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HUNGER FOR CHANGE

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
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Nepal’s poverty rate may have gone down, the Human Development Index may have improved, but five km from the centre of the nation’s capital, two-year-old Buddhi Maya is dying of hunger in her mother’s lap. She is severely wasted, weighing half of babies her age.  Her parents migrated to work in a Kathmandu brick kiln from Dang to pay off a debt from the Poverty Alleviation Fund to buy two goats. A scheme designed to reduce poverty has pushed the family to starvation.

The plight of Nepali overseas migrant workers gets a lot of attention, but what of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers like the Biswakarma family? Desperate and destitute, they move to the cities to earn enough to feed their families and repay debts, but instead get caught in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Then there is the story of Shambhu Kumar Ram in Saptari, whose death last year got much media attention. The 14-year-old probably died of a combination of medical problems and opportunistic infections exacerbated by malnutrition, but it exposed a whole raft of issues that all tracked back to poor governance, deficient service delivery and the gross negligence of the state in protecting citizens.

Both deaths were probably preventable. Stunting has been nearly halved in Nepal in the last 15 years, but in that time the proportion of stunted children has stayed almost constant at 15%. The direct cause of preventable child deaths may be hunger, but it is a result of an uncaring state, a dysfunctional health service and the lack of a social safety net. The buck stops at public officials who don’t give a damn, who are trying to remove a competent Health Minister to make way for bhagbanda politics.

To change this, we need the three elections envisaged in the constitution. The first is local elections which haven’t been held for 20 years and are now slated for 14 May, and will install elected members of village, district and municipal councils. This will re-instill accountability in those who hold public office.

Unfortunately, the fate of local elections still hangs in the balance because of obstructions by Tarai-based parties which want amendments to the constitution be passed first. Local elections are held even in totalitarian states, and there should be no connection between a future federal setup and voting for village and district councils.

The amendments could be more important for the other two provincial and federal elections, and can be sorted in the weeks ahead. For now, our strong recommendation is that we go ahead with local elections and cross the other bridges when we get to them.

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