Whatever your political persuasion, accept that Nepal is in throes of a humanitarian emergency
As the tortuous negotiations over Madhesi demands for changes in the constitution drag on in Kathmandu, and 28 million people reel under a two-and-half-month long siege, there are feeble feelers from both sides to seek face-saving ways out of the prolonged deadlock.
The Nepal government senses that the nationalistic chest-thumping is giving way to public anger over shortages, Madhesi leaders similarly feel their slogans against ‘colonial’ Kathmandu are beginning to ring a bit hollow among a people who have suffered a five-month shutdown, and at the PMO in New Delhi there is creeping disquiet about the growing domestic political backlash as well as rising international concern about its handling of the Nepal mess.
Only the really naive still believe that the border blockade is entirely the result of anger in the Tarai. It is fairly obvious where the strings are being pulled from, and Indian officials and diplomats don’t even try to hide it anymore. But still, realpolitik dictates that the international community is loath to call a blockade a spade and depart from the party line laid down by the regional cop. Officials in one western capital were so fearful of hurting the feelings of a country with which they just signed a $12 billion trade deal that, in conversation with a visiting Nepali MP this week, blamed Nepal for the blockade of Nepal.
Given the might-makes-right doctrine in international geopolitics, it is totally understandable that the UN cannot name a certain member state responsible for not letting essential supplies through. Still, this week’s statement by the UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake lays out the human cost of this outlandish siege: 3 million Nepali children under five are under direct risk of death and disease due to shortages of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines.
Indeed, whichever side of this debate you are on (a supporter of the coalition government in Kathmandu, a champion of Madhesi rights, or a believer that India has no hand in this blockade) it is undeniable that what is now happening in Nepal is a humanitarian emergency.
The question that must be asked in New Delhi, Kathmandu and Birganj must be: Whatever the reason, is reprehensible human harm on this scale acceptable in the 21st century? Why are the very people on whose behalf this struggle is supposedly being waged made to suffer the most? How does this ensure political stability in Nepal? Is a border siege exonerated by international treaties and humanitarian law? Are there no other targeted pressure points a country can legitimately employ to ‘persuade’ a smaller neighbour? Fortunately, there now seems to be a realisation that pushing Tarai demarcations at this volatile time will lead to bloodshed and long term instability.
All this doesn’t let the rulers in Kathmandu off the hook. Prime Minister K P Oli’s strategy is to heap all the blame on India, play the patriot, and hope to garner political brownie points. It has worked so far, but it won’t last. Sooner or later, people waiting in the gas lines, suffering power cuts, shortages and inflation are going to ask: “What are you doing to end our misery?” The answer so far is: nothing.
The NC, UML and Maoists botched emergency relief after the April earthquake, and have let their political rivalry prevent the formation of the Reconstruction Authority. They bear a large part of the blame for being so blinded by greed and ambition that they miscalculated Madhesi and Tharu sentiments with the fast-track constitution in August, allowed tensions to escalate and spread across the plains. They misjudged India, misread cues, and failed to act in time. And with the situation already out of hand, and despite the country’s near-total dependence on India, Prime Minister Oli keeps making things worse by thumbing his nose at New Delhi every chance he gets.
There are ways to exercise tactical acquiescence to gain larger strategic advantage, but our rulers are not versed in those subtleties of international relations.
Tea and biscuits, Anurag Acharya
Over the hump, Dambar K Shrestha
‘No time to lose’, Om Astha Rai
In the absence of hope, Bidushi Dhungel
Full-blown economic crisis, Om Astha Rai
In dependence, Editorial
…who will bell the cat?, Anurag Acharya