11 - 17 December 2015 #786

Shortage Raj

Returning to the Feuding Democratic Republic after a month abroad it seems the only change in the country’s dire situation is one of perception
Foreign Hand

Photo: Gopen Rai

Civil strife in the Tarai and the Indian non-blockade seem permanent by now and what was recently considered an untenable, impossible scenario has somehow morphed into the new normal. Despite the countless vehicles abandoned in petrol queues, traffic is approaching pre-crises levels, hotels, restaurants and homes are cooking with firewood and the most pressing question facing Nepal: ‘why the hell don’t the politicians sort things out?’ isn’t even being asked anymore. 

Nonetheless, as the blockade (non) drags on, many questions remain. How difficult can it be to amend a patchwork constitution that’s been changed countless times already? Isn’t this document supposed to be inclusive and address the concerns of all Nepalis? If so, then why are so many rioting all the time?

Perhaps the answers can only be found by asking another question: Who’s benefitting from this mess? The oil-bearing trucks that cross the border somehow go astray and never make it to the pumps while black-market petrol is freely available at 3-4 times the legal rate. Cooking gas has disappeared but covert home delivery can be arranged for those who can afford the wildly inflated prices. 

The English word ‘shortage’ entered the Nepali lexicon decades ago, a 2-syllable explanation of a market phenomenon so unfathomable it’s rarely questioned. Merely mentioning ‘shortage’ justifies price hikes and it didn’t take long for those in power to grasp the lucrative potential of such scarcity, real or created. Perhaps that explains why our leaders continue to posture and demonise India while doing nothing to get cross border trade going again. Being opportunist by nature, they recognise the opportunity of a lifetime when they see it and with so much black money circulating there’s plenty to keep everyone collaborating in what may be the biggest racket in Nepal’s history.

Unheard of cooperation across party lines indicates everyone’s getting their cut and rumour has it those parties that aren’t cooperating may be getting kickbacks to keep rioting. Even those paid a salary to stop such profiteering either turn a blind eye (for a price, presumably) provide protection for the criminals, or set up their own chains of supply. An entire network of smugglers, distributors, security, wholesalers, retailers, bureaucrats and politicians is thriving, the only functional segment of an otherwise collapsed economy.

This could also explain why so little effort has been made to internationalise the issue by asking for support from allies. Better if nobody notices and anyways, there’s plenty of time for that later once this golden opportunity has been milked dry and starvation sets in.

Though the scarcity is especially bad this time around, Nepalis have been well trained for years in accepting shortages. It wasn’t so long ago the lights only went out if a transformer blew up. The introduction of scheduled ‘load-shedding,’ another English euphemism for dysfunctional governance, institutionalised shortages as official policy and somehow made them more acceptable, even normal.

During the first Maoist government load shedding hit record 18 hour highs, which suited the comrades just fine since they’d already cornered the market in generators, UPS and batteries. This clever, three pronged strategy created the electricity shortage (or allowed it to happen), made a fortune selling the solution to the crises and punished the sukila-mukila (fancy-dancy) people of Kathmandu while at it. Ain’t politics grand? It was for classic situations like this one, based on manipulation, revenge and loot, the Maoists launched their historic civil war.

During those same years massive hoarding of essentials created shortages that led to sharply inflated prices. Stockpiled food lay hidden in godowns while the markets were bare as rumours of collusion between the authorities and the newly coined Food Mafia were rife. The business of scarcity and market manipulation became ever more entrenched as an economic strategy, tailor made to benefit those in power at everybody else’s expense. 

The recent earthquake provided an opportunity that only occurs once a century (we pray), creating immediate shortages in building materials and all sorts of necessities. Generous donations poured in, distribution systems soon broke down, and desperately needed goods were left lying on the tarmac. As the victims in the hills waited for help a brisk trade sprung up in donated tarpaulins, metal sheets and anything else the Disaster Mafia could finagle.

This current blockade has seen shortages and price increases in almost everything, including products grown or made nearby, and Nepali consumers appear more resigned and accepting of dysfunctional governance than ever before. Now that coping with shortage and hyperinflation has become our way of life we can only expect more of the same from the parties and their mafia cohorts. Some people are making lots of money these days and the fact everyone else suffers seems to be the least of their concerns. Hey, what can you do? That’s just normal now.

It’s almost enough to make one wish for the bad old days (versus the even worse nowadays) when a 2 rupee hike in the petrol price was enough to set off mass demonstrations.

Read also:

Mopping up, Editorial

When the blockade ends, Om Astha Rai

Calling a blockade a spade, Editorial

SOS, Editorial

Full-blown economic crisis, Om Astha Rai

In Dependence, Editorial

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