Hope and despair in NepalThe country is struggling to cope with rampant corruption, but the emerging youth give some hope for the future.
Nepal is in the grip of mafias, middlemen and their patrons and protectors. The go-betweens are desperate to make their living and get rich quick by becoming a conduit between the mafia and their patrons and protectors. The latter in turn need the money to either secure their future post-politics or to fuel money into the middlemen, who in turn rally the benighted voters to go into the polling booths and vote favourably. All this makes a vicious circle for democracy.
The brutal murder of 24-year-old Dilip Kumar Mahato by the sand-and-boulder don Bipin Mahato has brought the issue of mafia-controlled businesses (crusher industry, education industry, land-buying-and-selling business, manpower industry) to the public notice as never before. To be sure, corruption is endemic—from the ward offices and consumer groups to all branches of government.
Those who have any state power anywhere in Nepal can’t believe that clean governance is possible. But it was the service seeker—you—who for the longest time took this state-confined corruption for granted. Once in a while, a Kulman Ghising or Sanduk Ruit came along, and you felt there was still hope for Nepal, hope for its democracy. But for every Kulman Ghising, there are countless corrupt officials. Nepalis took all this for granted.
These mafia dons who ravaged Nepal’s resources were there in the past, in the form of timber smugglers. The timber smugglers were active because the Panchayat Raj at the time brought out policies to clear the forest for transfer of the population from the hills to the plains. The path to ecological hell began to be paved with good nationalistic intentions. Still, the small-time smugglers of the past were not so bold as these republican dons.
The new sectors—of overseas employment, domestic private education and local development, among others—work in the republican framework where people are supposed to be supreme. Instead, the mafia, the middlemen and the party leaders come foremost.
In the current context, who would say that young Nepalis of the plains and the hills shouldn’t migrate abroad for work? In our travels from Jhapa to Kanchanpur, we saw the effect of overseas employment. There isn’t a village that doesn’t have a brick-and-cement structure rising; there isn’t a village that doesn’t have a for-profit private English medium ‘boarding school’ bus ferrying kids, and there isn’t a village whose streets aren’t dug up for gravelling, pitching or canal-making. Naturally, for overseas employment, you must have professional recruitment agencies, called manpower companies. And these companies, by virtue of their connections, or by funnelling a part of their exorbitant earnings into the pockets of their politician patrons, get away with manipulating or breaking laws related to foreign employment. Their notoriety has only recently been surpassed by the education and crusher mafia.
Similarly, who wouldn’t say that there should be an abundance of teaching hospitals that could produce enough medical professionals to staff every health post with qualified doctors and nurses. In India, the tight grip on the number of medical colleges has caused a lot of disappointment, including suicides, among the aspiring young men and women who seek the coveted profession but can’t compete for the limited seats in the colleges. This tight grip of the government on the number of medical colleges had made Shashi Tharoor argue for more flexibility in opening new medical colleges. Yet, in Nepal, the medical mafia manipulates the existing laws for quality control and donations—so much so that Dr Govinda KC had to go on hunger strike more than once to remedy the situation and limit a concentration of subpar colleges in the Kathmandu Valley. Newspapers have also exposed the close nexus between politicians of the highest level and the medical mafia.
In the same vein, who wouldn’t want development? Leaders of the old political parties, such as Prime Minister KP Oli, have been ridiculed numerous times by the media for making grandiose claims about railways, ships and cooking gas pipes. And more than one new party has opened its political account in the name of growth. What does development mean if not building brick-and-cement buildings in the villages and paved roads everywhere? For paved roads and concrete houses, you need bricks, sand, boulders and gravel. And where would they get these if not turning the earth upside down and depleting the hills and rivers?
Rules and laws are only meant for the books, and the politicians need the dough (the Maithili slang for money in many Province 2 districts, by the way, is dheuwa) to raise their own buildings and fight costly elections the political-business nexus expands. For example, in one mayoral election, two losing candidates had spent Rs7 million and Rs15 million, respectively. One can only imagine how much the winning candidate had spent. These politicians want to recuperate the electoral expenditure. One of the losing candidates who told us about his Rs7 million expense sold his land to pay off the election debt. But the winning candidate will do everything possible to get his money back, with interest, so that his political and personal future is secure. And this is an example from the local level; the upper tiers of government are bound to have more expensive electoral campaigns.
Some might see no problem that the unholy nexus between the mafia and the politicians, with the help of the middleman, makes them all rich. But Nepal’s hard-won democracy is at risk here. In the multiparty democracy days of the 1990s, the common people had come to hate the politicians, high and low, for their power-grabbing and corrupt ways. So much so that when Gyanendra Shah took over power, people refused to turn up for the politicians’ meetings. It was Nepal’s civil society, for love of freedom and democracy, that came to the rescue of the feckless politicians.
So, once again, brave people like Dilip Mahato, the first environmental martyr in Nepal, give up their lives for their cause. The fact that he came from and died opposing the crusher mafia in Province 2 tells you the complexity of the province. Even while the federal government under Mr Oli has refused to hand over real power to the provinces, there are young men who are doing remarkable work for their society.
In our travel through the province, Tula Narayan Shah and I met a citizen who had single-handedly mobilised human resources to clean up an ancient pond that had become a garbage dump. We also met a group of engineering students (Dilip Mahato, too, was an engineering student), ages ranging from 17 to 24, who had through their club Arambh (which means beginning) established libraries, held science and art exhibits in various places in their district of Siraha and motivated young kids to become scientists.
The struggle that the club leader Ram Kumar Yadav, an engineering student at Pulchowk campus, had to go through to receive an education and his determination to spread the light among young children in his district was profoundly moving. Such people are the inspiration for Nepal’s future. After meeting such people, one cannot help but be optimistic about Nepal’s future, despite the corrupt politicians and mafias and intermediaries. The country will emerge out of this corrupt phase, and Nepalis will demand accountability and electoral reform one day. For without change, Nepal’s democracy is doomed.
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