (and of poorest of people for that matter). So, without a well filled treasure chest Nepal has no means of improving it’s infrastructure in almost all areas of life. Next to that it’s obvious that the dependency of Nepal on a single fuel supplying country (India) is risky to sat the least. When unwilling to Nepal that supplier can immobilize Nepal with the touch of a button. That is a situation a country should never get into. Building an oil reserve doesn’t help that in the long run and is for Nepal something that is nearly impossible because of the lack of government funds.
But this is not the only reason why people are sometimes on the verge of revolt. Government in itself is a large chunk of the problem. Nepali politics are more or less developing like a Monty Python film script. As far as I know Nepal is the only country in the world that is both a parliamentary democratic republic and is governed by an all communist government cabinet. How’s that for a political experiment unseen in history. As since January the Maoist party joined the minority government of the Marxist-Leninists constructing a majority in the Nepali parliament we now see a new government that has already taken a few months only to get installed. In the meanwhile the challenges the Nepali people stand for have hardly be addressed. Not that the ruling parties are not aware of the list of problems but they are more occupied in the political game itself countering opposition and each other on the formation of the new government and the integration of the Maoist Peoples Army in the Nepal Armed Forces. The Maoists seem to play games with how they organize themselves, laid down arms in January, became friendly to the other comrades but still have their own militia infrastructure upheld. They also regularly threaten to abandon the government if not granted powerful government posts. India in the meanwhile puts pressure on the other coalition partner to not place Maoists in those powerful positions, they feat Commies in the north so India’s quiet diplomacy on this point is one of dancing with the beautiful sister but refusing to dance with her less attractive sisters.
And then there is the drafting of the new constitution. Actually there is a constitutional crisis as since the downfall of the monarchy and the war with Maoists and other communist insurgents some years ago, Nepal still has no new constitution. It’s in a constitutional black hole for years now and the long awaited, and groundbreaking, new constitution should be in place on May 28th. But as the weeks pass by the ones responsible for drafting that constitution and getting it in place (the coalition government that is) are more frequently stating that the few weeks left before its due date are not enough. The effect will be that the mandate of the parliament (and the government) for drafting the new constitution will evaporate on May 28th unless miracles happen. If that is the case a new mandate is needed and a new due date (again) should be stated. General elections later on this year will be impossible in the proposed timeframe and a total political crisis will develop. We all know where such a political crisis may lead to: more strikes and more unrest if not an uprising. Where most people don’t really care about a constitution the Nepalis do. This new constitution is groundbreaking in a sense that the early drafts are focussing on equality for all. Meaning minority groups being protected by law, abandoning of discriminative laws based on the caste system and equality for gays and transgenders including the introduction of a third sex. This is a part of that expected constitution that is unique on a global scale. A lot of people long for that so any further delays are unacceptable for most people.
Nepali people are friendly and laugh a lot. But that is in many instances a disguise for their unrest and irritation. Once that smile goes away something else might come in its place and that is not what this country needs. What is does need it the realization in the political arena that battling each other is a bad thing when in the meanwhile the country is left in its current dire state. Nepal is a very attractive country with amazing nature and wonderful people. It has much to offer to anyone who travels there. It does not for he ones who actually live there. For them it’s survival and yes, they are used to it. But no, they do not like it, so they are on strike often. The development wise immobilized country becomes paralyzed even further as also the tourist industry which is Nepal’s main export product also comes to a creaking halt. For a day, not more dan one day. Because the Nepalis know very well that a long strike might partly destroy that industry and that would leave everyone in despair. The ones ruling Nepal now bear a big responsibility to be successful in making a new constitution and really addressing the needs of the Nepali society.
For me this strike is just awkward. I took me an hour to find a restaurant where I can sit and have a brunch and buying the few supplies needed is challenging if not impossible. But I will leave some day, to a land with a constitution and a government I don’t like. Still that’s better than a land without a constitution backed by its people. That fact and the uncertainty surrounding a new and better constitution was the reason for todays strike.
Alice Verheij © 2011