11 - 17 December 2015 #786

Mopping up

Once the nightmare of the Indian blockade is over, we must restitch the fabric of our nation.


When the nightmare of this Indian blockade is finally over, there will be a lot of mopping up to do. The repair of bilateral relations between India and Nepal must command the most urgent attention. There has been collateral damage on the historically robust people-to-people relations, spreading and entrenching mistrust between Indians and Nepalis. Due to adverse public opinion, it will be even more difficult than before for future governments to push through mutually beneficial investments and water projects. Fortunately, the cultural and economic bonds across the open border are too indispensable, so the psychological impact of this siege will no doubt wear off with time.

Almost as difficult to mend will be the scars in hills-plains relations within Nepal. The Madhes agitation and often-brutal crackdowns by the Armed Police Force in the Tarai in the past four months have turned even generally apathetic Madhesis against Kathmandu. On the other hand, the lynching of policemen and the use of human shields by Madhesi protesters turned the hill-dominated bureaucracy and state security hostile to plains-dwellers. India’s open intervention on behalf of Madhesi political parties boosted bigots in Kathmandu, who had always treated them as ‘Indians’. Restoring unity and restitching the fabric of our nation will be an urgent priority.

However, it is proof of the Nepali culture of forbearance and co-existence that there has been virtually no racist violence at the community level. Our reporters have sometimes been asked “Are you Chinese?” while on assignment in Janakpur, and there is the odd abuse hurled at vegetable vendors in Kathmandu, but by and large, it is positive that our tolerance is largely intact.

Even so, we should not take the lack of discord for granted. Racial harmony is fragile, it is not a default setting. It has to be actively nurtured and protected. Hill-plains relations will be severely tested by how we handle the issue of delineation of future Tarai provinces, and especially the question of the five disputed districts in the western and eastern Tarai which have hill majorities.Sections of the Indian establishment and their allies among the Madhesi leadership, for whatever reason, want the two plains provinces to cover the whole Tarai. The NC-UML-Maoist combine wants them to be part of adjoining hill provinces because of vote bank politics. This has been the main sticking point in talks between Kathmandu and the plains parties. Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa’s compromise proposal to push through amendments on Madhesi demands and defer delineation appears to have been broadly accepted by the Indian establishment, and that is the real reason Madhesi chiefs were summoned to New Delhi this week. This is the wrong time to be tinkering with borders.  

The economy, already battered by the earthquake, has taken a direct hit. Multinational investors are bearing colossal losses, some are thinking of closing down, many domestic industries may never recover. Hydropower and infrastructure projects nationwide are at a standstill. Tourism is down by 60 per cent. The government’s revenue collection has been so badly hit, the Finance Ministry isn’t even putting a rupee figure to it. All this has impacted on employment and government services, GDP growth this year has been scaled back to negative. If it were New Delhi’s intention to punish Nepal, it has done a brilliant job. But it is hard to see how that helps India.

Development has probably been pushed back a decade. Medical services, even emergency care, have been crippled by the shortage of critical drugs and the inability of patients to get to hospital in time. The blockade has a death toll, just like the earthquake did. Schools in the plains have been closed for more than five months, elsewhere they are just keeping classes going till winter break. Facing a harsh winter with no shelter, the situation for the two million people still homeless after the earthquake is dire. 

After this crisis is over, Nepalis and the Nepal government must not fall into the trap of wallowing in victimhood. The Indians don’t need to ruin our country, we have been doing that pretty effectively ourselves since the 1990s. Lazy nationalism does not get us anywhere, as this crisis has proven. We have to be deliberate and systematic in reviving the economy, build self-reliance in energy, kickstart development, and steer our democracy back on track by ensuring that it involves all Nepalis fairly in decision-making.

If we can achieve just some of those goals we will have turned this paralysing crisis into a chance to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Read also:

When the blockade ends, Om Astha Rai

Shortage Raj, Foreign Hand

Calling a blockade a spade, Editorial

SOS, Editorial

In Dependence, Editorial

Full-blown economic crisis, Om Astha Rai