What a relief it was to see opposition leader Madhav Nepal cycling to Singh Durbar. For the people of his constituency in Rautahat District, bicycles, together with rickshaws and ox-carts, are the main modes of transport. But I was dismayed to discover that it was just a protest prank: Comrade Nepal will not be bicycling to work every day. A day later the UML Secretary General was being chauffeured to work in a black limousine.
Every time prices of petroleum products go up, symbolism takes over the streets of Kathmandu. There are rallies with empty jerry cans, traffic is held-up, bandhs are enforced, protest letters are handed over, the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues are burnt in effigy with much fanfare for the benefit of press photographers. Consumer activists issue angry statements. And then things get back to normal throughout the kingdom. People have come to take fuel price hikes as a fact of life. And protests are a diversion to be tolerated as a diversion from the dull routine of everyday life. Three-wheelers drive past blaring a call for a jerry can rally, very few people bother to look up.
Why don't Nepalis care too much about fuel prices? A facile answer is: fatalism. That vapid sense of apathy that afflicts us all. Prices are beyond our control, so we accept them. Decades under dictatorship has further ingrained this fatalism into the Nepali psyche. The sense of hope that you can effect a change is not there. But the sense of resignation of a sullen population is not the real reason for this lack of interest.
More important are the sources of energy used in Nepal. Total energy consumption in the country was about 292 million GJ in 1995/1996. Nearly 90 percent of it came from biomass sources such as fuelwood (80 percent), animal dung (6 percent-another reason to keep worshipping our cows and bulls) and agricultural residue (4 percent). Only about one percent of it was electricity, notwithstanding all the hydropower hype. The rest, only about 9 percent of total energy consumption, was met by fossil fuels.
The price of fossil fuel affects us all in one way or another: the newsprint on which you are reading these words is transported laboriously up from Birgunj in smoke-belching diesel trucks. But the impact of a hike on diesel (or even kerosene) prices on a subsistence farmer in Rumjatar is marginal. Despite the claim that kerosene is a poor man's fuel and needs state subsidy, the fact is that it is only the urban-dwellers and a section of rural elite who rely on fossil fuels for their daily needs. For the rest, kerosene is something that you need to fuel your tuki in the hills or dibiya in tarai and if it's not available, or if it's too expensive, you blow it off and go to bed early. No big deal.
When Rajiv Gandhi imposed an undeclared economic blockade on Nepal in 1989, he had expected us go down on our knees and say we're sorry, please send us our kerosene. Well, guess what, Nepalis held out for more than a year. The reason was that most Nepalis didn't use fossil fuels, and those who did simply went back to cow-dung patties. For the urban users, the government flew in kerosene from Dhaka in Royal Nepal Airlines jets converted into tankers.
As for petrol, it had only two uses in my village in those days-either you needed it for your Chinese lighter, or you wanted some as a balm to apply upon your body when your muscles ached from a hard day's work in the rice-fields.
The Nepali elite which depends on petroleum products is a small and pampered group and does not make a hue and cry over fuel price hike for two reasons: the cost of fuel constitutes only a small portion of their total household expense, the rich are also aware that a government (in any Third World country) can do little about fuel price hikes.
It's people like me in the middle-class who are hurt most. The seven percent rise in bus fare and the increase in kerosene prices hits us badly. The poor may manage with their three-litre quota of subsidised kerosene-if they can afford to buy even that much. My peers in the middle class will probably brand me a traitor for saying this, but protests over the fuel price hike should be held outside OPEC headquarters in Vienna, not in Kathmandu. The Marxist-Leninists should call an Austria-wide bandh, burn in effigy Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan OPEC Rambo. He has more to do with the rise of kerosene prices than Girija.
The lesson for Nepal and the world is to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. If only the transportation and diesel cartels would let go of their iron grip on state policy, we should be using this opportunity to look at a fast east-west electric railway along the tarai, connected to the hills with cargo cable car systems. All powered by the energy of our flowing rivers and not the liquefied remains of prehistoric rainforests.
The government certainly needs to do much more than it is presently doing to keep a check on spiralling prices. The opposition can help by not bringing the economy to a halt by planning bandhs. As it is, prices are on fire. Protests simply end up adding scarce fuel to the inferno. Cool it comrades, and make riding bicycles to work an enduring habit. It's good for the economy, and even better for the environment.