Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Slow-burn  in the Tarai


LAHAN?The Tarai is on a slow-burn mode, and in our current state of lawlessness there is no one to douse the fire.

A volatile mix of anarchy, corruption, institutionalised criminality, economic stagnation, popular discontent and deepening communal divide are making the towns in the plains more dangerous and fragile.

In Siraha, the Madhes Tarai Mukti Morcha kidnapped a Pahadi VDC secretary. Most VDC secretaries have moved to district towns signaling a retreat of the state. Another unknown armed group killed a Madhesi school teacher. Government employees have locked up their offices and refused to work unless given more security.

The Tharus called a shutdown against Hindi oath-taking. And MJF leaders smugly said they would teach the Tharus a lesson in the future. The mysterious killing of a Madhesi college student in Dharan has turned into an ethnic issue. Madhesi students demand an investigation into the death, asking the college to set up a branch in a 'Madhesi area' where they will be more secure. Instead of calming the situation, Madhesi parties are capitalising on the polarisation.

Youth militancy is picking up in Dhanusha. The Rajan Mukti faction is the most notorious these days for its blatant extortion. A Madhesi businessman was shot in Janakpur a fortnight ago for refusing to pay up. There were 13 blasts in the town in July. Youth wings of mainstream parties (Maoists, UML, MJF and Sadbhabana) are engaged in competitive populism and acting as law-enforcers.

Economic stagnation is a key factor for this mess. There are no jobs for people who do not migrate out of the country. The collapse of the public sector in the Tarai (the Birganj sugar factory and the cigarette unit in Janakpur are visible examples) means the state is not giving jobs. The insecurity of the past year has led to shutting down of more than 25 industries in Bara-Parsa belt. Vegetable oil units are winding up. There are no fresh investments and no expansion of production. Many factories still operating prefer Indian workers because they do not want Nepali labour trouble.

Agriculture can't accommodate everyone because of its seasonal nature, the lack of modernisation, falling productivity and inequitable land distribution. There is no big infrastructure project or employment guarantee program which could give people money and dignity. It is simple: if you do not deal with the youth bulge, there will be conflict.

Combine this unemployment with the collapse of the administrative and security apparatus of the state. There is no local government, the bureaucrats are not accountable to anyone and they have no political direction. The state lost out at a critical moment when it did not capitalise on its post election legitimacy and the total illegitimacy of the armed groups. That was the best time to weaken extremists and we lost the chance.

Where the state does exist, it is corrupt. As long as the cops get a share of the loot, they prefer not to confront criminals. The parties use the armed groups as a card to promote the politics of divisiveness. Businesses and even NGOs are now reported to be using armed groups against rivals. A conflict economy is slowly taking root in Madhes, and some sections are quite happy with the lawlessness.

Across the eastern Tarai there is unhappiness. A trader can't transport products because of blocked highways. A Dalit labourer in a northern Siraha village is unhappy because he barely gets 3 kg of rice as daily wage. A Muslim is unhappy because his community has lost out in the inclusion race. Both upper and intermediate-caste Madhesis are unhappy because they feel the government has not fulfilled any promise. Pahadis and Tharus are unhappy because they feel victimised by the Madhes hegemony. There are no institutions to deal with the discontent, which means all the unhappiness and anger will be manifested on the streets.

After Kathmandu parties do us a favour and form the government, they should turn their gaze southwards and start building the state.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)