Nepali Times Asian Paints

The maximum pilot

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
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plane-1Capt Alexander Maximov exuded professionalism with every step and gesture as he did the pre-flight check of our Aeroprakt leisure aircraft at Pokhara airport one morning four years ago.

Although the Russian pilot used to fly MiG supersonic fighters for the Soviet military, you could tell that he felt more at home here – taking a flimsy, small, slow plane up past the highest mountains to treat thousands of passengers to the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

Maximov was a man of few words, but you could tell from the concentration on his face, the way he constantly scanned his cockpit instruments and the terrain outside, that he was in his element up here. Even from 12,000ft, he had to tilt the plane so we could see the summit pyramid of Machapuchre another 12,000ft vertically above us. Maximov once told me “Every flight is pilgrimage” because it reminded him of how humans paled into insignificance amidst the majesty and magnitude of these mountains.

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Maximov was with a tourist on one of his sightseeing flights  up the Seti on 22 May 2012 when, as he completed a 360 degree turn to gain altitude, he saw an unusual brown cloud of dust billowing below Annapurna 4. Captured on the plane’s wingtip camera, it is distinctly different from the puffs of white clouds and the icy cliffs.

picture-048The pilot immediately recognised this as a huge rockfall avalanche  and soon saw a turbid tsunami racing down the narrow gorge of the Seti below. Maximov promptly  radioed Pokhara and warned the air traffic controller who passed on the message to police and FM radio stations. He then flew back, following the flood back to Pokhara. Officials credit Maximov’s alertness and early warning to saving many lives that day.

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Avia Club
, the pioneering Pokhara-based sports aviation company that Maximov flew for had suffered another tragedy in 2013 when owner-pilot Stephan Shrestha, 35, was killed together with a Chinese tourist when his plane hit an electricity wire above the Peace Stupa.

picture-042The Club was beginning to recover from that loss, and had started air safaris on powerless ultralight gliders from its own air field in Lauruk near Pokhara. Maximov was piloting a Dragonfly aircraft with a Canadian passenger, towing an ultralight when something went wrong with the cable. Maximov lost control of his craft and it plunged into a paddy field soon after takeoff.

Nepal’s tourism industry has lost a devoted and professional pilot for whom flying in the Himalaya with the wind on his face was life’s greatest passion.

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CONVENIENT UNTRUTH

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016
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editorial

As the shock of Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections gives way to dismay over his choice of White House staffers and the new cabinet, the rest of the world is reminded that western democracy has a design defect which tends to throw up demagogues at regular intervals.

In our own neighbourhood, we saw the rise of the Indian alt-right three years ago in a similar backlash against established dynastic parties in the world’s largest democracy. This year’s election in the Philippines elevated  a self-confessed death squad gang leader to the office of the country’s president. Turkey’s elected president has unleashed a draconian crackdown on dissidents. After Brexit and the rise of the wrong right across Europe , it has become difficult to figure out whether it is America that is following Europe’s lead or vice versa. Probably both.

Much of the blame for the election upset in the US has gone to the media: a mass media out of sync with the masses, and a social web that was hijacked by fake news sites. Facebook in particular has come under intense scrutiny for doing nothing about its toxic ecosystem of falsification. Mark Zuckerberg has countered this week with a feeble defence that his social network promotes diversity, and is a technology company and not media. That is a convenient untruth. It is like cinema hall owners saying they are not responsible for screening movies with incendiary content.

As Trumpism takes hold, the mainstream media in the United States is questioning its adherence to the doctrine of false equivalence — the journalism rule under which reporters are required to give equal weight to both sides in an argument even when one side is deliberately lying and rabble rousing. The mantra of objectivity is being challenged with the argument that it is more important to be truthful than neutral.

This bit of soul-searching comes at a time when media everywhere is under siege. It has either been forced by commercialisation to abandon its public service remit, or it is being seriously challenged by the rise of the social web with its hate content. In a parody of economic globalisation, much of the content of these US-based sites have been outsourced to Macedonia or the Philippines.

As Barack Obama found out this week in Athens during what was supposed to be a victory lap for democracy, the word ‘demagogue’ comes from the perfectly wholesome Greek word for ‘a leader of the people’. It took on a derogatory connotation because the proletariat was looked down upon by the elite. Demagogues today are able to manipulate the media at election time to whip up chauvinism and intolerance so that journalists who adhere to rules lose their relevance in this frightening Orwellian combination of 1984 and Animal Farm.

Mainstream newspapers, TV stations and portals do not compete with each other anymore. We all compete against fanatics that spread hate and fear in cyberspace. The real challenge for us in the so-called mainstream media around the world is what we can do when freedom itself is twisted on new digital platforms. How do we find new ways to generate content that spreads tolerance and inclusion? Are we preaching to the choir? What new dissemination tools can we use to reach beyond our silos to those who disagree?

The emperor doesn’t like it when we point out that he is naked. Power doesn’t like it when you speak truth to power. Power tries to intimidate and harm the messenger. Governments have become smarter. They have learnt that jailing journalists or harming them attracts needless international attention. So they have refined their methods — censorship today is achieved by behind-the-scenes threats which can be even more insidious and sinister.

Somehow, it seems now that it was easier to deal with old-fashioned intimidation and censorship. At least you knew who your enemy was, and we took it as our noble duty to defend democracy and the free press. But what do you do when the threats to press freedom do not happen in a totalitarian state, but in democracies — where elected despots are the enemies of free expression.

When the core values of democracy and press freedom are threatened, journalists become activists. They are not just defending their own freedom, but the citizens’ right to know. Journalists are just the custodians of press freedom.


Commission for the Abuse of Authority

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016
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karki-national-daily-frontpageIf you asked anyone in Kathmandu a week or so ago what the chances were of Parliament starting an impeachment process against Lokman Singh Karki, you would have been laughed out of the room. The political parties were too disunited, and Karki’s reign of terror had silenced top leaders, MPs, the bureaucracy, police and most of civil society and media.

Yet, the impossible does happen in Nepali politics from time to time. And so it was that a motion for the impeachment of the dreaded head of the Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA) was hurriedly passed by Parliament which started debating it on Tuesday before it adjourned for a two-week recess.

It was a sight to behold parliamentarians from across the political spectrum walking up to the lectern to lash out at Karki. Tv stations beamed the speeches live and national dailies the next day carried them prominently on page 1 — all in sharp contrast to the climate of fear and culture of silence that had descended over the country these past months.

That one person could wield so much power in a democracy with all its check and balances holds an important lesson for the future, and is a critical test for the new constitution. Nepal’s mainstream press and online portals which had been silenced by Karki in the past months are now publishing exposĂ© after exposĂ© of the man’s shenanigans. It is as if a lid has been lifted to allow an eruption of revelations of his sordid past.

After entering the bureaucracy thorough the backdoor of a royal appointment, Karki exhibited very early on hints of the traits that would one day make him notorious. After the 1990 People’s Movement, he cosied up to the Nepali Congress and used choice positions in the bureaucracy to extort, embezzle and blackmail. When King Gyanendra tried to take the country back to the days of the absolute monarchy, Karki returned as Chief Secretary and was later singled out by the Rayamajhi Commission for corruption and crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in 2006. He was even being investigated by the very agency he was later appoint to head, the CIAA.

Some of the investigative reports in the Nepali press about his appointment in 2013 raise strong questions about the collusion of top political leaders. Mystery shrouds the dramatic overnight turnaround by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and President Ram Baran Yadav, which NC minister Gagan Thapa mentioned in his speech to parliament on Tuesday (see translated excerpt on page 13). Other MPs unleashed a litany of woes: how Karki ran a parallel government, and commandeered all agencies of government to target institutions and individuals for revenge or extortion.

Indeed, Karki’s modus operandi was to blackmail corrupt politicians and officials for payoffs, if he couldn’t find dirt on people he wanted to target he got government departments to manufacture dirt on them, and he also directly approached businesses and threatened them with investigation unless they paid him. As investigative journalists in the mainstream Nepali language press have reported this past week, the CIAA also interfered with the medical education sector even scrapping entrance examinations and conducting its own.

One intriguing question is why the top political leaders who all had a hand in his appointment suddenly turned against him last week. There appears to have been a tacit understanding between Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Karki which would let Dahal off the hook on embezzlement of allowances meant for his guerrillas in return for Dahal convincing Chief Justice Sushila Karki to drop the Supreme Court’s investigation of his appointment. But both suspected the other of dishonesty, leading Dahal to support UML leader K P Oli’s move for impeachment. Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC has no love lost for Lokman Singh Karki, and has given tacit approval for the impeachment, but there are mid-level leaders in his party who are beholden to Karki or are hand-in-glove with him.

So, in summary, this is turning out to be a battle between crooks and a Super Crook. These are the same political parties that didn’t lift a finger when Govinda KC was sinking his life calling for Karki’s impeachment because of the CIAA’s corrupt meddling in medical education. They quashed the first attempt by Gagan Thapa to get parliament to investigate Karki. They wouldn’t even allow three MPs to sign a motion of urgent public importance last month. But last week, suddenly and without much of a fuss there were 157 signatures of UML and Maoist Centre MPs demanding impeachment.

What changed? Gagan Thapa said in parliament on Tuesday that there is something fishy there. But there is something even fishier in the way Karki was appointed, and has been allowed to grow into a monster no one can control. Thapa aptly compared Karki to the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover.

Lokman Singh Karki is under suspension, but the more important question is what to do with the CIAA. The original well-intentioned purpose of adding another layer of checks and balances to control corruption has been completely subverted. An agency designed to curb graft has been used by successive governments for political vendetta. Karki is just the latest and most ruthless example. It may be better to scrap the CIAA since it is too prone to abuse by politicians for political vendetta.


Tripartite tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘte

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016
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Pic: Prakash Dahal

Pic: Prakash Dahal

There has been detailed deconstruction of the chance meeting between the leaders of India, China and Nepal at the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa last week. As far as we can make out the get-together was indeed unscripted, but it turned out to be serendipitous.

It is not an easy job for the organisers of summits to choreograph the comings and goings of heads of government in alphabetical sequence with barely seconds of separation between each other. One leader spends an extra few minutes chatting with another and the whole meticulously planned exercise goes haywire. That is what seems to have happened when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Chinese President Xi Jiping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran into each other at the lobby of the conference centre in Goa.

That encounter would have gone unnoticed had the scion of Prime Minister Dahal and his personal secretary, Prakash, not been there to capture the scene in his mobile camera. Even so, no one would have known had Prakash not gone on to post the picture on his Facebook wall with a press statement of his own inferring that his Dad had extremely good body language with President Xi and that the three had agreed on a number of joint projects.

For the Indian foreign policy establishment, ‘multilateral’ is a bad word. India does everything bilaterally — especially with neighbours. Which must be why the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson issued an immediate clarification that the meeting was just a coincidence, and not a trilateral summit in any way.

Whatever it was, and however one looks at Prakash Dahal’s over-reach in bypassing Nepal’s Foreign Ministry to issue off-the-cuff pronouncements, the image of the three leaders sitting together was highly symbolic at many levels. If the tripartite tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘte was not planned, it should have been. It may have been a coincidence, but it was a good coincidence.

Despite its aversion to multilateral approaches, and however much the organisers had plausible deniability that the meeting was pre-planned, it is India that benefited the most from the leak. The message to Nepal (and especially Prime Minsiter Dahal) couldn’t have been clearer: don’t try to play us off against each other because India and China are on the same page vis-a-vis Nepal.

That is also the advice that the Chinese leadership has been giving various Nepali netas from all four main parties when they visit Beijing: sort it out with New Delhi. Which must be why although the picture breached protocol for the very protocol-conscious Chinese they did not publicly express any serious displeasure about it.

For Dahal, the photograph was the perfect opportunity to clear his image back home in Nepal where he is seen to have sold out to India. Op-eds and editorial cartoons in the Nepali media have lampooned him as kowtowing to the Delhi Durbar to get himself back at the helm, even if it was just for nine months. Getting his son to leak the photograph through social media was a master stroke because it suddenly showed Comrade Prachanda as a regional statesman rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty and ostensibly having the blessings of both.

The Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition is also blamed within Nepal for having botched the planned visit which should have taken place just about now by President Xi. Prime Minister K P Oli had worked hard to set up the visit, but just as he fell victim to geopolitics the visit was also cancelled. Nepal is just not important enough for China to jeopardise its trade relations with India over. Which is why father and son had to assure the domestic gallery that all was well on the northern front.

In the final analysis, all this navel gazing in Nepal serves no purpose. As long as we cannot put our own house in order, set our politics right and steer the country towards economic growth we will continue to be treated as a footnote to history.


HUNGRY GHOSTS

Thursday, September 8th, 2016
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Pic: Bikram Rai

In a horrific preview of the terror to come, Maoist rebels chopped off the left hand of primary school teacher Narjit Basnet in Rukum in February 1996. Nepali Times tracked down Basnet, and found him exactly where he has been for the last 20 years: teaching Grade 3 of Saraswati School in Musikot, still cradling his text book in the stub of his arm.

Dekendra Thapa was a well regarded journalist in Dailekh working for Radio Nepal. When the Maoists stopped the water supply to the town in 2004 during a siege, he offered to mediate. But he was disappeared. In 2008, Dekendra Thapa’s body was finally located, exhumed and forensic examination revealed that he had been buried alive after torture.

Krishna Prasad Adhikari was 17 when he went to visit his mother’s family just after finishing his SLC exam in Gorkha. A group of Maoists caught and tortured and killed him by stuffing him inside a sack and dragging him behind a motorcycle. His parents Nanda Prasad and Ganga Maya came to Kathmandu to protest when Baburam Bhattarai was prime minister in 2012. Police got them certified as ‘mad’  and dumped them in Gorkha. The couple returned to start a hunger strike outside Bir Hospital. Doctors kept the couple alive through intravenous feeding, but Nanda Prasad died last year and his body is still in the hospital morgue. Ganga Maya is on the 52nd day of her fast-unto-death, and her health is deteriorating (pictured, above). In the past four years, she has seen five prime ministers come and go. None have helped her. The International community is complicit with its silence.

Many in Nepal want to forget the trauma of conflict. Some families of the victims and the survivors want to carry on with their lives even when they see perpetrators rewarded with high government office, or walking down village streets every day. Partly it is because of a culture of fatalism and a desire to let bygones be bygones. But to a large extent this collective apathy is due to a lack of confidence that a government made up of former enemies will ever deliver justice.

The Maoists have shown that it is OK to kill people to get into government, and they never have to answer for the crimes they unleashed. State security, on the other hand, justifies structural violence because it had to counter Maoist brutality. One uses the doctrine of revolutionary violence, and the other says state response under the rules of war is legitimate. But the cases of Narjit Basnet, Dekendra Thapa, Krishna Prasad Adhikari, and many others including the Army’s use of death squads in the Bhairabnath Barracks, its massacre at Doramba and Kotbada, or the Maoists blowing up a passenger bus in Madi, all fall under war crimes.

The Maoists, NC and the UML have no desire to revisit conflict era atrocities, and are willing to let each other off the hook. Despite their vicious power struggle, they are all on one side when it comes to transitional justice. They will provide lip service for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Commission on Enforced Disappearances as a sop to the international community, and not really to bring perpetrators to justice.

Even though Nepal Army Col Kumar Lama was acquitted on charges of war-era torture by a UK court, it has established a precedence that perpetrators can run but they can’t hide.

In the ten years after the conflict ended, there has been lawlessness and ad hocism in governance. The political transition has dragged on because Nepal is ruled by a political cartel made up of the once-warring parties. The immunity from prosecution that they have given themselves is the reason for the impunity in all spheres of national life today. It is the reason for the lack of accountability, for endemic corruption, the erosion of the rule of law and the sinister rise of a parallel state power. When rulers are walking proof that you can get away with murder, you cannot blame others down the line for trying to get away with stealing, cheating, extortion or intimidation.

The public’s indifference helps the former enemies who now form the state to wash each other’s bloodied hands. It is now up to civil society and the media to ensure that we remember not to forget, to chronicle the carnage and document the atrocities so that the survivors and the families of the murdered and disappeared get the truth and justice they seek.


PATRIARCHY IN THE HIERARCHY

Sunday, August 28th, 2016
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'WORLD OF PREGNANT MEN' BY LAXMAN BAZRA LAMA

‘WORLD OF PREGNANT MEN’ BY LAXMAN BAZRA LAMA

Nepal is going through a dramatic demographic shift. On the one hand, the country’s fertility rate is approaching replacement level — although the momentum of population growth will continue for another generation, it will stabilise thereafter.

This demographic transition of low birth rate and higher life expectancy is accompanied by the biggest population migration in the country’s history. The hill districts are depopulating at staggering rates, losing between 15 to 25 per cent of their inhabitants in the past 10 years as people migrate to cities, plains and abroad for work.

Nearly 20 per cent of Nepal’s population is away at any given time, and considering that the migrants are mostly young men, this could mean that up to half the men in the 20-35 age group are essentially missing from their families, communities and society.

This brings us to the other ongoing societal transformation: the gender shift. Families and communities in rural Nepal are being run by women. With most men gone, rural Nepal has been feminised. The number of female students in high schools and colleges is at an all-time high. Women are moving into jobs traditionally considered the domain of men: driving public transport, and engaged in masonry, carpentry and construction, especially in the earthquake-affected districts. The feminisation of the workforce is subtly empowering women, providing them with cash income and new confidence, bolstering their sense of self-worth.

Gender activists are not particularly fond of Tij — the annual celebration by daughters, wives and sisters —  which this year falls on Sunday 4 September. Their criticism is of the practice by women of fasting for the wellbeing and longevity of their husbands. It is absurd, particularly in this day and age, that women should be culturally required not to eat so that their husbands will be well-fed.

However, Tij has always traditionally also been a celebration of sisterhood and solidarity, a one-day rebellion and characterised by deliberate defiance against dominance by men. Could it be that some Nepali women today consider the Tij fast as a hunger strike against patriarchy? Going by the lyrics of the new duets that have been released in the run-up to this year’s festival, there is open ridicule of menfolk as lazy, good-for-nothing spoilt brats.

Add ‘corrupt’. And how aptly that sums up the attributes of most men who have the audacity to rule over us. Let’s just leave aside for the moment the fact that Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has already squandered one-and-a-half months of his nine-month rotational tenure just to form a council of ministers from a coalition of four parties.

The Nepali Congress could not even agree on a list of ministerial appointees until after the Nepal Students’ Union elections as well as the return from New Delhi of Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi. Why the selection of ministers by Nepal’s largest party should be held hostage by the election of 45-year-old ‘students’, and a visit to India by the prime minister’s special envoy, has never been satisfactorily explained to the public.

Nevertheless, of the 31 ministers appointed in his fourth consecutive expansion of the cabinet, only three are women, two of whom are junior state ministers. Clause 42-1 of the new Constitution expressly stipulates  that women and other marginalised groups be given proportional representation in all agencies of government. When it sent its list of 13 ministers, the NC could muster only one woman.

In terms of inclusivity, the ratios are not much better for Dalits, Janajatis, or Madhesis either. For example, there are only two Dalit ministers, and three from Janajati groups.

The sad irony is that this is happening under the prime ministership of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who used to be the ‘Supreme Commander’ of a guerrilla army of which one-fourth was made up of women warriors, many of whom laid down their lives for equality.

The members of the ruling coalition are the same political parties that took to the streets to protest King Gyanendra’s ‘regression’ in 2006. What a cruel joke that real regression is happening under the rule of these same so-called democratic parties.


CARTELLING OF CARNAGE

Monday, August 22nd, 2016
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Family members and relatives mourn during the cremation ceremony at Pashupatinath Temple on Wednesday,Bhadra 1,2073. 27 people were killed and 39 were injured in a bus accident in Birtadeurali VDC-9, Khaharekhola of Kavrepalanchowk district on Monday.

Family members of the people killed in the Kavre bus accident last week. Photo: Pratap Thapa/Kantipur.

Floods and earthquakes cannot strictly be called ‘natural calamities’ because what ruins lives are ill-planned attempts to channel rivers and poorly constructed houses. Similarly, tragedies like the bus plunge on 15 August in Kavre that killed 27 people cannot be termed an ‘accident’ — like other crashes it was a direct result of political patronage of bus companies by the four-party syndicate that has been running this country.

This cartelling of carnage is not restricted to highways. Hospitals and the medical education sector are in the iron grip of politicians profiteering from the trade in human health. One of the reasons Govind KC is still on the streets and threatening to go on his ninth hunger strike is because even his voice has not been heard by the politicians backing the medical mafia.

Six bus passengers die every day on Nepal’s highways, many of these are not even reported anymore they have become so routine. More people have died in highway disasters in the past ten years than were killed in the decade-long war — 9,000 have been killed since 2011 alone.

After every vehicle crash like this, police come up with possible causes: there were 90 people crammed into the Kavre bus which was also carrying sacks of rice and it stalled on a steep and slippery dirt road. But such technical reasons mask the underlying political source of the tragedies that every day maim and kill Nepalis. Contractors that bribe officials to build substandard roads, obsolete and badly-maintained buses are allowed to carry double their capacity, the drivers are often inexperienced or have fake licenses — and all this is made possible because of bus syndicates that enjoy political protection.

It has been 20 years since the last local elections, leading to a lack of accountability at the VDC, DDC and municipality level. Unelected bureaucrats work with politically connected contractors to build roads that go from nowhere to nowhere. Local politicians own excavators that gouge out the mountains, scarring farm terraces with landslides. Only 17 per cent of Nepal’s highways are black-topped, and even if tarmaced they lack basic road furniture that would ensure safety.

Highway fatalities rank fourth in the cause of death among Nepalis, whereas internationally it is considered the tenth most common cause of death. Tracing the ownership patterns, the emergence of private operators, the lack of regulation and inadequate implementation of safety directives one sees a serious failure of the government to fulfil its primary role: to protect its citizens’ lives.

Over the past decades of political change, private companies have taken over the public transportation network pretending that they operate in a competitive free market economy. On pretext of regulating them, bus management committees nationwide wield so much power that even national level politicians are loathe to rein them in.

The syndicates protect their routes with goons, new operators who want to improve the quality of service often have brand new buses vandalised with complete impunity. Far-western Nepal had no buses plying for a week last month because of a dispute between syndicates. Transport monopolies are so powerful they can hold the country, and the travelling public hostage. And they are literally getting away with murder.

After the Kavre disaster, newly installed Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said this was the last chance to crack down on transportation cartels. This will also be his last chance to show that he cares about the public good, and not about protecting the turf of syndicates owned and nurtured by politicians in his coalition.

At an interaction this week on highway safety, former Chief Secretary and social reformer Leela Mani Paudyal could not have been more direct in blaming an “unspoken agreement” between senior ministers in government and bus companies. Poudyal said the root of the corruption was the Welfare Fund that transportation cartels used to fund political parties, pay for goons, and bribe bureaucrats. “From what I know, some CDOs got Rs 100,000 a month, the district police chief got up to Rs 80,000, and the money went right down to the traffic policeman,” Poudyal said.

It is obvious the rot runs deep, and we must start looking at deaths on our highways not as accidents, but as crimes in which politicians are culpable. But we do not have the luxury of waiting to fix the politics in order to to improve road safety. There are thousands of lives at stake.


 

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