With parliament out of session, role of civil society crucial to hold government to account, say observersDespite the fact that civil society has largely been coopted by the parties, their role is necessary to act as an effective check on the government’s excesses, they say.
In times of crisis, governments are expected to leap into action and take decisive measures. But with everyone focused on the crisis at hand, governments can also feel the urge to use the predicament to their advantage, whether it is by shoring up support, engaging in populist measures, or simply by indulging in corruption.
The KP Sharma Oli government is already alleged to have committed a number of sins, including a corruption case regarding procurement that involves two sitting ministers.
Parliament is supposed to help rein in these tendencies but the federal parliament has not met since March 12 and it is unlikely to meet again, given that a Cabinet meeting on April 6 recommended that the President end its bill session. None of the parliamentary committees, including the Public Accounts Committee which is mandated to look into procurement cases, has met either, and the opposition, the weakest in decades, is all but ineffectual.
In the absence of institutional bodies to oversee the government’s activities, it is up to civil society to act as an effective check on the government’s excesses, say prominent civil society members.
“The role of civil society activists and organisations becomes crucial at times of crisis,” said Charan Prasai, a vocal human rights activist. “But there is little that even they can do because they are all under lockdown.”
A number of civil society-led initiatives have been formed to keep an eye on the government’s activities and to monitor the crisis as it unfolds across the country. This includes a mechanism formed under the leadership of the National Human Rights Commission and including representatives from the Federation of Nepali Journalists, Nepal Bar Association and the NGO Federation of Nepal, to monitor human rights violations in the country due to the lockdown.
“The mechanism has been formed to monitor the human rights situation of citizens as people’s rights to food, health, sanitation and movements tend to be violated mostly during a time of crisis,” said Jit Ram Lama, chairman of the NGO Federation. “We will also assess whether the services to the people are delivered in a transparent manner.”
Former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai has also started the Public Initiative against the Corona Pandemic which includes 17 experts, a number of whom are medical doctors.
“We want to act as a bridge between the public and the government,” Bhattarai told the Post. “We have taken this initiative to fight for a humanitarian cause. It is a voluntary expression of citizens’ responsibility.”
Bhattarai said he was encouraging everyone to take up similar initiatives at the provincial and local levels to ensure that all the people are treated appropriately. The former prime minister also called for an active role from civil society in the time of crisis.
“The state historically tends to act in monopoly and, thus, creates a gap with the society while exercising power,” said Bhattarai. “Therefore, to fill the gap, the role of civil society–non-state actors from different professions–is essential.”
The initiative on Friday handed over a letter to the prime minister, asking that the government ensure individual freedoms, freedom of expression and right to life, and also demanded clarity on the procurement corruption.
“The role of civil society is essential in monitoring how government agencies are functioning at this time,” Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary, told the Post. “But the government refuses to recognise civil society members and has discouraged them. Due to the negative attitude of successive governments towards them, civil society continued to be weakened ever since the peace process began in Nepal.”
Khanal too is part of a civil society initiative that recently submitted an open letter to the government asking that farmers across the country be allowed to go back to work in the fields as there is little danger of spreading the coronavirus while working at a distance of five or six feet apart. The initiative includes journalists, rights activists and former bureaucrats.
However, not all civil society members believe that these groups will be able to function effectively. According to one human rights activist, most civil society organisations have already been co-opted by the political parties and are unlikely to look closely at the work of the government.
“Since most NGOs have affiliations to the political parties, especially with the ruling party, they have been very much weakened,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator. “The last time they worked effectively was during the 2006 people’s movement, but since then, they’ve been scattered and co-opted.”
Almost all of the political parties have their own sister wings and affiliated organisations in all sectors of society, including journalists, human rights organisations, lawyers, engineers, students, and youth. These party-affiliated organisations act as a counterweight to any legitimate criticism, allowing the government to ignore real demands and recommendations, say civil society leaders.
But as other arms of the state—Parliament and the Supreme Court—are out of session, it is up to civil society to put aside their differences and mount a concerted campaign to hold the government to account, especially when it comes to ensuring human rights and curtailing corruption, said Maharjan.
“A strong civil society campaign is needed to press the government to ensure the human rights of all Nepalis, including those stuck at the Indian border and those walking for several days to reach their homes,” he said.
Thousands of Nepalis are currently stuck at the Nepal-India border, prohibited from entering their own country due to fears of Covid-19. Many more Nepalis who are abroad as labourers desire to return home but are unable to do so due to the fact that the Nepal government has prohibited all incoming flights for the duration of the lockdown.
On April 7, Prime Minister Oli, in a televised address to the nation, had remarked that Nepalis should not get bogged down in a debate over life and liberty, raising concern among observers who did not miss the symbolism of his words.
Oli envisions a need to sacrifice rights and liberties, albeit temporarily, on the altar of health and safety but that is a dangerous bargain, say analysts.
“Without personal freedoms, our lives will be like that of an animal,” senior journalist Kishore Nepal had told the Post earlier.
It is precisely because of tendencies like these that Nepal needs a robust civil society movement, said Maharjan.
“Opposition parties can also monitor the activities of the government but a strong civil society is needed to question everyone as the intention of the opposition is to gain power. The role of civil society is to shed light on the suffering of the common people, besides questioning the activities of the government.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of May 27, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 210 countries and infected more than 5,684,795 people with 352,225 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 150,793 with 4,344 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 57,705 confirmed cases with 1,197 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 772 cases with four deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.