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Happy New Banda

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

First posted on on 12 April, 2009

Here we are in Hetauda, trying to figure out what to do. We have to get to Lahan by tomorrow on nepa-laya’s Yuddha Chitra Film Tour, but news of bandas are closing in from all sides. Today the Tarai is closed, tomorrow Hetauda will be blocked.

The Tamsaling banda will close down Makwanpur, Nuwakot, Sindhupalchok, Rasuwa and Kabhre. For the past three days all highways are blocked in the eastern Tarai as part of a three-day banda enforced by the Goit faction of the JTMM.

We have to get out of Hetauda today because tomorrow it will be shut, but we can’t head east because the east is still shut.

As we ponder our next move, word comes in that the East-West Highway is blockaded by sukumbasis agitating for land at Nijgad. The Prithbi Highway in Dhading is closed because someone ran over someone. The highway from Patlaiya to Birganj has been blocked since yesterday because a local villager was shot dead by poachers in the jungles there. An SMS comes in: forget about going to eastern Nepal, the Kosi pidits have stacked boulders on the highway demanding compensation that was promised but never came. And this news just in: Bardiya is closed by war victims who got tired of waiting for government grants.

At the hotel reception, the tv news is showing Finance Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai telling a meeting of businessmen in Kathmandu that the government is going to pass a law making bandas illegal. Everyone in the room bursts out laughing. A police officer says his orders are “not to use force” to disperse bandas.

We move out of Hetauda at dusk, hoping for the best and insured by that great Nepali coping mechanism: “Je parla, parla.” It even rhymes with “Que sera, sera”.

The road through the flaming Chure forests is surprisingly empty. The diesel tanker drivers are stuck, and have all lined up at their preferred sex stop at ‘Tin Number Pool’. The stark Chure hills with trees sticking out of their ridgelines look like something out of a Japanese painting.

At Amkelhganj, the tanker convoys haven’t been coming from Raxaul for two days because of the blockade. At Patlaiya, there are literally thousands of trucks: a backlog of all the cargo and passenger traffic that has been dammed up here by bandas to the east, south and north for days. Some flatbed trucks have managed to sneak in via the dusty bypass road through Kaliaya-they all carry huge diesel generators for the power starved capital.

Desperate passengers headed for Biratnagar and beyond have been camped out on the dusty road side for days, they have run out of money and food. And yet, the mood is not one of anger against those enforcing the bandas, not even against the government. They say “yastai ho”, “ke garne”, “khul-la ani jaun-la”. Highway blockades have been a part of life, a part of the new culture of a new Nepal. Long-distance passengers keep a cushion of three or four days worth of food and money in case they get stuck, it is part of the professional hazard of travelling. Along the Eaast-West Highway, the bus roofs are stacked with bicycles of passengers who have taken them along in case the road is blocked and they have to pedal home.

Highways that passed through jungles now pass through concrete jungles, and everything spills out into the road. So, someone’s goat is killed by a speeding truck and it is blocked by roadside dwellers demanding compensation even though no one knows who the driver is. In Lothar, a motorcycle hit and injured a pedestrian on the highway recently. The victim’s family closed the road the whole day while bargaining with the driver who happened to be the victim’s next-door neighbour. In Kapilbastu last year, the highway was blocked all day by women protesting on behalf of a neighbour whose husband had beat her up.

Hartals were invented in Bengal, but Nepal has now perfected it into a fire art. There will no end to bandas until there are alternative ways to get from Hetauda to Bhadrapur. Trouble is there is only one road, and the agitators know they have the country by its jugular. This is a government that came to power by enforcing shutdowns, so it has no moral authority to clamp down on others doing the same.

The Nepali media puts its politely: “So-and-so has requested a banda for tomorrow.” It is actually enforced by the threat of having your windshield smashed or your van vandalised. These days, not even ambulances and bicycles are spared. No one wants bandas, but everyone is powerless to stop it.

By the time we reach Lahan, it is clear that it is the poorest of the poor who have been hurt the most. There is a vapid listlessness along the asoka lined highway that runs through the bajar. Those who can afford it simply fly to Biratnagar, and there are now 25 flights a day from Kathmandu. There is slightly more traffic as Siraha opens after a three day shutdown. Never has the piercing pressure horn of a long-distance bus been music to my ears as it is today.

In 2065 there were 158 days of shutdowns here in eastern Nepal. According to there were more bandas in 2008 all over Nepal than there were days in a year. With the constitution-writing process just starting, you can be sure that 2066 will see even more.

We’re going to try to cross the Kosi by ferry at Chatara and see what the new year has in store. Happy New Hartal.

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