Confused Sufferers of Nepal

Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa’s shuttle diplomacy was expected to produce fellable results soon, but nothing solid to do away with the misery of the people seem to be in the offing

Jan. 2, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol:09, No 11, December 11, 2015 (Mangsir 25, 2071

Faced with acute shortage of essentials and biting cold of the winter, Nepalese are struggling hard to survive in this country reeling under severe load shedding, galloping inflation and a serious fuel crisis that started soon after the promulgation of the new constitution some three months ago. Earthquake-hit people, sheltered in open fields with no proper roof to keep their heads under, are finding it hard to survive and some have already succumbed to the biting cold of the winter. Cold related deaths across the country have reached 20, most of them being the victims of the earthquake. The government has not been able to provide relief to these sufferers nor has it succeeded in correcting the derailed supply of petroleum and other products. Prime Minister Oli should be thankful to the people that they have not taken to the street even when faced with the scarcity of almost every essential one could think of. Days, however, may not be far away for the explosion because some leaders have begun to accuse the people in the government of trying to prolong the crisis because they are minting money through black marketeering of essential commodities. People are also not prepared to completely brush aside these charges because with the sole exception of Birgunj point, dozens of tankers carrying petroleum products are getting into Nepal from most entry points, but people still have to wait for weeks to get few liters of petrol. That vehicular movement on the roads of the Valley has increased by many times in recent days also supports the charges that the increased supply is not distributed through normal channels but black marketed at two to three times the official prices. It is commonly said and discussed that prices in the informal market have decreased in recent times with significant increase in the availability of petroleum in Nepal. Gas bullets and oil tankers from India are said to vanish before they rich the formal receiving points. It is difficult to say who this mess should be blamed on. It would be unjust and pitiable to put the entire blame on the current infant government (born September, 2015), which has the right to claim that the mess we are in today existed even prior to its birth after the promulgation of the constitution. Therefore, to play safe and avoid a sharp retort from our very vocal prime minister, let us blame, in keeping with the current practice, the whole lot of top leaders whose acts and utterances have remained the major source of confusion and pain that we have been enduring since long.

Seemingly with the intention of appeasing Madhesi leaders and voters, the main opposition party NC succeeded in registering the first constitution amendment bill just before the dissolution of the government led by it and struggled again in the House from the opposition bench for its tabulation along with the reconstruction bill. Amid protest from Madhes-based parties, both the bills were presented in the House. Sloganeering and picketing the well of the House by lawmakers of the Madhesi Front could not stall House proceedings. Front leaders were not against the bill on reconstruction but did not participate in the approval process objecting to the tabling of the amendment bill together with the reconstruction related one. The bill on reconstruction was passed. Initially many thought that NC’s efforts at placating Madhesi leaders backfired but meetings held between NC and the Front in a cordial atmosphere in recent days did away with the apprehension and suggest that their collaboration could lead to the breaking of the impasse. Very understandably, NC wanted some more days so that agitating parties could be brought on board before a formal discussion on the bill commences. Although it is still confusing but one could guess that the protesting parties would not continue for long with the agitation because friends from India have hinted that crisis be resolved through consensus and understanding. Therefore, despite describing the three-point proposal presented to it by the government as abstract, unclear and incomplete, agitating leaders appear relatively  accommodative because they have agreed to the idea of redrawing the boundaries through a high level political committee provided they get commitment of major parties on provincial boundaries. Major parties, however, are reluctant to make any specific prior commitment on details of whatever revision is done in future by the proposed commission. Morang, Jhapa and Sunsari on the eastern side and Kailali and Kanchanpur in far west are the disputed districts on which the major parties, mainly NC and UML on one side and the agitating parties on the other, are finding it difficult to converge. Heavy weights like Oli and NC leader Sitaula have solidly stood for keeping the eastern districts intact and together, while similar position is taken by NC senior leader Deuba and vice chair of UML Vim Rawal for the two western districts. It isdifficult, however, to understand the adamancy of these top leaders on one hand and demand by agitating leaders for division and reconfiguration of these districts on the other, ignoring the wishes and aspirations of the local inhabitants. The issue cannot be left unresolved for long and may need to be put to people for their ultimate verdict.

In the mean while, utterances and actions of political leaders seem to have shaken our prime minister who recently expanded his cabinet, fourth time since being elected, making it the third largest in Nepal’s history: Baburam Bhattari is still at the top with 49 members, followed by Deuba with 48 members in their respective cabinets in the past. Sangria Samajbadi Forum, Nepal chair Upendra Yadav’s remarks that time had come to explore alternatives to the government irrespective of whether it addresses the demands of the agitating groups, Prachand’s repeated dissatisfaction over the performance of the current dispensation and NC president Koirala’s cordial consultation with the agitating leaders must have induced an insecure head of government into expanding his cabinet to a jumbo size, following the footsteps of his two predecessors. Expectedly, Oli has been accused of making this move to fulfill personal interest and to prolong the life of his government. Maoists, the coalition partners, have come down heavily on Oli’s alleged unilateral decision to expand the cabinet. Further, expanding the government and ministries at random is taken by some legal experts as a breach of constitutional provision. Not only politicians in oppositionbut some from his party are also highly critical of this step of ballooning the cabinet one day and creating new ministries on the very next at atime when people on the whole, not to talk of earthquake survivors, are in a terrible situation and the economy is heading towards a total collapse. Looks like our prime minister got into the fire from the frying pan he was on.

Nepal government may not succeed in stopping a much-apprehended contraction of the economy this fiscal because all available data and indicators reflect a disappointing scenario. Forexample, in the last five months of this fiscal year, only 5.33 percent of apportioned Rs.208.87 billion as capital expenditure has been spent. Total budget expenses in the period have reached 17 percent, leaving some 679 billion to be spent in the remaining seven months of the year. Looking at the activities and intentions of those at the helm of affairs, it may not be difficult to increase the recurrent expenditure but acceleration of capital/productive investment in the current situation is going to be an uphill task for the government that is understood to be not serious in resolving the persisting economic and political impasse.

People have understood that what is promised is not delivered. It is indeed disheartening to find people increasingly disappointed with the government. Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa’s shuttle diplomacy was expected to produce fellable results soon, but nothing solid to do away with the misery of the people seem to be in the offing. It may not be wise for the people to be impatient and expect dramatic results overnight but what the duo (Oli and Thapa) should not ignore is the fact that Oli’s ill health and that of the nation\economy do not allow them the luxury of time. Indeed, contrary to the expectation of many people here, Thapa’s recent trip to China could not produce any tangible result in that the agreement signed to sign the long- term fuel deal does not speak about tax waiver demanded by Nepal. As long as the issue of taxation on fuel export is not concluded, Nepal-China fuel deal is not likely to get any concrete shape. Let us be hopeful about Thapa’s hope that something meaningful will happen during Oli’s visit to China in the near future.  No harm is seen in approaching the great economic power in the world, which is doling resources to countries all over the world, to be extra generous and magnanimous to us in these difficult times, but the approach has to be made with clarity of mind and conscience. We have to be clear and make our two neighbors very clear that we are not making an attempt to find a substitute of India as our major partner in international trade, which is not only difficult but impossible in the foreseeable future. It is also a matter of common knowledge that traders, both individuals and country, change partners occasionally to take advantages of depressed prices in a particular locationand to get rid of erratic supply situation. Let us bear in mind that times have changed a lot and economic issues have taken precedence over political problems. Growing economic relations between India and china is a testimony to it. Let us also remember that Indian prime minister’s surprise visit to Pakistan recently was made not to increase the level of historical animosity between the two nuclear powers but to reduce it and pave way for increased level of economic cooperation. Therefore, it is natural for us to seek additional cooperation from China which, on the strength of its vast resources and wealth, is trying to set the global economic agenda on its own terms and whose currency (renminbi) is now to be included in the Special Drawing Right basket of the International Monetary Fund along with dollar, euro, pound and yen. Time is right for us to get maximum support from both economic powers for our development, keeping things in order within Nepal. Let us hope Upendra Yadav and Mahanta Thakur prevails upon injured and aggressive Rajendra Mahato to end the crisis and save the nation and the economy. Hope NC president Koirala and Prachanda succeed in convincing little bit tenacious Oli into the amendment\ modification task so that the deliberations started produce a positive result this time. May Lord Pashupatinath continue to protect this country and its 30 million people irrespective of their caste, creed andlocation?

Let me wish all of us a tolerable year 2016.

Dr. Tilak Rawal

Dr. Tilak Rawal

Dr. Rawal is former governor of NRB.

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