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Getting to the other side

Thursday, June 29th, 2017
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FLOOD OF VOTERS: Swimming, wading or ferried by boats, the residents of Shivasatasi Municipality in Jhapa cross a channel on the Kankai River to vote in the second phase of local elections on Wednesday. Pic: Gopal Gartaula

FLOOD OF VOTERS: Swimming, wading or ferried by boats, the residents of Shivasatasi Municipality in Jhapa cross a channel on the Kankai River to vote in the second phase of local elections on Wednesday. Pic: Gopal Gartaula

Gopal Gartaula in Jhapa

This was Nepal’s first-ever election during the monsoon, and the sight of hundreds of people wading across flooded rivers or taking boats to the voting booths on Wednesday was a sign of their eagerness to cast ballots, even though they didn’t expect much from it.

Here in the eastern-most district of the Tarai, which the Madhes-based parties want as part of Province 2, people were visibly impatient to get out and vote. After all, three other provinces voted a month ago and many here felt it was unnecessary to have deferred polling.

Mohamad Hafiz, 65, of Shivasatasi Municipality was among the 700 or so villagers who pulled up their lungi and crossed the Kankai to vote on the other side. He said he has been crossing the river to vote in elections for the last 40 years.

“Every time candidates come to our village begging for votes, and promising to build a bridge over the Kankai. We voted for them every time, but the bridge never got built,” Hafiz says while standing in line at the voting centre at Pashupati Primary School. Others within earshot nod in agreement.

This year too, the political party candidates for mayor of the new municipality promised a bridge. Because this is the first local election in 15 years and the first under the new constitution that will give the municipality greater decision-making powers, Hafiz says he is hopeful that his vote may now make a difference.

Over in Damak, 30-year-old tea picker Bimala Magar is waiting in the female voting queue. She has a different kind of problem: not being paid by the tea estate that employs her. “Our wages have stayed the same for eight years, and we don’t even get that on time,” says the mother of two.

It took Magar two more hours in the sweltering sun, and later under pouring rain, to stamp her ballot. Afterwards, she did not sound very hopeful that her vote would make a difference.

The Ward Committee candidates from the NC, UML and Maoists all say they talked to the tea estate management during the campaign, who assured them that pickers’ families will get free education for their children, clothing and food allowances, and bicycles for college-going daughters.

Magar says she would be happy even if just one or two of these promises were kept, but is not too hopeful: “Politics is for a certain class of people, our lives never change. I often wonder who benefits from my vote: it is definitely not people like us.”

Paradoxically, even though there isn’t a lot of confidence among voters that local elections will improve their lives, they have come out overwhelmingly to voting booths. Unlike in previous years, there wasn’t much violence during campaigning in a district that has produced many leaders of national stature like Krishna Prasad Sitaula of the NC and KP Oli of the UML. The presence here of the RJPN is negligible. Police detained anti-election activists from the CK Raut and Netra Bikram Chand groups who wanted to disrupt elections. The split in the Limbuwan has also lessened their impact on voting in the eastern mountains.

“The enthusiasm for elections and the high turnout now increases the responsibility of elected local leaders to meet their campaign promises for development,” says Gopal Acharya of the Jhapa District Election Office.

Sarbatlal Rajbanshi is Chief of the Gauriganj Campus and one of few from the aboriginal community in that position. He says Nepal would have moved forward much faster politically and economically if narrow-minded politicians had not created problems between Madhesi and indigenous people in the Tarai.

Rajbanshi told us: “We used to have to go to Kathmandu to beg to have a bridge built: that was absurd. This election brings hope.”

 

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