Nepal has changed in 15 years, but the issues we were covering then are still here with us
Cartoon: Subhas Rai
‘Sign of the times’. That was the title in an editorial of this newspaper on 19 July 2000. In it we had written:
‘A newspaper does more than hold a mirror to society. It is the mirror itself. Journalism is called history in a hurry. It is also culture, sociology, anthropology and philosophy in a hurry. Nepali Times will aspire to be a true reflection – an English journal to record the life and times of Nepalis in the decades ahead. This newspaper will seek to be informal, lively, clear and direct. Don’t be fooled by the tabloid format, this is a serious paper that tackles serious issues head-on. In a society cursed with extreme inequality, we will speak for the last, the lost and the least. We will be fair, and we will fiercely protect our independence. This is a modern newspaper for a new Nepal. A sign of the times.’
Today, these goals may seem rather lofty (some may even say prematurely self-congratulatory) but week after week for the past 15 years we have tried in these pages to be a chronicle of the times. And, just as the famous curse, what interesting times they have been.
We have had a ringside seat to war, a massacre of royals, a ceasefire, a prolonged political transition, we have witnessed deadly floods, avalanches, blizzards and earthquakes. Through it all, we have tried to keep our heads above the water and be true to the tenets of our profession, standing up for and holding up the core values of democracy, press freedom and non-violence.
It has been nearly ten years since the conflict ended. The war has been over for as long as it lasted. But the Nepali people never got to reap the peace dividend. Ostracisation and inequality persist. There is chronic mismanagement, poor governance and lack of accountability.
For about five years after the 1990 People Power Movement we were beginning to see that democracy delivered development, but narrow-minded and near-sighted politicians wasted the opportunity. They never grasped that true legitimacy in a democracy comes from performance, not just elections. The country may have gone from monarchy to republic, from war to peace, but the issues we were covering 15 years ago are the same: lack of the rule of law, political meddling, impunity, investment, infrastructure, devolution and the need for local elections.
Nepal’s population has grown by 6 million in the last 15 years, 18 per cent of the people (mostly young men) are working abroad at any given time. There has been a three-fold increase in petroleum imports from India in five years, mainly to pay for diesel to power generators. Look no further for an example of how we have squandered our potential to be self-sufficient in renewable energy.
Even as we were struggling to find a political fix for these ills through a new constitution, the earthquake struck. A lethargic government was slow off the mark: rescue, relief and rehabilitation were tardy. There was confusion, indecisiveness and smug complacency about delivery. Counterproductive decisions to tax relief goods and turning back offers of help tarnished our image abroad. The government may be happy with the $4.4 billion pledged for reconstruction which makes a large chunk of this year’s budget, but there are serious doubts about whether we have the capacity to provide that help to people who need it the most without leakage and delays.
However, the earthquake also brought out the best in Nepalis: our tenacity and willingness to help one another. Individuals and volunteer groups stepped in to fill the gap left by government. The mobilisation was possible because of the spread and reach of social networking sites. One of the most dramatic changes in the past 15 years has been the rise of the social web – nearly 5 million Nepalis now use Facebook. This has transformed the way we share information, get organised and even engage with politics.
Nepal has been able to survive feckless and incompetent rulers because Nepalis stopped expecting anything from them long ago, and built their own coping mechanisms. Everything that has worked in Nepal in the past 20 years has the word ‘community’ in it: community forestry, community radio, community-managed schools and health posts. In Khandbari, a local cooperative sells electricity to the grid to finance two colleges. A returnee from Qatar has started a dairy farm in Nawalparasi that employs 100 people. A program to send young volunteers to teach in rural government schools has dramatically improved the quality of education.
And that is what gives us hope about the next 15 years. The teetering edifice of national government may need retrofitting, but the foundation of Nepali society is solid.
15 year timeline, Om Astha Rai and Ayesha Shakya
Plus ça change, Foreign Hand
Preparing to be prepared
The lost decade-and-half, Om Astha Rai
Shaking things up, Editorial
Another lost decade, Editorial