Nepali Times
State Of The State
A flailing state


MAHOTTARI-Tarai villagers are on the verge of panic: after a long winter drought, it looks like the monsoon is also failing.

Rice transplanting should have been finished by now. This year, the paddy fields are are dry with caked mud. Food has run out, and many are preparing to migrate for work.

The winter exodus to Assam, Haryana and Punjab was the norm here in Mahottari. But when the government started distributing passports from district headquarters in the mid-1990s, people began to pawn the family heirloom, mortgage the ancestral home, sell land or borrow from moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates to go to Qatar.Qatari is a neologism in Maithili that differentiates a Nepali Worker Abroad (NWA) with seasonal migrants to India.

Out of the 6,000 population of Suga village near the Indian border, over 300 work abroad. The remittance-based economy has transformed this village in many ways even as society remains mired in caste orthodoxy and general backwardness.

Relative ease of life for even the very poor is another reassuring feature of the benefits of a remittance boom. Malnutrition still haunts Dalit quarters but the death-inducing hunger whenever the monsoon failed is mercifully a thing of the past. It's oddly reassuring when seemingly impoverished villagers complain about the quality of rice or the price of edible oil.

More children go to 'English Boarding Schools'. Grocers sell expensive, sometimes spurious, antibiotics. Arrack shops have sprouted on street corners and there are more motorcycles on the road. Antennas announce from rooftops that the family has an Indian cell phones. At teashops, the cacophony of ringtones of Mero, CDMA and Namaste mobiles often drown out the din of conversation as people shout into mouthpieces in the hope of being heard over weak signals.

With most able-bodied men gone, there are fewer hands left to toil in the fields. Agriculture stagnates, as people waiting to become Qataris prefer to pull rickshaws in Jaleshwar or Janakpur. The word 'visa' is pronounced with reverence.

The world of remittance-beneficiary families falls apart once a NWA meets with an accident. Loans with compounded interest multiply. Children are pulled out of school, the remaining land sold off. Medication for the elderly is discontinued. It takes time for the family to adjust. Human beings possess extraordinary capacity to cope, but the initial shock of losing the sole breadwinner is extremely disorienting.

Two of the dozen Nepalis killed in the boat accident in Doha on 30 June were from Mahottari. One of them was Rajiv Kumar Dutta, a boy I had known since he was born. The loss was personal: I had failed to help Rajiv find a job when he completed his post-school Auxiliary Health Worker course few years ago. His family is devastated.

Suryakanta, Rajiv's father, was a colleague of UML General Secretary Ishwar Pokharel at RR Campus. He has remained steadfastly loyal to his party even in a village that is overwhelmingly NC. He lead the life of conscientious and proud citizen, doing his part and expecting nothing in return from either his party or the state.

The delivery capacity of a flailing state is limited. When the government machinery fails to perform even its primary function of securing the life, property and dignity of its citizens it would be too much to expect it to come to the rescue of a family that doesn't ask for help even when it needs it.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)