The Kathmandu high society is preoccupied with preparations for constituent assembly elections. A parliamentary committee is investigating nominees for influential positions. Fund-raising for Prime Minister's Relief Fund has turned into a fashion parade. Paras' coronary artery has been unblocked. The Maoists are threatening an imminent urban uprising. Extension of UNMIN contracts is a foregone conclusion. But no one is concerned about everyday matters like the shortages and the cost of living. Because these things don't affect the rich. The more high-rise apartments are built, higher goes the rent for the poor. This improbable relationship between burgeoning supply and escalating cost is never discussed by economists. Speculation is rife instead that cars will be cheaper after 2009 when import duties will have to be reduced to suit WTO guidelines.
The petrol lines are an admissible conversation piece. The high society lady may complain that her chauffer disappeared for the day on the pretext of procuring petrol. An upwardly mobile journalist can admit without embarrassment that he pushed his motorcycle through the queue for four hours only to be told at the end of his ordeal that the petrol was finished.
However, nobody likes to raise the point that we never see politicians, bankers, media moghuls or other hoity-toity waiting in the fuel queues. A passenger on the Lagankhel bus the other day pointed out another very visible incongruity: other than two-wheelers, most of the vehicles queuing up for petrol are taxis. This adds one more mystery to the as yet unexposed fuel supply arrangements of vehicles belonging to international agencies.
Some taxi-drivers claim that they make more money by driving in line to the petrol pump than they would by driving around town carrying passengers: the premium on a five-litre jerrycan of petrol is often more than Rs 200. In a way, the scarcity of petrol has come as a blessing in disguise for cabbies who don't own their vehicles. But for the rest, owning and driving ageing Marutis bought with bank-loans has become a frustrating occupation.
But the fuel crisis masks the food crisis. The price of dal has shot up to Rs 80 per kg. Onions have hit the Rs 40 per kg mark, the line beyond which they become unaffordable to the poor. But the most astonishing is the price of potatoes: it is now Rs 30 a kg. Apparently, those who worry about unavailability of petrol and those disturbed by the runaway price of potatoes belong to two different universes despite sharing the same city.
The Asian Development Bank calculates that the top 20 percent of income earners in this country consumed 9.4 times more than the poorest 20 percent. Disturbing as they are, even these statistics of inequality fail to capture the frustrations of the bottom rung. An average day-labourer in agriculture earns at most Rs 10,000 per year, calculated on the basis of Rs 50 per day for 200 days of work. It costs at least Rs 200,000 per year to be able to lead a lifestyle that includes entry-level motorised vehicle-a scooter or a motorcycle.
In a classic class society, rewards are related to power rather than need or contribution. With extremely limited opportunities for advancement in life, the privileged are perhaps correct in assessing that Nepal is ripe for endless cycles of revolution. They have managed to get a law that will allow them to take their money elsewhere. Worse times are in store for societies oblivious to structural injustices. The Maoists are planning an urban uprising, but can they control it from descending into nationwide potato riots?