Constitution Day is like any other day for city’s working class hit by pandemicOfficial celebrations go on a few hundred metres away from people queuing up for free meals.
As the sun reached its highest point in the sky on Saturday, its scorching heat could be felt by everyone gathered at Khula Manch in Kathmandu. Around half of the ground was filled with buses, and the other by over 150 starving people waiting for their free meal for the day.
“We don’t have anything to eat. If these people hadn’t given us food, we would have been dead by now,” said Pabitra Rai, 45, a mother of two kids who came to Kathmandu from the east— she wouldn’t reveal the name of her village.
She has been coming to Khula Manch from her rented room in Ason every day for the past six months with her five-year-old Ranjit and six-year-old Sujita to get food provided by youths from the 100's Group (a Facebook group) in coordination with other volunteer organisations.
But Rai and many other hungry, working class people, whose jobs were snatched by the Covid-19 pandemic seem to have forgotten their hunger, at least for a moment, when they heard choppers buzz over their heads.
“I don’t know why these choppers are here,” said Rai holding her kids—all of them wearing surgical masks. By the looks on their faces, many working class people queuing up for food didn’t know or couldn’t care less that Saturday was the country’s Sixth Constitution Day.
“I know, the constitution guarantees us our basic rights to food, shelter and employment,” said Pashupati Thakuri,65, who has been living alone in Mahaboudha for over a decade. Thakuri, who was also queuing up for food, said the state has done nothing for people like him. He does not see the significance of celebrating the Constitution Day.
“I used to sell flowers outside the Sankata Temple, and haven’t earned a penny since the government imposed the Covid-19 lockdown on March 24. I haven’t received any assistance from the local government, as my citizenship card was lost,” he said.
After a while the choppers began showering flowers on the Sainik Manch on southern part of Khula Manch, where country's top dignitaries, including President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Vice President Nanda Bahadur Pun, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, were observing the Constitution Day celebrations.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic Rai used to sell biscuits, cigarettes and noodles on the streets in Thamel. Rai’s husband is in Malaysia for the past five years and is out of contact. “I don’t know whether he is alive,” said Rai, as her voice drowned in the shrills of the trumpets blowing the national anthem.
“The national anthem talks about unity among people, but the disharmony between us is visible here today,” said a volunteer serving food pointing at the Constitution Day celebrations going on a few hundred metres away.
“We can’t blame the disease because it’s a worldwide pandemic, but I don't see any significance of this pompous ceremony,” said Niharika Gurung, 24, one of the volunteers distributing food.
“They should have been more concerned about how to resolve the problem at hand,” said Gurung, who along with her friends, provided food to the hungry after the 100's Group finished providing the day’s free meal.
Similar sentiments were expressed on social media, where the celebrations received a lot of criticism. Many criticised the government for organising a pompous ceremony while many people didn’t have anything to eat. “Spreading flowers on the empty stomach of poor, #Constitution,” tweeted Dipesh Shahi, a journalist, with a video showing choppers showering flowers over people waiting for their free meals.
Similarly, another twitter handle noted that Prime Minister Oli says everything is going on fine in the country, but citizens with empty stomachs are expecting food to eat right next to his microphone.
For Rai, meanwhile, each visit to Khula Manch is a stark reminder of the hardships of her family in the city, where mere survival has become a challenge.
“Thamel is completely closed now, I have to feed my two kids, I don’t have any work and there is no one to look after me,” she said. Rai is living in constant fear of getting infected with Covid-19 as she gets her free meals. “If I get infected, I do not have money for treatment, and the government is indifferent towards poor people like us,” said Rai.