MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
Breaking the lifelong tradition of celebrating Dasain at home in Tarai, my parents expressed desire to travel beyond the Himalaya this year on a pilgrimage. But the journey to Muktinath in Mustang last week was an eye opener, and a different kind of pilgrimage for me.
All along the route, passengers complained about being fleeced by extortionist bus fares. The festival rates were up to 30 per cent more than what the transporters normally charge. Across Nepal we saw old men and women, families travelling with children and students quarrelling with drivers and conductors about fares. There are no police raids or ministers parachuting in for a spot check. The looters were looting with abandon.
Which is why it was such a populist move for the new prime minister to say he was going to crack down on price gougers. He didn't have to go after everyone. As long as the few bus conductors arrested for overcharging appeared on evening tv news, it gave the impression he was tackling the problem.
Ticket prices for buses in Nepal are bizarre and ad hoc. At the ticket counter in Ghasa, three foreigners paid Rs 500 each for a 45 minute ride Rupse Chhango while Nepalis had to pay Rs 300. It looks like the two-tier ticketing to enter Bhaktapur and get on a domestic flight applies here too. The road to Jomsom was muddy and dangerously slippery due to the protracted monsoon. Our Mustang lurched from side to side as we crossed over into Mustang. An elderly couple chided us for risking our young lives. "We are old and have lived our lives in full, why are you here?" they asked.
Josmom was jam-packed with touriss and there wasn't a hotel room empty—unless you were willing to pay the "Dasain Rate". The same price anarchy of the bus companies was rife at the lodges. The only compensation was the spectacular view of Nilgiri which took away all the fatigue and for the first time in months the lungs breathed in clean air. Up the Kali Gandaki Valley in Kagbeni the next day, the menu prices looked scary, and we decided to settle for the porters' dal bhat available in shops behind the tourist lodges.
It wasn't just the prices that were scary. From instant soups, noodles, canned fish, chocolate bars to energy drinks and even paracetamol tablets everything was past its expiry date. The government's pre-Dasain food quality inspection teams were never going to get here. We pointed out that the instant noodle we were about to buy was one year past its expiry date. The Sauni in Kagbeni replied matter-of-factly: "How can it be expired? My husband got it from the city only two months back." The only sub-healthpost in the area was padlocked and the villagers were at the mercy of an ill equipped clinic nearby and, surprise surprise, most of the cases it treats are food poisoning.
If we are to rate the Baburam government on daily administration, it will score better than its predecessors. Corruption in the bureaucracy seems to be down this festival season, despite the health minister blatantly bribing journalists. Crime also seems to be down this Dasain-Tihar. But why aren't the people feeling relief then?
No matter how much patch-work reform Baburam does, as long as the politics is in turmoil life will be difficult for the citizens. A weak polity ensures weak governance and rule of law, and ultimately takes a toll on the economy. Places like Manang, Mustang, Rolpa, Rukum, Dolpa and Achham need sustained and planned injection of development which is only possible under a stable and prospering economy.
Speaker Subhas Chandra Nembang made a public statement this week in which he requested the people to exert constructive pressure on the political parties. The fact that the parties are holding the constitution-drafting hostage to the peace process shows that they are already doing their post peace-process mathematics. They do not care how long the present crisis lingers on so they will have more time to be prepared for an electoral showdown.
Up here in Mustang, though, people care less about what the prime minister drives than how much they have to pay to take a ride in an over-crowded Mustang to Jomsom.