Desperation and diversityThe east-west tour led by Naya Shakti coordinator and former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai across Nepal’s mid-hills has brought to light, once again, the plight of the people living across the country’s largest geographical region.
The east-west tour led by Naya Shakti coordinator and former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai across Nepal’s mid-hills has brought to light, once again, the plight of the people living across the country’s largest geographical region.
Bhattarai has shared the experiences of his party’s month-long interaction with the people and local government representatives in one of the most backward regions of the country on numerous platforms, including social media.
Bhattarai is one of Nepal’s most prominent politicians; he led a decade-long armed insurgency against the state to overthrow the old regime, which put large numbers of Nepalis on the brink by leaving them perpetually poor and illiterate. In course of his current journey, which he wrapped up two weeks ago, Bhattarai, who holds a PhD in regional development planning, got to revisit some of the places and people he had visited while preparing for the revolt more than two decades ago.
Bhattarai says that he was moved by how the condition of the people never improved. Doomed by poor agricultural yields, caused due to the effects of climate change and the state not supplying water for irrigation—even for drinking—sizeable populations in the hills are still leading primitive lifestyles. Bhattarai found many of them dressed in rags, with nothing on their feet. There have not been notable improvements in millenia-old agricultural practices.
Even as Nepal’s regions suffer due to the government’s failed development agenda, problems seen in vast swathes of the hills, which account for 68 percent of the country’s total area, are depressing. Villages suffer as sources of water have gone dry due to rampant deforestation and haphazard opening of tracks by excavators while the climate is arid. This grim situation—aided by money remitted by family members working abroad—has fuelled migration from the hills. As a result, farm fields have remained barren.
Historically, the state policy has been to lead people to settle in the plains. Beginning from the active monarchy era in the 1960s, migrants settled in the Tarai by clearing forests. Migration, particularly to the upper reaches of the plains, was fuelled by the building of the East-West Highway close to the Chure belt, five decades ago. With the malaria control programme of the 50s, the Tarai became more habitable. Today, many even view the growing concentration of the population in the plains as Nepal’s civilian defence along the country’s open border with India.
Rulers in Nepal have often viewed Madhesi politics suspiciously, as it is generally volatile. It often deviates from the political mainstream, with regionalism or even extremism gaining ground at times. Right after the Maoist insurgents joined mainstream politics in 2006, a number of armed groups threatened law and order in the plains. Uprisings in the plains have asserted the rights of Madhesis on the notion that the lowland inhabitants have been historically denied equal rights. A resurgent wave was seen around the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 when Madhesi protesters cut supply routes to the hills and Kathmandu.
There could be tacit understanding among the majority of hill-origin high officials and bureaucrats that areas having a mixed population are easier to govern. The communist, Maoist and Congress parties, which have dominated politics in the past decade and longer, are often charged with advocating agendas suitable to hill residents, who have hitherto maintained a stranglehold on politics, armed forces, the bureaucracy, and media.
This could mean that keeping the hillside underdeveloped pushes people to the plains and creates a heterogeneous society, like in the eastern and western Tarai, where migrants are dominant over the original residents. In the central Tarai, much of which is politically the Madhes province today, two local parties run the provincial government while the national parties are in opposition.
Bhattarai was the chairperson of the constitutional dialogue committee tasked with settling contentious issues while the Madhesi parties protested in the streets by leaving the Constituent Assembly. The constitution was passed in September 2015, despite disagreements of the regional forces to some of the provisions in the new charter. Soon after the constitution was promulgated, Bhattarai quit the CA-turned legislature and expressed his solidarity with the protests of indigenous groups demanding revisions to the new charter.
Bhattarai had tried hard to join the alliance of protesting Madhesi parties but he was viewed with suspicion for his role in the making of the constitution. During his tour of Karnali province last month, the former Maoist ideologue donned a daura suruwal, the widely-accepted national costume of Nepal, which Bhattarai had refused to wear while he was prime minister.
Bhattarai claims his Naya Shakti party to be an alternative political force. In the general elections of December 2017, he won the party its only seat in Parliament with the backing of the Nepali Congress, the largest party then.
Bhattarai’s party currently shows no signs of thriving. It could even be diminishing as many of his notable supporters returned to the Maoist fold, which later merged with the erstwhile CPN-UML to form the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Many wondered if Bhattarai’s adoption of the daura suruwal and touring across the hills was aimed at regaining the support of the constituency that he once enjoyed as second-in-command of the Maoist party.
As the leftist alliance was announced months before the last general election, Bhattarai was initially a part of it. However, he could not remain in it for long. The reason was believed to be his fractured relations with his former Maoist comrades. In a recent interview with Onlinekhabar, Bhattarai lamented that his old comrades seemed to have taken to heart his desertion of the Maoist party.
In the last couple of years, Bhattarai has said that the age of political transformation is over. He repeated that his roadshow was aimed at listening to the people, rather than selling them new dreams, while observing their living conditions and the functioning of the maiden local governments. His party would now lead efforts to draw up a master plan for national development. While he was prime minister, Bhattarai proved himself a development planner and an executive who could effectively oversee infrastructure development.
Bhattarai seems to reassert the importance and potential of the sizeable and diverse hilly terrain, its hydro, forest and mineral resources, its vegetable and medicinal herbs output, wildlife, and tourism potential. These resources need to be protected even for the plains to retain their productive capacity.
His expedition must have received the attention of policymakers and government leaders. They will do a disservice to the people if they continue to play the Pahad-Madhes divide and fail to see the interdependence between the two regions.
The writer tweets @GuragainMohan