Nepali Times

Long-term optimist

Sunday, September 20th, 2015
New constitution of Nepal

Photo: Bikram Rai

Asked frequently by people about Nepal’s future, my answer has always been: “I am a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.” Yes, things are a mess, but they will get better. They must.

After waiting eight years Nepal’s politicians finally patched together a new constitution. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope that one of Asia’s poorest countries can make up for lost time to ensure political stability and economic growth for its long-suffering people.

Nepal has gone through dramatic political transformation in the past ten years. A ruinous ten-year conflict was brought to an end. We went from being a monarchy to a republic in a fairly civilised way. We didn’t ransack the royal palace but turned it into a museum. We didn’t hound the king into exile.

To be sure, not everyone is happy with the constitution that was promulgated on Sunday, especially the Madhesi and Tharu groups. Violent protests against the proposed boundaries of future federal provinces have left 44 people dead in the past month.

Despite its flaws and inability to satisfy demands for greater devolution of power away from Kathmandu, the constitution is probably the best Nepal’s politicians could have cobbled together for now. Under an agreement between coalition partners, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress will step down next week to be replaced by K P Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninists (CPN-UML).

Oli’s first order of business should be to tone down his self-congratulation, and try to bring into the fold those who have kept out of the constitution process. He must heal the ethnic polarisation between hills and plains, and reunite the country by pushing compromise amendments to the constitution, especially regarding federal boundaries. A former revolutionary himself, Oli is seen to be a more decisive leader and wants to leave a legacy of statesmanship. He must now also work on an economic revolution.

If we get our politics right, Nepal has everything going for it. It is a mid-sized country situated between the world’s two most populous nations, it has vast potential for hydropower and tourism, Nepalis are a hardworking people with lots of international goodwill. The country is an exuberant democracy with a vibrant free press, and registers over 80% turnout in elections.

Nepal is small only compared to its giant neighbours, India and China. Otherwise, with its 28 million people it is the world’s 40th most populous and has the economy of scale for a viable domestic consumer market. Nepal can benefit from its location to be a trade corridor between China and India, and a major destination for tourism and investment from both giant neighbours.

After the earthquake struck Central Nepal in April, China and India contributed more than half the US$4.4 billion pledged at an international donor conference — much more than the EU and the United States. Happily for Nepal, Beijing and New Delhi don’t really compete for influence here, both want political stability in a buffer state between them.

Nepal’s vertical Himalayan topography makes it a regional storehouse for water and energy. Due to the conflict and government mismanagement, generation capacity has not kept pace with rising demand, leading to crippling 12-hour daily power rationing. Cooperation with India on electricity and water-sharing is a win-win for both countries. Asymmetry in past bilateral river schemes has made water a politically sensitive issue in Nepal. But after the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kathmandu last year, three major projects on the Mahakali, Karnali and Arun Rivers that had been delayed for decades are finally moving ahead.

Future growth in this rugged and mountainous land will also depend on fast-tracking transportation. Investors are just waiting for the right political climate to push highway, airport and railway infrastructure. Two new international airports in Pokhara and Lumbini are going ahead, and a proposed third will decongest Kathmandu to create alternative economic hubs.

Nepal’s tourism industry is underperforming because of poor facilities, inadequate marketing and security fears. A Marshall Plan for infrastructure and tourism development can create jobs so Nepalis don’t have to migrate to India, the Gulf and Malaysia in such large numbers for work. About 18% of the country’s 28 million population is employed abroad, and although the US$5 billion they send home every year props up the economy, they would be much more productive working at home on post-earthquake reconstruction.

Nepal doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. In the early 1990s, it opened up its economy, streamlined regulations and attracted a flood of investors in hydropower, manufacturing and tourism. An innovative decentralisation and self-governance legislation devolved power to the grassroots, with positive impact on development. Nepal has shown the most remarkable improvement among developing countries in reducing maternal and infant mortality. It would have been much further ahead had it not been for the war, instability and corruption.

The new constitution marks an important milestone, a chance to fix the politics and concentrate on economic development.

Read also:

CA passes Nepal’s constitution Om Astha Rai

Making the best of it Editorial

A constitution, like it or not Bidushi Dhungel 

Point of no return Anurag Acharya

Open and shut case Editorial

Making the best of it

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The 1992 constitution was supposed to be ‘the best in the world’, this one is probably ‘the best we can do’.

New constitution of Nepal

Photo: Bikram Rai

Nearly ten years after the end of the conflict, two elections to an Assembly to write a new constitution later, and after a month of violence that has threatened to tear apart the ethnic fabric of this country, we are finally at the cusp of passing a new constitution.

Barring a last-minute hitch, the Constituent Assembly is set to promulgate the new constitution in the presence of the President of the Republic on Sunday, 20 September. The journey has been a roller-coaster: rising to the euphoria and hope of the ceasefire to despair at the violence and prolonged deadlock.

Finally, the three main parties have cobbled together a document that they say is the best compromise that could be agreed upon in the present scenario. A fourth-member of the alliance that worked on this ‘fast-track’ post-earthquake project, the MJF(D) led by Bijaya Gachhadar, is not fully back on board. Then, the parties that claim to represent Madhesi and Janajati interests have boycotted this latest move to push through the constitution, often leading to violence.

The document is controversial, to say the least. The three main parties, desperate to prove to voters that they have fulfilled their mandate to write a new constitution and in a hurry to form a joint government, have done a rush job. Especially on the sensitive issue of federal demarcations, they have tried to bulldoze a formula that serves their own immediate political interests rather than have an inclusive, sustainable solution that can bring stability to the country. The seemingly arbitrary boundaries of the six province model were engineered by the Big Three for their own electoral benefit. When violent protests broke out in the Karnali in early-August, those were addressed but not the demands of the Tarai.

In the past month we have seen an eruption of a level of brutality not witnessed since the war. Indeed, many of the lynchings and murders seem to have been perpetrated by ex-combatants. The only difference was that while the conflict was a class revolution, this had a dangerous ethnic edge to it. Played out with graphic images on social media, the violence has disturbed communal harmony and deepened the polarisation between the hill and plains.

The constitution that is going to be passed on Sunday will meet many of the demands that came out of the 2006 Democracy Movement and the Madhes Movement after that. Federalism has been accepted, although the demarcation and names of future provinces have proved too hot to handle for now, and have been left to a Commission. There is an attempt to make Nepali politics more inclusive, just and focused on the welfare of the underprivileged and excluded. The citizenship issue has still not been satisfactorily addressed, and various groups are not happy with the proportional representation quota in future elections.

The document is flawed, but not fatally so. It is a text that is flexible enough to be improved and amended, as most constitutions are supposed to be. The important thing is to keep the channels of communication open with the groups that have opted to stay out of the process. Much of the damage was done by the insensitivity of the Kathmandu establishment to the need for recognition, representation and respect on the part of the Tarai community.

The Madhesi people may be disenchanted with their leadership, but there is genuine public anger about the way Kathmandu has historically treated people from the plains, and they don’t see that having changed much. This manifests itself in the everyday behaviour of bureaucrats and security forces, or in the structural discrimination through citizenship rules, and lack of local autonomy.

After the violence erupted last month, not a single national level leader bothered to make even a token photo-op trip to the Tarai. They did not seem to comprehend that the region is not just five Madhesi leaders, it includes nearly half the country’s population (many of them not even Madhesis) who have been reeling under a crippling strike and violence for a month now.

The open border and the links between the Tarai districts and India make New Delhi a player that cannot be ignored in this crisis. In fact, India’s good offices is going to be essential in returning the region to normalcy in the coming months. The statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, while welcoming the finalisation of the constitution on Wednesday does warn that India is ‘duty-bound’ to ‘stand by’ Nepal in times of natural and political adversity in Nepal.

There has to be an independent inquiry into the horrific violence in the past month perpetrated by the agitators using human shields to provoke police backlash. The security forces often over-reacted using excessive and needless violence, alienating Madhesis further.

There is no point getting into a blame game about who started it first, and why. That will lead us nowhere. It is now time to de-escalate, heal the communal wounds and address through the new constitution some of the grievances that were at the root of these protests.

Read also: 

Just do it Editorial 

Point of no return Anurag Acharya

Masochism in the Madhes Jivesh Jha

Open and shut case Editorial

Ground Zero in Kailali Om Astha Rai

Open and shut case

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015


It is difficult to find a resolution to violent unrest if you don’t know what the demands of the protesters are. How do you address an agitation without a clear agenda? This appears to be what is happening with the violent protests that have rent the Central Tarai this week.

The Tharus had genuine reasons to be angry at being left out by the power brokers in Kathmandu when the federalism model was changed from 6 to 7, and left their demands for autonomy unaddressed. Tharu leaders of various Maoist persuasions just cashed in on the prevailing resentment and piggybacked a peaceful protest to butcher policemen.

It is a different story in the eight districts of the central Tarai that make up Province 2. Madhesi leaders, many of them who had lost the 2013 elections not just to fellow-Madhesi candidates from the NC and UML, but even to candidates of hill origin, have been trying to reassert themselves to build up their support base. Having been thoroughly discredited for their lack of concern for the everyday needs of their constituents when they served in high government positions in Kathmandu, they have taken recourse in whipping up communal sentiments against ‘colonial’ rule in the Tarai.

After failing to ignite the Central Tarai last month, prominent Madhesi leaders from various parties forged an alliance with the Tharu Struggle Committee and addressed a gathering in Tikapur of Kailali district in the west urging locals to take up weapons and chase hill-dwellers out to where they came from. We believe it isn’t a coincidence that what was supposed to be a peaceful protest in 24 August ended up in the lynching and shooting of eight policemen and a baby.

Now, the violence has spread to the Central Tarai where disparate Madhesi parties including former Maoists like Matrika Yadav and Upendra Mahato are in the fray, competing to be more violent than each other in order to build up support in their constituencies. This is why some of the Tarai towns don’t seem to be in control of the more mainstream and relatively moderate Madhesi leaders anymore. More and more, it looks like the agitation is driven by those who want to stop the constitution going through at any cost: an unlikely cabal of the extreme left to the extreme right and everything in between.

What doesn’t help at all is that there is a government in Kathmandu that appears to be in denial, exposing a real disconnect between the capital and what is happening outside. Leaders seem incapable of grasping just how dangerous the situation is turning out to be. When they do look at the Tarai it is only to gerrymander boundaries for added electoral advantage. When these leaders negotiate, they aren’t listening to the people and their leaders from the Tarai but with each other. Engaging in such cynical power games when there is an urgent need to douse the flames in the plains is a sign of serious political failure and lack of statesmanship at the level of the Prime Minister.

As our map of the past month of unrest shows more than half the country has been shut down now for nearly three weeks. The cost to the national economy, the disruption to the lives of ordinary people and the impact on earthquake reconstruction is immeasurable.

Despite the deepening deadlock and violence, the disagreements on the constitution aren’t intractable. As we understand after talking to Tharu leaders, they will be satisfied with taking three Kailali constituencies which they dominate, away from Province 7 to be a part of Province 5. This may anger some Undivided Far-west politicians, but they are all members of the three-party alliance and could be brought into line. Bijay Gachhadar of the MJF-L, part of the four-party alliance that signed the 8 May agreement, has a critical role to play here.

The Central Tarai is more complicated because we really don’t know who wants what aside from agitating for the sake of agitation. Upendra Yadav’s main grievance is that his constituency is in Morang, which is not a part of the Madhes Province and other Madhesi parties want Sunsari to be included in Province 2. The actual demand of some national Madhesi leaders seems to be for more proportionate representation in future elections so they don’t have to face the kind of humiliating defeat they did in 2013. Then there is the geopolitics of water, and the Indian interest in ensuring that future projects on the Karnali and Kosi don’t become tangled up with Nepal’s federalism adventures.

None of these issues should be impossible to resolve. All it needs are cool heads, statesmanship that can forge compromises, and the ability to look beyond partisan pastimes at the larger national interest.

Votebank constitution

Monday, August 24th, 2015


Story so far: the four main political parties made up of the ruling NC and UML with the opposition UCPN(Maoists) and MJF(D)signed an agreement on 8 June to speed up the constitution draft with a provision for eight provinces, but leave the demarcation of provincial boundaries to a future Federal Commission and their names to state legislatures.

After protests erupted, the parties said “oops” and went back to the drawing board, demarcating boundaries not for eight but six provinces. How that number was picked out of a hat, we don’t know. But it set off a maelstrom of protests by various groups which felt left out.

The people of the Province #6 in the west were for and against and went on a weeklong arson spree. The folks in Baglung and Rukum found their districts cut cleanly in half and were unhappy. The Tharus wanted their own homeland in the western Tarai and were on warpath. And the Madhesis were suddenly not satisfied with just the plains in Province #2 and also wanted a piece of the Pahad.

So the constitution framers went back to the maps and decided on seven provinces by dividing Province#6 into two: the trans-Karnali and the Mid-West. This put out the flames in Surkhet and Jumla, but angered the Tharus who felt their demands had been ignored. It got serious enough for the Tharu chief of the MJF(D), Bijay Gachhadar, to disassociate himself from the four-party grouping and join other Madhesi and Janajati parties at the barricades. And now things have gone out of control with the violence in Tikapur of Kailali where Tharu protesters fought pitched battles with police that left at least seven protesters and policemen dead.

Already the Tharuhat Struggle Committee and Madhesi activists had shut down Nepal’s plains for the past week or more, essentially blockading the hill and mountains. Thousands of trucks are stuck on the Indian side of the border, hundreds of thousands of people are stranded, and there is a danger of the unrest spreading after the Tikapur clashes.

So, as the number of proposed provinces goes from the original 14 to 8 to 6 then 7, the number of parties in the constitution alliance goes from 4 to 3. Senior ministers from the NC, UML and UCPN(M) tell us informally that they are doing the best they can, but there can’t be a formula that will satisfy everyone. They are determined to take the process forward with an amendment bill, clause-by-clause debate and voting in the coming week so that the constitution will be ready. They say even if everyone is not fully on board, there will be a provision to turn the Constitution Commission into a Constitution Appeals Commission to address the demands of those who feel left out.

While we can go along with the argument that there is no compromise that will satisfy everyone, the process so far is murky, lacks transparency, appears arbitrary and reeks of vote bank politics of the main protagonists: Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC, KP Oli of the UML, Bijay Gachhadar of the MJF(D) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists. It is also driven by the impatience of all these gentlemen to get to power in the national unity government after the constitution is passed.

Among the parties that have most reason to be aggrieved are the indigenous Tharus who have found themselves disenfranchised by the process. Even when the demands of the Karnali was heard by the Big Three in Kathmandu last week, they failed to meet the Tharu demand for greater autonomy in the western Tarai. This has brought the Tharus and Madhesis, who had no love lost for each other, together to find common cause. The government has to act urgently, leaders including Gachhadar need to try to douse the flames and come up with a solution that satisfies the Tharus.

Madhesi leaders, thoroughly discredited and most of whom were voted out by their own people in the 2013 elections, have now resorted to their only weapon: incite hatred against Kathmandu’s ‘colonisers’. Last week, they had made irresponsible and incendiary remarks exhorting the Tharus to take up axes and knives, or promising Rs 5 million to anyone who is killed in street protests in future. It is clear that they want to reignite the flames of another Madhes Movement. But now that they have Province#2, the movement has not gained too much traction so far.

Meanwhile, Kathmandu lives in a bubble. Rulers here tend not to notice, or underestimate the anger outside. The Madhesi people may be disillusioned with their leaders, but there is simmering distrust over Pahadi rulers in Kathmandu not treating them with enough respect and giving them more say in their lives. But they are much angrier about the state’s neglect of their region, the poorest in terms of Human Development.

The lesson from all this, which we should have learnt from similar exercises elsewhere in the world, is never to leave maps in the hands of politicians. Never mix politics with boundaries. Demarcation is a technical subject with implications for viability that is best left to experts, politicians just mess it up with their short-term time horizons. For immediate firefighting, top leaders from all parties and groups must find a way that doesn’t involve more bloodshed.

Read Also

Over-fermented federalism, Bidushi Dhungel

Protests over boundaries

Twist in the tale, Om Astha Rai

None of the above

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Nepalis don’t trust the present crop of leaders, but this is an opportunity for fresh new faces to win public support through performance.

Nt survey icon onlineThe trust of average Nepalis in the political leadership keeps sinking. Except one, every active politician today scored in the single digits in a recent public opinion poll in which respondents were asked who they would like to see as Nepal’s next prime minister.

This is a damning indictment of chronic political failure, and the public’s disenchantment with elected figures across the political spectrum including those who have led governments multiple times in the past decades. However, it also shows that the field is wide open for fresh new faces with proven performance, integrity and ability to work for the public good.

More than 3,500 respondents in 35 districts were interviewed earlier this month in the Himalmedia Nationwide Public Opinion Survey 2015. We have been tracking public disillusionment with politicians for the past 12 years in these annual polls, and expected it to be quite high. This year, an inadequate political response to the earthquake, the delays in the constitution and persistent political infighting seem to have heightened public disenchantment.

In response to the question ‘Who should be Nepal’s new Prime Minister after the new constitution is promulgated?’ nearly 55% of the respondents rejected the names of all top politicians, said they wanted some new independent figure, didn’t want to say or didn’t know.  Baburam Bhattarai (10.4%) appears to be ahead only because the others are even less popular, and because of the public perception that he gets things done. Bhattarai has performed consistently well in past polls as well, coming second after Sushil Koirala in 2013 and scoring 13.5% last year. But even in those previous polls, more than half the respondents were ‘undecided’, ‘none of the above’ or ‘don’t know’.

Infographic by Ayesha Shakya

Among all the party leaders it is Pushpa Kamal Dahal whose fall from public grace has been the most dramatic. After scoring 38.7% in the 2010 Himalmedia survey and consistently in double digits in annual polls since 2008, he had sunk to 3.4% in 2013, and is now down to 1.8%.

However, after hitting rock bottom Dahal has nowhere to go but up. He has been remaking himself as a flexible and pragmatic leader capable of springing back to wrest leadership. His critical behind-the-scene role in allying with the UML’s KP Oli to push through the draft constitution, and his rallying speech in the Constituent Assembly on Friday in which he exhibited his legendary oratorical skills to restore some of his charisma may be indications of a ‘new’ Dahal.

The lack of public trust in politicians is also reflected in responses to the question: ‘Which political party would you select to deliver a peaceful and prosperous Nepal?’. Once more, the proportion of respondents who said ‘Don’t know’, ‘Won’t say’, or ‘None of the above’ totaled 42%. The NC was on top as in previous two years with 25.4%, the UML used to be neck-to-neck with the NC but is now trailing at 13.5% and the fragmented Maoists have gone down to 9.3% from highs above 20% in polls after the 2008 CA elections.

Aside from popularity, an even more striking aspect of this year’s Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey compared to previous years is that despite political and societal polarisation, the respondents have shown even more maturity, moderation and a rejection of identity politics.

For example, 48.6% may have voted for Nepal to be declared a Hindu state, but taken together support for the constitution to ensure ‘Religious freedom’, ‘Secularism’, or ‘No mention of religion’ total a significant 46%. Our suggestion would be to take a middle path in such a divisive issue (especially because ‘Secularism’ has only 20% adherents) by opting for the ‘Freedom of religion’ formulation.

There is also a surprising consistency and consensus on answers across ethnic, geographic, age, literacy, and gender lines. For instance, one may expect far fewer men to be against the citizenship on the basis of mothers in the draft constitution, but male and female respondents were at par with 55% and 56.3% respectively rejecting the discriminatory clause. The percentage of those who think federalism based on ethnicity is a bad idea has gone up from 70-75% in previous polls to 80% this year. As in previous years, the opposition to carving up the country along ethnic lines is not popular even in the Tarai or enclaves asking for ethnic homelands. This may, in part, explain why (except for the Tharus) there has been only muted opposition to the six province delineation in the Madhes or eastern Nepal.

Among those who didn’t like ethnic provinces, more than half said the boundaries south be North-South and all provinces should incorporate the mountains, hills and plains for their future economic viability. Even in the Madhes, there was an overwhelming rejection of ethnicity-based provinces, and more than half them preferred North-South states that incorporated the highlands. This is reflected in the belated realisation even among Madhesi politicians that Province 2 may not be viable.

As in previous years, we are struck by how much the political slogans of the political parties, especially the smaller ones, are so divergent from public opinion even in the areas they represent. This leads us to ask: what use are elections and public opinion surveys like this if politicians keep ignoring the people’s voice? Politicians probably want to keep the option open for religious or regional rabble-rousing, not having learnt the lesson that identity politics in the end backfires. The other reason they ignore public opinion could be a cynical belief that money and muscle matter more at election time than what people think.

Either way, the Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey 2015 feels the public’s pulse two years after the last election. It is encouraging that collectively we are still a progressive people who haven’t given up on democracy, even though we don’t seem to think much about the leaders we elected.

Read also:

Trust no one Om Astha Rai

Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey 2015

A wide open field

All politics is local Kunda Dixit

The authority to rebuild

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Do we have the political will to save time and money to fuse the long-pending Disaster Management Authority with the Reconstruction Authority?

Authority to rebuild Nepal

Photo: Bikram Rai

How soon the earthquake has been forgotten, and the country has drifted back to politics as usual. The constitution is finally taking shape, but the attempt by the four top parties to ram through boundaries of six provinces in the draft last week set off a political earthquake. Aftershocks are still being felt, especially in western Nepal.

The delineation of boundaries was ad hoc, haphazard and arbitrary. If this is what we had to fight and die for in a ten-year war and suffer another decade of peace, then we might as well just have stuck to the five north-south development zones and devolved political power to them. We would have saved 17,000 Nepali lives, time, money, and a lot of heartache.

However, the 25 April earthquake did give Nepal’s politics a mighty jolt and woke up our rulers from their slumber. The public’s disillusionment with politicians was so great they had to try to hurriedly pass the constitution and use that as an excuse for regime change. Hence the 16-point accord. The opposition, including Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the UCPN(M) and Bijay Gachhadar of the MJF(L), are so desperate to get on board the unity government that they are trying their best to quickly quell the anger in the west and the grievances of the Tharu people to move ahead with the constitution.

Since the government of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is not known for multi-tasking what has fallen by the wayside in all this is the formation of the Reconstruction Authority and the delay in the appointment of its head. The lives and livelihoods of three million people in 14 districts affected by the earthquake depend on it. On Thursday evening, the Cabinet finally named  the National Planning Commission Vice-Chairman Govinda Raj Pokhrel as CEO of the Reconstruction Authority. Pokhrel’s appointment was hailed as the correct move because of his experience in steering post-earthquake assessment and planning.

As our coverage graphically illustrates nearly 2,000 widows are still waiting for help four months after the quake. More than two million people are living in tents and tin shelters. Two months after successfully concluding the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction (ICNR) and getting a pledge of $4.4 billion, the government has gone back to sleep.

The appointment of the CEO to the Reconstruction Authority has been deadlocked because of a tussle between the ruling NC and the UML over their party candidates – obviously because the agency’s head has ministerial rank, a powerful mandate and control over a huge budget. Nothing new after all. But it is costing us our recovery.

As our analysis shows, the earthquake was stark proof of our lack of disaster preparedness, which in turn was a result of political and governance failure over the past ten years. We were fortunate that the earthquake spared much of the densely-populated areas of Central Nepal the catastrophic destruction that seismologists had been predicting. But better readiness would have saved many of the lives that were lost.

For the past seven years, an international consortium of donors including the United States, Australia, Japan, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank had been trying to alert the Nepal government about the need to set up a Disaster Management Authority to oversee preparedness, contingency planning as well as coordinate rescue, relief and rehabilitation when the earthquake did strike.

Of course, nothing was done. The bill to set up the authority has been in limbo in parliament – another casualty of the lack of political will. If that Authority had been in place, not only would we have been much more prepared but the rescue and relief would also have been speedier and smoother.

Despite the government’s lapses on many fronts, it was admittedly overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction: more than 700,000 buildings destroyed, 30,000 classrooms in ruins. However, there were very few instances of people dying due to lack of emergency medical care, 3,000 injured were airlifted and nearly all got free treatment. The logistics of food and medicines has been relatively well managed. Despite the turf battle at national level, CDOs coordinated aid well. Local bodies would have performed even better if there had been elected VDC, DDC and municipality councils.

Since the Reconstruction Authority with a mandate for rehabilitation over the next five years has still not been set up, our suggestion would be to fuse it with the proposed Disaster Management Authority. We need something more credible, and a little more permanent. After all, we are sure to have floods, landslides (and God forbid) another earthquake somewhere in Nepal in the next five years. The new head of the Authority, therefore, can then work on rehabilitation of this disaster so that it serves a model for earthquake preparedness for the rest of the country as well.

In fact, that is one of the most significant points in the draft Reconstruction Policy drawn up by the National Planning Commission (NPC): to scale up nationwide the reconstruction process in the 14 affected districts. The policy also favours job creation and use of local resources while at the same time encouraging the use of better quality reconstruction material and earthquake resistant designs. The theme is to coordinate centrally, but implement locally. And that may as well be our national motto.

Read also:

Better build back Sonia Awale

Strategy for recovery Sonia Awale

Jump-starting the economy Sarthak Mani Sharma

Ruin in the rain Sahina Shrestha

Deconstruction before reconstruction Editorial

Earning back the people’s trust Tsering Dolker Gurung

Fixing what’s broken

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

Nepal’s tourism was in crisis long before the earthquake struck

tourism in post-quake Nepal

‘Build Back Better’ has become a mantra for post-earthquake rehabilitation in Nepal. As a motto it strives for an ideal outcome: the reconstruction of roads, schools, homes, government buildings, hospitals, utilities should not just be physical rebuilding, but restructuring each area from the ground up.

Nepal was a disaster zone long before the earthquakes struck. Education was in a shamble because despite enrolment numbers being up, the quality was poor. The health sector was either over-commercialised or under-served, putting basic medical care out of reach of most of the population. Kathmandu’s haphazard urbanisation and unsafe buildings make it a ticking timebomb that was not defused by the 7.8 quake on 25 April.

The root reason for all these problems has been poor governance,  political unwillingness and a disturbing lack of accountability on the part of elected officials. The earthquake, therefore, has given us the chance for a paradigm shift not just in the 15 districts affected but in the rest of the country as well. And the constitution offers the vehicle to make politics more just and equitable.

Much has already been said in this space about maximising job-creation during the reconstruction process, and the National Planning Commission has taken the lead in ensuring that this happens. This would be the start of a longterm process of reversing the outflow of our desperate young men and women to work overseas in appalling conditions.

The other mainstay of Nepal’s economy is tourism and this has taken a direct hit from the earthquake. Saturation coverage in the international media of the immediate aftermath has spread the perception that Nepal is completely destroyed. The fact that many tourist spots in Nepal like Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Muktinath or Mustang are not affected is not widely known.

In addition, alarmist travel advisories by some governments have frightened off potential visitors. Insurance companies take their cue from these blanket notices and the high premium has is further deterrence. Happily, as we write this, the United States, UK, New Zealand have relaxed their advisories and there are indications that they will be revised further as independent assessments of the Everest and Annapurna trekking trails and Kathmandu’s heritage sites become available.

Nepal’s tourism was also in crisis long before the earthquake. Visitor numbers were stagnant, spending per tourist was down, average duration of stay was getting shorter, repeat visitors were getting rarer.

It isn’t hard to figure out why: the quality of the product was going down with the chaos at the airport, the visa lines and the squalour of Kathmandu. The Annapurna Circuit and other trekking areas were marred by new highways. Chitwan suffered a 70 per cent drop in visitors after lodges were relocated and Sauraha became unpleasant. There were concerns of air safety for domestic travel after a series of crashes.

Air fare was another factor: it cost more for a tourist to fly from Kathmandu to Rara than to fly to Europe. Helicopter rescue in Nepal is as expensive as in the United States and is the highest in the world. Then there were the high profile disasters like the Everest avalanche last year followed by government bungling on permits, the tragic loss of lives in the Annapurna blizzard raising questions of the lack of early warning and shelters along the trail.

The ‘Turning Point in Tourism: Role of International and National Tour Operators’ conference organised by the group, Samarth, last week drew attention to these factors already affecting Nepal’s tourism before the earthquake. Robin Baustead of the Great Himalayan Trail Alliance said: “Nepal has fantastic mountains to climb, but it is becoming a much harder place to climb them in.”

Visitor numbers to Nepal have gone down in the past. It plummeted by 40 percent after the 2001 royal palace massacre, went down by 80 percent during the 2003 Gulf War, and shrank to a third of normal during he Maoist conflict. But in all these cases, the arrival numbers revived in a few months. This time, even the most optimistic scenario predicts a 70 per cent drop in the autumn season, and a 40 per cent drop in bookings for the spring. It will take longer to bounce back this time.

The Samarth conference drew up a checklist of things to be done to revive tourism revenue:

Set up a verifiable third party online knowledge base with up-to-date information on the safety status of trekking trails

–       Relaunch the Nepal brand in target markets, especially India and China

–       Clean up the airport, streamline visas, make it easy for visitors

–       Don’t reduce prices, improve safety and quality of services

Read also:

Rebuilding ourselves Kunda Dixit 

An opportunity for all: Nepal is open to visitors

Fixing tourism Karma Dolma Gurung

Tourism is down, but not out Om Astha Rai 

Where have all the tourists gone? Tsering Dolker Gurung 

Trekking in solitude Peregrin Frissell