Congress vows to take to the streets alongside politically unaffiliated youthsWhile the youths have largely remained politically unaffiliated so far, the involvement of the Congress is likely to bring the movement under a political flag.
When the youth took to the streets three times last week, they did so as a largely politically unaffiliated group of individuals. But now, with the primary opposition Nepali Congress vowing to join the youths in protest, the movement appears to be on the verge of being taken under a political flag, whether they want to or not.
On Monday, a few hundred members of the Nepali Congress’ Nepal Student Union took out a protest rally from Bijulibazar to New Baneshwor. According to the union’s general secretary Urmila Thapaliya, their demands include proper quarantine facilities, wider use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, and an end to corruption. These are some of the same demands that the youth protesters have been proclaiming.
Leaders from the Congress who had so far only supported the protests in spirit have now vowed to take to the streets themselves, in addition to raising governance issues in Parliament.
Although some sections have blamed the Congress for instigating last week’s protests, protesters themselves have made it clear that most of them are not affiliated to any political party and were out on the streets of their own volition.
Thousands of young people protested in major cities across the country on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, raising questions about the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They’ve demanded replacing all rapid diagnostic tests with polymerase chain reaction tests, improvements to quarantine facilities across the country, and financial transparency of the government’s expenditures fighting the pandemic.
On June 8, the party’s central working committee decided to form a task force led by joint general secretary Prakash Sharan Mahat to monitor the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On June 10, a Congress delegation led by senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel met Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to hand over the party’s demands. But leaders say they were “neglected”.
The party has asked that at least 14 issues be addressed immediately. These include an end to RDTs and widening PCR tests; sending people home from quarantine only after PCR test results; a closure of all unsafe quarantine facilities and the building of new ones that meet hygiene standards; an economic relief package for labourers, students, single women, the disabled, children and the elderly; repatriation of all citizens wishing to return home from abroad at minimum cost to them; smooth supply of seeds and fertilisers to farmers; and economic support to the local level.
“If the government continues to turn a deaf ear to our warnings, we will raise our concerns in Parliament as well as the streets,” said Mahat at a press briefing organised at the party office in Sanepa on Monday. “Our sister wing has already started symbolic protests.”
Mahat said the party’s assessment concluded that the federal government had failed to support the local level adequately.
“The federal government’s presence is missing at the local level. Local authorities have received just around Rs1 million from their provincial governments but nothing from the federal government,” he said. “But the government has presented an expenditure of Rs10 billion.”
According to an expenditure breakdown posted to social media by the prime minister’s press adviser, the government has allocated Rs 4.83 billion to the local level, of which Rs 2.985 billion has already been spent. There are, however, doubts over the authenticity of these figures as government agencies, including the Covid-19 Crisis Management Committee, the High-Level Coordination Committee to Control Covid-19, and the Finance Ministry did not confirm to have released the breakdown.
The Congress has also pointed to the extremely poor condition of quarantine facilities across the country. Numerous news reports have documented how millions of Nepalis who returned home from India are being housed in substandard quarantine facilities that lack enough space to maintain physical distance and even lack running water.
On Friday, the National Human Rights Commission said that the government had failed to ensure minimum sanitation standards in quarantine, turning them into potential hotspots for Covid-19.
With thousands more migrants from the Middle East scheduled to return in the days to come, conditions are certain to get worse, the Congress warned.
“But the federal government is in a deep sleep. They have no idea how to manage the problems and the situation will soon explode,” Mahat said.
Except for a few outspoken leaders, the Congress had largely refrained from criticising the government in the run-up to the passage of the constitutional amendment bill. All the parties had stood behind the government on the bill as it concerned a matter of “national sovereignty and integrity”. With the amendment having been passed by both chambers of Parliament, the temporary silence appeared to have been broken.
The Congress will be compelled to take to the streets as the government does not appear to be listening to its voices in Parliament, said Ganga Thapa, a Congress lawmaker who has expressed support for the youth movement.
“We first told the government to increase tests, then we asked them why tests weren’t increased, then we criticised them for not increasing tests,” said Thapa. “The situation could quickly turn uncontrollable so it’s time to force the government to take action from both Parliament and the streets.”
If the government had been responsive to the Congress’ and the people’s concerns, they would not have to protest on the streets, he said.
“But there is no sign of any corrective measures,” said Thapa. “The supply chain has been disrupted and there is scarcity of fertilisers and seeds. Things are getting critical.”
However, while inaugurating an alternative learning platform for school children on Monday, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli claimed that there was no need for movements in the country anymore.
“We welcome all parties to join the protests, including the Nepal Communist Party,” said Binod Deuba Thakuri, one of the moderators of the Covid-19 Nepal: Enough is Enough campaign.
“Their entry will only support the cause of our struggle. But we will not protest with any political colour.”
Prime Minister Oli, however, appears unconcerned by all the protests. In a televised address on Monday, he said he has heard all the concerns of the youths and that theirs would be the most fortunate generation in the country.
“This is not just talk,” he said.