In mid-August, the British ambassador to Nepal was photographed on a trail on the Annapurna trekking circuit holding a poster that declared: "I am in Nepal Now." More than four months after a devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake, this was part of a campaign to revitalize tourism, a main foreign exchange earner. Before the quake about 800,000 a year visited Nepal.
For many in Nepal, the message seemed disconnected from realities on the ground.
I have lived in Nepal for more than two years and have by now gotten used to up to 18 hours of daily electricity cuts, Kathmandu's open sewers, the frequent fuel shortages that have taught me to hoard diesel and propane year-round and the often violent political strikes that paralyze the capital and the country a day or two at a time.
I was here for the earthquake and have reported on the quake and its aftermath. Even four months on, government-led reconstruction has yet to start and hundreds of thousands remain homeless. The frigid winter is just over a month away.
But Nepal's present state of chaos is not only heartbreaking, it is deeply disturbing.
For more than three weeks now, over half of Nepal — its west, east and southern districts bordering India — has been paralyzed by indefinite strikes, called Bandh or "closures." This is a common terrorist-style tactic used in Nepal since the 1990s. More than 30 people have been killed and hundreds injured. The main roads are blocked by violent strikers, towns are under curfew, vehicles and buildings have been vandalized.
The army has been dispatched to the hardest-hit areas to police daily curfews and maintain a semblance of law and order. But schools, industries, shops and many hospitals are shut. Pharmacies are running out of medicines, and 3 million children cannot go to class. Even district magistrates closed their courtrooms and moved to Kathmandu, saying they fear for their safety. Besides, how can one hear cases if no one dares walk or drive to the courthouse?
The reason for the unrest seems straightforward: It's politics. Nepal is in the last stages of writing a new constitution, nine years in the making. Many of the country's marginalized and indigenous communities argue their government discriminates against them by delineating new boundaries and new states that split them up, weakening their political strength. The wave of violence was sparked by the declaration of a seven-state federal structure that would replace 75 administrative districts.
I will readily admit that it would take me decades to grasp the deeply buried cultural and political undercurrents that shape this tiny nation of 27 million sandwiched between India and China, two antagonistic regional superpowers that jockey for influence here. Nepal's government is weak and barely functional on a good day. Each political party has violent enforcers who take to the streets to achieve their goals.
"We muddle through," a Nepali friend said, describing how his government manages to function and deal with crises. "We are the Muddle Kingdom, except we're not a kingdom anymore — though the monarchy (the king abdicated in 2008) would love to be reinstated."
Nepal is landlocked and relies heavily on trade with India to import rice, lentils, sugar, fertilizer, milk and other foods. In addition, all diesel, petrol, propane and almost all manufactured goods come in via road from India. (The border road with China has been closed by landslides since the April quake). And now the strikes have closed all border crossings with India for more than 24 days. At Birgunj, the border town that funnels all the container trucks ferrying goods from the port at Calcutta, more than 3,000 trucks are lining the roads for miles in a massive traffic jam. Armed Indian gangs have begun targeting the stuck trucks, stealing batteries, diesel and the drivers' phones and cash.
In addition, hundreds of trucks are now waylaid in Calcutta. Indian farmers in Bihar, the main exporters of onions and beans to Nepal, are watching their crops rot.
The halt in trade is hitting Nepali businesses hard. Transporting agencies charge more than $200 a day for the immobilized refrigerated trucks and about $80 for other containers. With fuel running out in the Kathmandu Valley last week (the government keeps only a three-day supply of diesel and petrol in Kathmandu), and refueling lines snaking more than half a mile, the government began providing police escorts to tankers coming up from the border.
Propane supplies are also affected. City dwellers and some rural residents rely on containers of cooking propane to prepare food. Truck drivers hauling propane don't dare to move, worried that they will be torched by strikers, a frequently used tactic.
Hardest hit by the strikes are the estimated 15 million Nepalis who live in the affected border areas. Food prices have shot up. Bandhs and curfews mean day laborers can no longer earn a living. It is difficult to gauge the local support given to the striking political parties. There are definite grievances by groups who have felt that the government ignores their needs — and who are scared of both the Bandh leaders and the police. In many villages where the minority Tharu people live, young men have fled to India in the past weeks. Reports say the Bandh leaders in the far west region of Kailali lured police into an ambush, killing seven policemen and shooting a 2-year-old.
The International Crisis Group has warned that "the anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled the violence will grow."
But Nepal's finance minister has declared the ongoing protests have no agenda. Blocked borders, unrest and shortages haven't intimidated the movement to promote tourism. Nepali airlines is offering a "buy two tickets get one free" on its new Kathmandu to Mumbai route. Nepal is touting itself as the next casino capital of the world as it targets India's $60 billion gambling industry and reopens its casinos, most of them shut last year for nonpayment of taxes.
Meanwhile, the earthquake has left 3 million homeless, and they're in dire straits, too. Just this week, the government let expire the 60-day ordinance that allowed the National Reconstruction Authority, the agency in charge of earthquake relief, to disburse funds. Officials claimed that the Maoist party blocked the bill in Parliament in retaliation for not having their man put in charge.
It must be time to muddle. The head of the former National Reconstruction Authority still goes to work every day, though it's unclear whether any funds can be disbursed.
Hiking ambassadors, angry protesters, motionless trucks, homeless people — if 'I am in Nepal Now" as the tourism slogan declares, which Nepal am I in?