A systemic problemRuined roads have become representative of the Nepali condition as a whole
Everywhere I have looked over the past two weeks, Nepal seems to be dug up, shovelled and bulldozed. Rocks, bricks, sand, clay and dirt lie wherever you travel—the capital city Kathmandu, the next big town of Biratnagar, and even my village in east central Morang. One gets the impression that Nepal is in ruins, and of all the public places that lie in ruin, the roads seem the worst. Nepali roads have become a synecdoche of the Nepali condition—its politics, its urban environment, its officials, its courts. Ask any common person, from taxi drivers to street side vendors, and you get a feeling that people have given up. A deep sense of despair pervades even the free, party-unaffiliated intelligentsia of the country.
The air on the streets of Kathmandu is unbreathable, the roads leading to Tarai towns lie broken, pulverised in several places and waiting forever to be mended. And when you ask people, from drivers who ply the roads to passengers who suffer through the journey, everyone blames the fake, corrupt political leaders and the parties’ clientele.
I’ll offer just one example of the Sindhuli road that links Kathmandu to Dhalkebar, which was once said to shorten the travel time to eastern towns like Biratnagar by several hours and offer travellers a glimpse of Nepal’s scenic beauty. I had heard beautiful things about this road, but I had never had a chance to travel it, because I have been living outside Nepal for several years. So, despite my family’s resistance and because of my desire to travel this road first-hand, we took the Sindhuli road to return to Kathmandu from my village. The experience was harrowing.
The road to Sindhulimadhi was bearable, but the road that the Japanese had built to Dhulikhel from Sindhuli, with sophisticated road-building knowhow which can be seen in the landslide preventive technology of nuts and bolts at the so-called Selfie Point, has become barely travel worthy. A 15m section was damaged by the flood last year and it is still unrepaired. As a result, small vehicles and their passengers, who once couldn’t stop singing praises of this road, now have to take the highly unstable and dangerous detour on a narrow gravelled pathway that was once the old road. In Nepal, we have the transportation ministry and a minister and bureaucrats, we have the road department and its many engineers, and we have the whole machinery of the state. But nobody seems to be bothered about repairing the Sindhuli road.
To be sure, the Japanese built the Sindhuli road as part of its foreign aid package, but the duty and responsibility to maintain and repair the road lies in the hands of those who run the country. How long can the international community build and fund Nepali infrastructure while Nepali ultranationalists crow about sovereignty? Nobody says that those who occupy seats of power in the state should spend funds from their own pockets. What they should do, at the very least, is manage and use the existing funds and lay down a system of regular revenue generation from the road itself to be invested for continual repair and maintenance. For example, the government could collect tolls from vehicles at the entry and exit points in Dhalkebar and Dhulikhel and use them for repair and maintenance. I’m sure users of the road will not mind paying if the road is well maintained.
But, as I said, the road has become a synecdoche of Nepal itself. The entire country appears to be in a mess. Look at the moribund parties and their leading politicians: Deuba, universally recognised as a grand failure of Nepali politics, has once again become the prime minister. The system is such that it will produce many Deubas as prime ministers in the future. People cry for relief from such politicians who have failed to deliver both on the development front and with ways out from the present political imbroglio.
Waiting in the wings
What hope is there for Nepal’s democracy, or indeed, for Nepal itself? I turn to Kathmandu’s taxi drivers and roadside vendors for an answer. These taxi drivers come from all ethnicities, regions and linguistic groups. They have lived and worked as migrant workers and as retired peace-keeping soldiers in the Middle East and South East Asia. When asked if there is any hope in the present generation of politicians, there first response is “No.” But when you press, they mull for a moment and then say, “Do you see the roads in Kathmandu? Before Baburam Bhattarai became Nepal’s prime minister, the roads were narrow. He had the courage to broaden the roads even if many became unhappy. And he had only a coalition government with many corrupt ministers on his cabinet. If only he gets a chance for five to 10 years, Nepal will be different.”
“Is everything about Baburam good?” I invariably ask them. “Not everything. Baburam shouldn’t have allowed the airport to be secured by the Indian government,” some say. Others say, “despite his flaws, there is still hope if Baburam gets a chance.”
But then, any observer of Nepal can say that there are plenty of good people waiting in the wings. For example, the first female Chief Justice Sushila Karki’s work is commendable, especially when hearing about the hurdles she faced —both from within the legal fraternity and from the politicians outside, including ex-prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal—in cleaning up the system. Kulman Ghising has shown how a single individual at the head of the Nepal Electricity Authority can turn things around. And then there is the new wave of parties like Bibeksheel and Sajha, with idealistic professionals campaigning to change Nepal’s politics and the political system.
One only wishes that they would band together and disseminate a collective message, whereby they will succeed in changing the system so that a failed politician doesn’t get the chance to lead a party, let alone become the prime minister. One hopes that only politicians with sound judgement, managerial ability and the broadest hearts and minds get a chance to climb to the top of the Nepali political system.