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Nepal relaxing lockdown afterall

Finance and Information Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada told a media briefing on Wednesday evening that the Cabinet extended the COVID-19 lockdown till 18 May, but it had also decided to relax rules on manufacturing, industries and banking sectors. 

These would be partially opened with certain restrictions on distancing and health monitoring of workers, and that the decision about opening up would be done in coordination with local governments. 

The industries included in the list are: food production and processing, dairies, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment manufacturers, water supply, brick kilns, livestock and fisheries, feed industries, sugar, tea and LPG. Also to be opened will be noodles industries, bakeries, poultry, dairy, and processing of other agricultural products.

Among the non-food industries to be relaxed are cement, paint, plywood, plastic pipes, sand and crushers, steel and electrical equipment.

However, the following rules apply: factories cannot have more than ten workers in one place at a time, and workers get health check-ups daily. For the time being, workers also need to stay in dorms, and eat in canteens at their workplaces, without coming in contact with local people or family members.

Changing disability to this-ability

Photo: Marcus Benningno / Nepali Times Archive

In 2010, my son who has Down’s Syndrome (DS), spent his first birthday in an Indian hospital due to severe pneumonia. During late evening of the same day, some sisters from the Missionaries of Charity brought an abandoned newborn boy for treatment.

The hapless infant, also with DS, was placed two beds away from ours. He did not live to see the next morning. A nurse, even while attending to my son with care, saw nothing wrong with saying that the baby was “mentally retarded”.

Fast forward to early 2020. A well-established lawyer abandoned her newborn daughter, with DS, in a state-of-the-art hospital in Nepal. All counselling failed to convince a supposedly educated mind. The infant remained abandoned till a charity took her in its care.

Looking after persons with disabilities involves sensitivity, hard work, some sacrifice of time and freedom, money, right education and the will to fight stigma. It is easier to abandon them instead of working to make the children self-sufficient and including them in all activities.

December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and the theme is ‘A Day for All’. Facebook and Instagram will be flooded with posts cheering the cause. And why not? It is one that calls for attention.

However, when we post, do we really consider those with disabilities as an integral part of “us all”? Very few of us think of making life easier for those with special needs or disabilities, unless we know someone personally.

How many of us change or adjust our daily actions in order to change ‘disability’ into ‘this ability’? Alas, only a handful of us, especially in developing countries.

It is not by chance that persons with disabilities are more visible in developed countries than in developing economies. There are actually more people with disabilities in poorer parts of the world, their numbers are grossly under-reported.

Disability encompasses not just those who are born with disabilities, it also includes the elderly and the injured. Yes, it can be you and me when we get injured or old. It is our old parents too.

A person in a wheelchair at Old Trafford stadium in UK can enjoy a football matche at the stadium with proper facilities. Photo: Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar

There are three main reasons why people with disabilities remain out of sight in developing countries:

  1. Stigma: Most physically and mentally challenged people suffer from loneliness and depression due to the stigma attached to their state. There is rampant discrimination in the way general public treats these people. Illiterate or little literate poverty-stricken parents find it difficult to understand and tend to the special needs. Often persons with disabilities are looked down on or made fun of and social acceptance becomes difficult, sometimes even for the families. Families then find it easier to hide or lock them up. There are instances of violence against them, especially against girls and women. Discrimination also surfaces in schools and workplaces where people with disabilities, of all genders, are either not understood or exploited and abused. Stigma does not stop them from getting raped. It stops them from getting social acceptance. Earning a respectable livelihood is difficult.

  2. Poverty and Education: Providing proper care, counselling and medical treatment, hiring trained caregivers, and even basic education is unaffordable for many parents. Although there is a legal provision for education that supports inclusive schooling, its implementation is far from satisfactory. Apart from a few schools in the cities, there are few inclusive educational institutions with trained therapists. Schools with suitable facilities are far away from villages, have limited seats, and are usually expensive. Frequently, the afflictions are identified quite late in the children’s lives. They go to regular schools where the staff and peers misunderstand them, and subject them to discrimination and ignominy. The parents then stop the children from attending school or playing with others.

  3. Public Infrastructure: The government’s apathy towards such persons is clearly evident in public places and transport systems that are not disabled friendly.
  • There are laws safeguarding rights of persons with disabilities, but most do not sue for their rights. Many are not even aware of their rights, and legal cases are costly and long-drawn affairs.
  • Roads, footpaths and parking lots are laid out without any consideration for those with disabilities. In fact, many roads are not even motorable. Footpaths are too high or broken even for enabled people, and too congested for easy movement of those who are blind or wheelchair-bound. Ramps are almost non-existent. A self-maneuvered wheelchair will never be able to negotiate the few steep ramps that have been hastily constructed in some areas. Some shopping malls, hotels and restaurants are becoming more mindful, but there are hardly any accessible parking lots.
  • Though the public transport system of buses, trains and trams have designated seats for persons with disabilities, these are often occupied by a callous public. For most persons with disabilities, boarding and alighting from these independently, is extremely difficult.
  • Public toilets are strictly for the use of non-disabled adults. Few architects ever think of how children or people with disabilities will use them.

Where we have not been able to provide basic amenities and security to persons with disabilities, how can we celebrate ‘a day for all’? They will keep being abandoned until we resolve to correct our mindset.

Educate people, in general, to be more aware of and be sensitive to the difficulties of people with para-abilities. The fear of hurting sentiments by saying something wrong stops us from talking about disabilities. We need to inculcate the courage to discuss the ailments, affordable cures and therapies.

It is not wrong to have a mental or physical difficulty. It is wrong to ignore, neglect and abuse the vulnerability stemming from such a difficulty. If the policymakers ensure implementation and the public practices what is taught, then there is still a hope of changing disabilities into ‘these abilities’.

Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar is a photographer and travel/lifestyle journalist. She has a content writing firm Sravasti’s and an e-commerce website for eco-friendly greeting cards and pens.

Let them eat cake

Prime Minister K P Oli feeding a slice of cake to Bishnu Poudel at the start of a ruling NCP Secretariat meeting on Tuesday that degenerated into personal mud-slinging. Photos: PMO

The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Secretariat meeting on 1 December coincided with Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel’s birthday. Prime Minister K P Oli kicked off the meeting by feeding a slice to Poudel, who took off his mask for the purpose. Other Secretariat members took turns to do the same.

‘Let them eat cake,’ seems to be the motto of the NCP. Instead of discussing response to the rising death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic nationwide, or the threat posed by the rise of the Hindu-right, the meeting was an extension of the power struggle between factions led by Oli and his party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

The meeting kicked off, but soon degenerated into a shouting match between Oli and Dahal. Nepali media got hold of a recording of what was said, and the transcript is not for the faint-hearted. As the temperature inside the Baluwatar meeting hall rose, the gathering was put off till the next day.

However, on Wednesday Prime Minister Oli failed to attend. Ahead of the meeting Poudel, who is Oli’s close confidante, had a word with Dahal saying the prime minister wanted more time. The meeting then ended with the announcement to reconvene on Saturday, 5 December.

Prime Minister Oli kept away from Wednesday’s NCP Secretariat meeting, and Pushpa Kamal Dahal rescheduled it for Saturday, followed the next day with a Standing Committee meeting.

This gave Oli three more days to come up with a strategy to defuse the challenge to his authority. Party insiders say that the anti-Oli faction led by Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal are now in the mood to press on him to step down not just from either the party chair or prime ministership, but both positions.

Sensing this, Oli is buying time. While Dahal was holding the NCP Secretariat meeting at Baluwatar on Wednesday, Oli was holed up with advisers in another part of the prime minister’s residence, discussing his next move.

The latest bout in this long-drawn duel involved the two party chieftains hurling written statements against each other. In response to Dahal’s 19-page salvo on 13 November, Oli drafted a voluminous 38-page anti-missile missile on 28 November. Wednesday’s meeting was supposed to discuss the two documents in which the top two leaders hurled accusations at each other.

Oli was said to be waiting for the arrival from Butwal of his main ally, Lumbini Province Chief Minister Shankar Pokhrel to plan his strategy. Pokhrel is in support of getting both leaders to withdraw their accusatory documents, and draft a new joint statement that will patch up the long-running dispute once and for all.

Party insiders on both sides admit that the differences are not insurmountable – they just stem from the perception in the Dahal-Nepal faction that Oli has not given them due respect and their loyalists key appointments. But they admit that it is now a clash of egos between the two alpha males, and there is too much bad blood to settle it amicably.

Sensing that his rivals now want him removed from both posts with a vote of no confidence in the Parliamentary Party, Oli is said to be considering a range of options that are (in order of extremeness): splitting the party and forming a coalition with the opposition Nepali Congress, appointing a trusted ‘young turk’ to prime ministership and stepping down, wooing off Nepal, Jhanath Khanal or Bam Dev Gautam to his side by offering them coveted cabinet or backing for party posts in the NCP convention, or  patching up with rivals by agreeing to a joint declaration.

Oli is said to have told one confidante this week: “If I am forced to step down, I will pass the prime ministership to a younger generation leader like Subhas Nembang.”

The NCP has called a Standing Committee meeting now on 6 December, and it is expected to be a decisive one. Prime Minister Oli still has some trump cards up his sleeves to divide the Dahal camp, and he is expected to use them.

Protecting free speech on Nepal’s cybersphere

Illustration: BHANU BHATTARAI

Social media has given Nepali users unprecedented access to knowledge, opinion and entertainment.

But that power is being increasingly misused, by trolling those with a different opinion (especially women), cyber-bullying, assuming false identity, stealing private information and floating wild conspiracy theories.

As Nepal’s mobile phone usage grows to 92%, and more than half of those people have smart phones with Internet, many on social media wear a cloak of anonymity even as they share each aspect of their lives with countless others.

To be sure, Nepalis can now contact relatives and friends in the diaspora on video chats, and they have the world at their finger tips. But a sharp increase in online abuse has prompted calls for greater media literacy.

As elsewhere, Nepal’s social web has in recent times been weaponised against those who post dissenting views.

In May, actress Barsha Raut posted a video clip on social media calling for diplomatic talks between India and Nepal to solve the Lipulekh dispute. She called out journalists from both countries who used patriotism as an excuse to incite hatred.

This should not have been controversial, because patriotism and love of country should not be a reason to spread abuse. But in these polarised times, the veil of anonymity accorded by the net gives people the freedom to threaten and intimidate anyone, especially if they are women like Barsha Raut.

The virtual mob that descended upon Raut branded her a traitor, and that was just the most polite adjective used. The backlash was so overwhelming that a disheartened Raut was forced to clarify her stance on the issue and tearfully apologise on social media.

Similar posts by male celebrities, journalists and commentators have not elicited such vicious response. Why the selective outrage?

In June, actress and film director Deepa Shree Niraula expressed doubts in a tv interview about whether actor Rajesh Hamal should be labeled a ‘superstar’. The audience immediately took to the comment section on YouTube to post virulent abuse at her, even threatening to rape and kill her.

Social media has given insecure, hidden people the power to express exaggerated outrage, magnifying any incident out of proportion through the algorithm of the ‘like’ and ‘share’ button that has turned the social web into an echo chamber of incremental radicalisation.

Who appoints people legends, superstars, national poets, or icons and gives them the label of ‘superstar’? This argument is not new to public discourse in Nepal. As such, anyone has a right to express views on whether or not they think someone is a superstar of Nepali cinema. Such discourse is an example of a functioning democracy and a healthy democratic debate.

But why aren’t we as a society tolerant and respectful of other people’s views?

The very existence of social media is a result of a free and fair democracy. But the digital crowd touting freedom of expression to attack and abuse those with different points of view undermines the very democratic values upon which social media was created in the first place.

In September, Facebook users in Nepal formed a group ‘We Are Rapists’ as public anger has grown against the epidemic of rape and domestic violence in Nepal during the pandemic. The Cybercrime Bureau finally arrested those behind the group, who said they did as a prank.

According to political analyst and thinker Hari Sharma, accountability has disappeared somewhere along the way as the practice of freedom of expression evolved from traditional media to new media, setting a dangerous precedent. Sharma notes that recent intolerance towards differing opinions has proven that the public is uninformed about social awareness, freedom, and individual rights.

“Technology is merely a tool,” he says. “How we express our opinions on social media mirrors how we live in society at present. It is not realistic to blame intolerance entirely on digital technology.”

To be sure, such abuse is not limited to Nepal. Individuals and communities across the world and South Asia have been subject to widespread hate and abuse online. In August, Indian cricket player MS Dhoni’s 5-year-old daughter was threatened with rape in ‘retaliation’ to what people thought was a disappointing performance from Dhoni in this year’s chapter of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Police arrested the 16-year-old in Gujarat who made the threat.

Here at home, singer and vlogger Samriddhi Rai was viciously trolled for being critical of beauty contests for women and the selection process and criteria.

The use of freedom of expression as an excuse to spread hate and incite violence has spread a culture of fear in society. Senior advocate Radheshyam Adhikari notes that while every individual is free to express agreement or disagreement of opinion, no one has the right to attack and abuse anyone else for agreeing or disagreeing with a certain point of view.

“We must respect any dissenting opinion that as long as it does not advocate violence and hatred,” he says.

But what if the responses to someone’s opinion spreads violence and hate, should that not be curbed? Indeed, the backlash to any opinion on social media is now so pervasive that it has has had the effect of dampening free expression. Many netizens have just stopped posting anything, or have quit social media platforms altogether.

The truth is that we veer between extremes at this stage of digital democracy. The public is quick to idolise one figure and demonise another. We tend to look at things in black and white, as one or the other. This environment is emblematic of the problems that the next generation will it participates in a digital democracy.

We seem to be at a crossroads at a time when we should use social media to come together and form new ideas rooted in empathy and understanding. We have the power to make someone ‘viral’. We use our own opinions as a valid reason to justify and excuse inexcusable behaviour. We are quick to boycott and ‘cancel’, without looking at the context, those who we believe have offended our sensibilities.

Are we ourselves a part of the cyber society that is dismantling democracy? Are we becoming more digital and less democratic? Is the new public sphere being left to trollers to inhabit?

Says women’s rights activist Saru Joshi: “The culture of treating differing opinions with disrespect is prevalent in our families, educational institutions, and workplaces. This culture of silence means many pressing social issues are swept to the sidelines on social media. But staying silent will weaken the democratic process.”

The solution is better media literacy, enforcement of rules on cyber crime, and for people who want the Internet decontaminated to speak out. And there should be legal remedies against those who abuse the freedom of the net.

Says Shiva Gaunle of the Centre for Investigative Journalism: “There is a clear line between criticism and hate. While criticism is a valid way of participating in the democratic process, spreading hatred is anti-social and anti-democratic.”

Between Queens and Kathmandu

Photo: Kathasatha

A lot happened in 1999. I turned 18, finished high school and got accepted by an American college. And the internet, which had crept into the Nepali marketplace, finally made it to my bedroom. The arrival of the Internet coincided with a key moment in my life – my coming to terms with my sexuality. 

So begins Niranjan Kunwar’s memoir Between Queens and the Cities.

Over the next 300 or so pages divided into six parts, Kunwar takes us on a journey that spans two decades, from the neighbourhoods in New York to the gallis and bhattis of Kathmandu. 

Between Queens and the Cities is a beautifully crafted coming of age story of a gay man in Nepal navigating life while exploring his identity and finding a place to call home.

The book begins when Kunwar is 19 in New York. Freed from the constraints of Nepal, he enjoys the independence America has to offer. He promptly falls in love with New York, making plans to return to the city once he graduates, and he does. 

He works as a teacher, first at a private school in the city and then in a school in Brooklyn. He finds his friends and falls into a routine. But then life creeps in, the commutes are too long, the mornings too early. Paper works for green card falls through and over time he returns to Nepal to pursue a literary journey.

All these are punctuated by fear and anxiety he has regarding his sexuality, the relationship with his parents, and the need for love and acceptance.

Photo: Studio Aakar/Nepali Times

It is difficult to capture universality in a way that also celebrates uniqueness, but Kunwar does that skillfully. By choosing the themes that he did, Kunwar has made his story matter not just to him but to the readers as well.

As anyone who has called NYC their home at any point in life can attest, the city does that to you: it makes you fall in love with it. Only in New York will you pay the deposit for an apartment with half-clogged bathroom and return happy and content.

Living in a foreign country can also be lonely, and the paperwork frustrating. As an immigrant, there is a sense of not belonging, the conscious sense of otherness even with the closest of native friends.

But anyone who returned to Nepal after spending time away from home can also relate to the feeling of being robbed of freedom once back, the confusion and the self-doubt of whether they have made the right decision, as well as the uphill task of rebuilding their lives and relationships with friends and family, and finding or starting over a career.

When it comes to the stories of LGBTIQ individuals, it is easy to fall into the trap of a dominant narrative. Through repetition and often limitation of the stories we hear we create a stereotype of the community that does not justify the broader identity. Kunwar while admitting his privilege attempts to reveal the community’s wide diversity, through his own story and those of others.

In the final part of the memoir Kunwar tells the stories of Rukhsana, Bhakti and Sadhana, Aditya, Esan, and Sudip and Apekshya. Their stories each unique in their experiences but tied by the thread of highlighting parts of a marginalised population that too often remain invisible and ignored.

Kunwar sweeps his life beautifully into words. Reading the book is like listening to a friend narrate his life story. He does not spend too much time in details and is eloquent and earnest in his storytelling. Between Queens and the Cities, is a great addition to the (finally) emerging literary works from the community.

Sahina Shrestha is Digital Products Strategist at Nepali Times, and did her Masters at New York University.

Between Queens and the Cities

Pages: 305

Publisher: Fine Prints

Launch: 5 December 2020

More about the launch here. 

 

Excerpts:

“What about the bathroom?” I asked the broker. The paint on the wall was chipped; the bathtub was half-filled with water. “No need to worry,” he assured us. “They are still working on it. It will be complete by the first week of June.”

The work in the bathroom never got completed. The memory of my first year in New York is tainted by the perpetually half-clogged bathtub. Aliza and I had to plan our showers; one waited for almost an hour for the tub to drain completely after the other one had used it. We made numerous phone calls to the management of the building, took turns waiting for the plumber to show up.

**

Anyone who leaves one’s homeland owes some kind of return. This is what I believe. I believe that circular is natural and linear is artificial. A back and forth process leads to growth and adventure while a one-way mindset can be limiting.

I keep thinking of that moment in New York when I decided to return. It was late afternoon in March, dusk was approaching fast. After wrapping up the day’s work, I called my lawyer to inquire about my green card. I remember the brusque tone of her voice – Had I not read the emails she had sent- and her message, “Sorry.”

At that moment, I remember, for the first time, a flicker of courage, a small guiding voice inside me. I sat down after clicking the phone shut. And I remember deciding. That moment, that room, on that day, I remember deciding that it was time to return. 

**

There’s routine, there’s regularity, then there’s reporting. I try to capture raw emotions before they mature and mutate. Certain dialogues demand urgent documentation. Sometimes, I pay more attention to these tasks than refining aspects of my craft.

A modest readership emerges. That is another reason why I write. Because I remember how growing up gay in Kathmandu felt like. When I was younger, there were no stories about Nepali men who liked men. And we know how stories can inform and teach, can show us the way.

Why Nepal’s Covid-19 figures are deceptive

Photo: MONIKA DEUPALA

Going by the Ministry of Health figures, Nepal’s Covid-19 pandemic has peaked, and the number of daily cases, the positivity rate and the number of active cases are all going down.

The recovery rate now exceeds 90%.

Is Nepal turning the corner on the pandemic? Experts say no.

The number of fatalities is at an all-time high. There were 29 deaths reported each on Monday and Tuesday, taking the total to 1,538. And the reason the daily case rate is lower is because the government is conducting fewer tests, there is virtually no official contact tracing, and active cases are at home and going to hospital only when they are really serious. These are ideal conditions for community spread.

“The fact that the fatalities are increasing, especially in Kathmandu, won’t allow us to say that fewer people are getting infected. This coronavirus isn’t going anywhere just yet,” explains Sher Bahadur Pun of the Ministry of Health. “Yes, the positivity rate has gone down, but the government has also more or less stopped contact tracing.”

Since the government started charging for RT PCR tests and hospital admissions, patients and their families are reluctant to have tests despite symptoms, and do not want to go to hospital. The rates have remained high because those infected during Dasain-Tihar are developing symptoms. The current marriage season is another super-spreader event.  

There are 77 hospitals and labs across the country conducting an average of  9,000 PCR tests a day, which went down from a daily total of 15,000 after the government directive to charge Rs2,000 for PCR tests in public facilities.

The positivity rate went down, which is a good thing – but it happened for the wrong reason. In October a quarter of people tested came out positive, it is now down to 15% despite the onset of the winter season.  

“The risk cannot be underestimated based on numbers of infected people by reducing tests itself at a time when increasingly more people are getting sick or dying of coronavirus,” says infectious diseases specialist Pravat Adhikari. “This argument would be valid only if the infection rate goes down despite an increase in total tests. However, very few tests are being conducted at the moment.”

In fact, such hidden positives lead to more unidentified Covid-19 deaths, adding to the risk. It is reckless of the government to still not launch low-cost PCR tests with quick results, adds Adhikari.

Total Covid-19 cases from January 23 until 1 December in Province 2 and in Bagmati province. Source: MINISTRY OF HEALTH

The problem is further exacerbated by unmanaged home isolation, and quarantine cases. According to the Ministry of Health, 10,741 people across seven provinces are self-isolating at home, often without much resources or knowledge on how to manage their condition.

Ideally, asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people self-isolating at homes should have a separate room and a bathroom. Patients should confine themselves in their rooms, wash their own utensils, wear masks while going to the toilet and sanitise it after use and wipe touch points with disinfectant.  

Individuals need to keep track of their temperature and symptoms, measure oxygen saturation level if possible, take paracetamol for body ache and fever and make sure to eat nutritious food. One must be aware of danger signs: oxygen level below 93, chest pain, difficulty in breathing and blue tint to lips and limbs.

But most families who have members in home isolation do not have this information, or live in such crowded quarters that it is impossible to fulfil all precautions. Conflicting directives from the government haven’t helped.

At one point, overwhelmed with the surge of Covid-19 cases in Kathmandu, the Ministry of Health spokesperson Jageswar Gautam advised people live on television to go to hospital only if they feel faint. By then it is too late because it means the patient’s oxygen saturation is already dangerously low.

The government has left the people to their own devices, and ignored expert advice on increasing the number of beds in wards with basic oxygen supply instead of spending money on ICUs and ventilators.

“When I tested positive for coronavirus and had slight difficulty breathing, I called a government health expert for advice, and he himself dissuaded me from going to a public hospital,” says Rajendra Dahal, Editor of the magazine Shiskyak. “This is why the death rate is going up, while the positive totals are going down. People are at home, and their oxygen levels are falling, and they have no idea. The main point is that the people have lost their trust in the government health system.”

The chief consultant at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Teku Anup Bastola agrees that the risk has been heightened because health experts are unaware about the actual condition of people isolating at homes. “Nepalis have a tendency to not visit hospitals until it’s too late. We have found that this is even more true for coronavirus,” he says. 

With much of the 2020 overshadowed by the pandemic and its impact on all the sectors, young people wanting to get back to their lives are now ignoring the signs and symptoms, preferring not to voluntarily test in case they might have to isolate for two weeks.

Even according to government figures, the number of people testing positive in Kathmandu Valley is not going down. With the marriage season, and people intermingling indoor in banquet halls, the surge is not expected to subside. At Pashupati Aryaghat, there are five times more cremations happening compared to the same period last year, according to reports. It is not clear how many of these extra deaths are due to Covid-19.

The movement of the younger people has had a direct impact on the elderly, as they take home the virus and make parents and grandparents seriously sick. People in their sixties and above now make up over 60% of Covid-19 fatalities in Nepal.

Even without the added risk of coronavirus, senior citizens are prone to pneumonia and other chronic respiratory illness in winter. Public health experts advise being alert in regards to their condition even before they complain of symptoms and keeping communication channels open.

Says Sher Bahadur Pun: “These are extraordinary times and we need to take extraordinary measures to protect the more vulnerable among us. Until we get a vaccine, we must realise our responsibility in containing the virus and not become a medium for more deaths.”

Nepal party reincarnating Hindu monarchy

Photo: @KTnepal

Loyal readers will remember royal leaders we have covered in these pages over the past two decades. The uneasy transition to constitutional monarchy post-1990, the conflict, the palace massacre of 2001, the attempt by King Gyanendra to repeat his father’s coup in 2005, and finally the abolition of the monarchy in 2008. 

History keeps repeating itself in Nepal. And once again, we are coming full circle with street demonstrations in support of a return to monarchy and a Hindu state

It is significant that the rallies are happening in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of King Mahendra’s putsch against Nepal’s first democratically elected government led by Prime Minister B P Koirala on 15 December 1960.

The current series of protests began in Butwal last month, and moved around the country with a rally in Kathmandu on Monday. They were organised by disparate groups, with tacit support from the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).

The RPP had not, till now, openly joined the demonstrations. That would have been odd because the demonstrators had called for an end to federalism, and the RPP has one seat in the Federal Parliament. But it has now asked party members to show up for rallies planned for 4 and 5 December in Hetauda and Jhapa, which will see addresses by RPP leaders like Kamal Thapa, Prakash C Lohani and Pashupati Shumsher Rana.

There is speculation about why royalists and the Hindu-right have chosen this particular time for a show of force. Obviously, they see an opening in the political space – the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is mired in endless infighting, and the main opposition Nepali Congress is leaderless and rudderless.

The RPP emerged as the fourth-largest party after the UML, NC and the Maoists in the 2013 Constituent Assembly election, and the party leaders quite rightly seem to surmise that since the other parties have had their chance in government multiple times and squandered their mandate, their time has come.

RPP rallies this past month have been well-attended, even though the public is not spontaneously joining in on the flag-waving in large numbers, as the organisers claim. Even so, the crowds represent disillusionment with the past two-and-half years of NCP misrule, factionalism, corruption and poor management of the Covid-19 crisis.

The main demands of the demonstrators have been the restoration of the monarchy, and scrapping provisions in the 2015 Constitution that turned Nepal into a federal, secular republic. Past public opinion polls by this paper have shown that while there is not much mass support for a re-thronement of King Gyanendra, there is a sizeable component of the population that is for Nepal becoming a Hindu state again.

In a way, the RPP is testing the waters to see if a Hindu monarchy can be a viable electoral plank for the next federal and local elections in 2022. Enthused by the unexpected numbers at rallies, the party is now openly leading a street campaign to stoke populist passions at a time when the NCP and NC are both distracted by their internal squabbles. The RPP believes it can end the current anarchy with a stable monarchy.

It’s not that the RPP is not faction-ridden like the rest, it has had frequent splits and reunifications over the past 10 years. There has been tension between those who want Nepal to only become a Hindu state but are not as enthusiastic about the monarchy, and others who want both.

In September, this led Sunil Thapa, son of five-time Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, to defect from the RPP to the NC. RPP leader Kamal Thapa has himself been lukewarm towards monarchy, but now favours a ceremonial or constitutional kingship.

The other overarching issue is disenchantment with democracy itself, and the argument that a visionary charismatic leader is better than the current cabal under a western-style parliamentary system. Lending force to this argument is the erosion of democratic values under Prime Minister Modi in India, as well as China’s rising economic and political clout. This coincides with the weakening of the West, which had till recently been giving powerful backing for democracy, press freedom, human rights and secularism.

Whatever happens in India has a gravitational pull in Nepal, and the BJP’s Hindu-right ideology could be another factor that has emboldened the RPP. Some rally organisers in Nepal are groups that seem to be offshoots of Hindutva elements across the border. However, this convergence has its limits since at some point India’s Hindu juggernaut would collide with RPP’s ultra-nationalist platform.

Even as the ruling NCP’s infighting gets more heated, however, the ruling party may be saved from a split because of the RPP’s activism. There is nothing like a common outside enemy to unite a party. Unwittingly, Kamal Thapa may be giving his old coalition colleague K P Oli some breathing space.

Nepal-India flights may resume soon

Photos: KUNDA DIXIT

There are signs that after nine months of stoppage due to the pandemic, flights between Kathmandu and Indian cities are set to resume.

The Cabinet last week approved a Ministry of Tourism proposal to allow all flights to all destinations as per the pre-pandemic schedules. The Ministry, for its part, has instructed the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) to begin the process of restarting the flights.

“The government has decided to allow all flights to resume, and we are now starting the necessary preparations to resume flights between India and Bangladesh initially,” Ministry of Tourism spokesperson Kamal Prasad Bhattarai told Nepali Times. 

The prospect for the resumption of flights is looking better after a thaw in relations between India and Nepal which had been strained by the border dispute over Lipu Lekh. There was a slew of high level visits by Indian officials in November, with the latest one last week by India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

In addition, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali is scheduled to visit New Delhi on 15 December for bilateral talks that are expected to bring Indo-Nepal relations to a more even keel. 

“It will look odd if Minister Gyawali flies from Kathmandu to New Delhi and back when there are no scheduled flights between the two cities,” said a senior executive at Nepal Airlines. Tens of thousands of Nepali businessmen, students, families and those seeking medical treatment have been stranded in India for months, as have Indians in Nepal.

Commentators have pointed out the absurdity of the absence of flights between the two countries when air connections from Kathmandu are almost back to normal to other overseas destinations, and both India and Nepal allow unlimited domestic flights. Besides, they say thousands of nationals of both countries are crossing the land border between the two countries even though travel at official checkpoints are still supposed to be restricted. 

In August, India had proposed a ‘travel bubble’ with Nepal as it has with 20 other countries, including Bangladesh and Bhutan. The arrangement has allowed Bhutan’s Druk Air, for example to restart flights Paro-New Delhi.

However, there was no response from the Nepal government to the proposal. Observers blamed this on strained relations between the two countries, as well as India’s delay in granting more air routes in addition to the existing two entry points for flights descending into Kathmandu through Indian air space. 

The Ministry of Tourism has also been pushing for reopening India flights because the state-owned carrier Nepal Airlines is in deep financial crisis due to under-utilisation of its Airbus fleet. There used to be up to 60 flights a week between Indian cities and Kathmandu, of which Nepal Airlines flew weekly 18. The losses for the airline have been particularly heavy because of the inability to fly the money-spinning Kathmandu-Delhi route.

Flights to and from Kathmandu airport were stopped on 24 March when Nepal went into complete lockdown. Although some repatriation charter flights were allowed, Nepal remained cut off from India. Even when the ban on regular flights was partially lifted on 1 October, Indian and Nepali airlines were not allowed to operate to and from Indian cities to Kathmandu.

Despite the optimism, some say that flights are not likely until 1 January, when India is set to allow all regular international flights to its cities. At present only repatriation flights and some ‘air bubble’ regular flights are allowed on international routes from Indian cities. 

The Nepal government allowed foreigners, but only trekkers and mountaineers, to visit Nepal from 17 October, but the resurgence of Covid-19 in Nepal, India and Europe has meant that there are not so many foreign passengers. Airlines that have resumed flights to Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, the Gulf cities and Istanbul have done so with reduced frequency, and mostly carry Nepali families or migrant workers.  

There has been a trickle of trekkers coming to Nepal, but they have to spend a week in quarantine in Kathmandu and need a PCR negative test before they can head off to the mountains. However, the Ministry of Tourism is said to be pressing the government to open Nepal to all foreigners in time for the Christmas New Year holidays.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, Kathmandu airport used to handle an average of 80 international flights a day, which has come down to only about 20 now. Sixteen international carriers and Nepal Airlines currently operate flights to and from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Doha, Kuwait, Muscat, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Istanbul, Narita, Seoul and Bangkok. 

“The next step is for CAAN to approach the Indian civil aviation authorities to request for slots, and then coordinate the timetables, we do not yet know how many flights per day there will be,” explained CAAN spokesperson Rajkumar Chhetri.

So far India’s Indigo and Nepal’s private carrier Shree Airlines have been flying occasional charter and cargo flights between Kathmandu and Kolkata and Delhi. 

Meanwhile, domestic flights in Nepal are back to 75% of pre-Covid levels. Nepal’s domestic carriers Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air have also restarted their Mt Everest sightseeing flights after nine months. Both airlines have slashed fares for Nepali passengers on the Everest flights, and have offered a buy-one-fly-two scheme under which a passenger can take a companion in the aisle seat. 

Nepalis have to pay Rs8,900 for a roundtrip Everest flight, and get another ticket for free. Yeti is offering the same for Rs8,998 for the one-hour flight that takes off and landed in Kathmandu, and takes passengers to within 20km of Mt Everest. Both airlines are conducting the flights weekly on Saturday mornings, and will increase frequency as per demand.

Mountain sightseeing flights used to the main cash cow for Nepal’s domestic airlines which could charge foreign tourists up to $155 for the trips. Now, foreigners will also get a discount and pay Rs13,499 (USD113) for the flights, and like Nepalis get to take another passenger for free.

In pre-pandemic days, Nepal’s airlines used to make up to 30 sightseeing flights on days with good weather over the mountains.

“The pandemic has hit our revenue base, and the loss of the dollar fare on mountain flights has made it worse, we hope that by resuming the flights even partially will revive interest on one of the most spectacular flights in the world,” said Buddha Air’s Rupesh Joshi.

Domestic airlines which resumed operations on 20 September are flying trunk routes at up to 50% discount for Nepali passengers following safety protocols.

Women leaders set example for rest of Nepal

Hupsekot Rural Municipality recently inaugurated a 10-bed coronavirus-dedicated hospital. Municipality chair Laxmi Pandey is at centre. All photos: LAXMI BASNET

After the first elections under federalism in 2017, Hupsekot became one of only two municipalities in Nepal in which women were voted both chair and deputy.

Laxmi Pandey of the Nepali Congress was elected chair, and Kopila Malla of the UML was voted vice-chair. In the three years since, Hupsekot in Nawalparasi district has exemplified how this has made all the difference in the quality of education, agriculture, nature conservation, and now Covid-19 control.

Hupsekot is Nepal in a microcosm in more ways than one. It encompasses the Mahabharat and Chure ranges, as well as the Tarai, and these days when the air is clear the Annapurnas are visible to the north. Hupsekot is also an example of what is possible for the rest of Nepal.

Under the 2015 Constitution a vice-chair or deputy mayor has to be a woman, but Hupsekot and Jumla elected women to both positions. Now, imagine if Hupsekot was replicated in more of Nepal’s 736 municipalities and 17 metropolises. 

“Because both of us are women, it has been easier for us to work on delivery of social services to our people,” says municipality chair Laxmi Pandey. “In many other local governments we see the male chair and female deputy chair having disagreements.”

Indeed, while in Kathmandu even men from the same ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) are forever quarrelling, here in Hupsekot it does not seem to matter that Pandey and her deputy are from different parties.

Laxmi Pandey says it helps to have a woman as both the Rural Municipality chair and deputy in order to deliver social services to the people.

“Sometimes, problems arise when there are party-based decisions from Kathmandu, but we manage to resolve them amicably,” says vice-chair Malla. “We have worked together well in the past three years.”

In its very first meeting, this village municipality decided to provide Rs5,000 for institutional delivery in government facilities to promote safe motherhood. Back then the village had only one birthing centre, it has added two more in the recent years. 

Now, even those who can afford private hospitals go to government hospitals because services have been upgraded. So far 1,008 people have received the institutional delivery incentive.

Nawalparasi district borders India, and earlier this year it became a hotspot for Covid-19, as Nepalis returning from India brought the virus home. Hupsekot instituted a strict quarantine and contact tracing rule, and last month it opened a dedicated 10-bed hospital for coronavirus patients.

Municipality Chair Laxmi Basnet presents agriculture equipment to local farmers as part of her government’s effort to keep young men from having to migrate out.

Pandey and Malla then worked together to encourage local youth as well as returnees to take up farming instead of migrating back to India or overseas for work. A big chunk of the rural municipality’s annual budget is spent on grants for communities investing in commercial agriculture. This has had a direct impact on this year’s paddy harvest, and increased the prospects for agribusiness.

Hupsekot has also launched a ‘School Merger Program’ to address falling enrolment, and best use limited resources. Four government schools have been combined into one and discussions are underway to even merge public and private schools.

“As a former teacher myself, I have focused on improving the education program without adding to the hardships of parents and students,” says Pandey. “And we are working to improve the quality of instruction, to make it more relevant and impart civic values.”

The rural municipality has launched an awareness drive against deep-rooted patriarchal values and domestic violence by sensitising parents to raise their children right, and as equal. Both at home and in schools, children learn early about tolerance and responsibility, and boys and girls alike are encouraged to help out with household chores.

Hupsekot has also gone further than most other municipalities by promoting local languages and dialects. A language curriculum is being developed for 60% of the district’s population for whom Magar is the mother tongue. The digital charter of the municipality is available also in the Magar language.

Hupsekot’s scenic beauty and places of religious significance make it a popular destination for visitors. And the municipality is now trying to add to its eco-tourism appeal, planting 5,000 rhododendron spalings under the ‘One Student One Laligurans’ campaign as well as holy pipal plantations around its pilgrimage sites under a municipality subsidised program. 

In August, Laxmi Pandey and Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai declared the Rudrapur Gadi region a rhododendron conservation zone to encourage eco-tourism.

“Ultimately, we plan to create a natural and pristine environment and cultivate rudraksha commercially. This along with religious tourism will provide regular income for our municipality,” Pandey adds.

The municipality is also working to raise income of female-led households by training women to produce value added goods from maize husk, and is already engaging them in knitting winter wear. The municipality then takes the responsibility of marketting the products.  

An inter-generational skill transfer program is also in operation so that the village doesn’t have to rely only on outside trainers to learn new skills. 

About two years ago when the municipality advertised for two employees, some 60 single women applied for the job. During the interviews, they shared their hardships in finding a reliable source of income. While the municipality office wasn’t able to employ them all, this gave Paudel a much-needed push to plan a program specifically targetting single women. 

“Women in rural areas, especially single women, do not have a reliable source of income. Society looks down on them. But that won’t be the case if the local government steps in to support them,” says Pandey. 

Since last year, the municipality has started allocating a budget for ‘Single Women’s School’ under which widows come up with their owns plans for regular income generation.

Vice-chair Kopila Malla (in brown sari) with Chair Laxmi Pandey inspect a road upgrading project in Hupsekot.

The fact that both the chair and vice chair are women helps, and they are leading the charge with progressive plans and policies. This is in stark contrast to other municipalities where the women deputies are undermined and harassed by their male colleagues.

Says Pandey: “We have to use the five years we have been given by working for the people. Bitterness and dispute will only hurt our voters. Our sole focus is on fulfilling our responsibilities.”

A tale of two viruses

Photo: BIKRAM RAI

Nepal is facing a rapidly spreading Covid-19 contagion somewhat similar to the surge of HIV/AIDS during the 2000 decade, and the country’s success in reducing the scourge has important lessons for fighting the current pandemic.

Given the epic dimensions of this emergency, there is a need for the kind of national unity and solidarity for concerted action that we saw 20 years ago to tackle the socio-economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Just as with HIV, SARS-CoV-2 is having a severe impact on the most vulnerable communities. While one virus is air borne, and the other spreads through the exchange of bodily fluids, getting the message out on prevention and safety measures are important for both diseases.

In addition, the current pandemic crisis threatens to undo a lot of the progress that Nepal has achieved in reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS from 0.3% of the adult population in 2007-8 to 0.13% today.

Nepal’s AIDS response worked because of effective partnership with civil society which was crucial to find local solutions while we waited for the anti-retrovirals to become available. The free distribution of this therapy also set an important precedent for Covid-19 in providing Nepalis with access to vaccines and treatments when they are ready.

As in HIV/AIDS, Covid-19 response should place affected communities at the centre. More importantly, it should be a rights-based approach grounded on equity and justice. These lessons from the HIV response provide critical insights for governments and development partners to build resilient health system which will be as effective, accountable and inclusive.

The first HIV case in Nepal was diagnosed in 1988. After this, the epidemic evolved from low prevalence to a concentrated epidemic. Key populations such as sex workers, injecting drug users, migrants, prisoners, transgender people, and gay men and other men who have sex with men are at high risk of acquiring HIV infection. Discrimination and social exclusionmakes them more vulnerable.

Despite global progress, millions of people around the world are still at risk of contracting HIV infection, and AIDS remains a leading cause of death among women of reproductive age and young adolescents.

Nepal has made remarkable progress in its HIV response over the past decades. According to National Centre for AIDS and STD Control (NCASC), an estimated 29,503 people are currently living with HIV in the country. Despite the reduction in the prevalence rate, much more needs to be done.

In order to further reduce the incidence of HIV infection among key populations, a range of development partners and civil society organisations are reaching out to key populations with prevention, treatment and care services across the country. Community-based HIV interventions are largely guided by National HIV Strategic Plan (2016-2021) that focuses on scaling up innovative prevention services to young key populations.

Despite impressive progress, HIV still continues to be a public health challenge because services are still limited in remote districts. People living with HIV still do not have easy access to treatment and care in health facilities. 

There is a need to reduce disparities in access to treatment and care by addressing human rights, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination which continue to hinder access to HIV services for key populations. TheUnited Nations General Assembly adopted the 2016 Political Declaration on a fast-track to end AIDS epidemic by 2030. This requires an accelerated expansion of comprehensive HIV services across the country.

The global 90–90–90 targets aim for 90% of people living with HIV knowing their HIV status, 90% of people who know their status receiving treatment, and 90% of people on HIV treatment having a suppressed viral load.

However, there are significant gaps in Nepal to access treatment services that need robust health sector response. And those targets can only be met with strong political commitment, community engagement and resilient health system. And on top of this challenge, we now have the public health crisis caused by Covid-19. 

Both epidemics require a sustained multi-sector response to mitigate its adverse socio-economic impacts on individuals, families and communities. Meaningful engagement of people living with HIV and evidence-based actions can significantly reduce the burden of HIV in developing countries.

On the eve of World AIDS Day, people participate in a candle light vigil organised by Maiti Nepal in Kathmandu.

The role of civil society networks and media has been instrumental in spreading awareness, reducing stigma and ostracisation, and they have shown it is possible to break the silence that surrounds HIV, and practice safe behavior. 

Over the years, national networks of people living with HIV and other key populations are playing critical role to empower poor and vulnerable populations in accessing essential health services. In Nepal’s remote communities, they have been delivering antiretroviral medicines to the homes of people living with HIV during the coronavirus pandemic.

Community ownership is cornerstone of the civil society response which is why strengthening civil society response is crucial to reaching out the people living with HIV and other marginalised communities for the services they need. It is also equally important to enhance social accountability of local governments in order to ensure sustained provision of comprehensive HIV services in the communities.

Political commitment for universal health coverage is therefore crucial to ensure no one is left behind and the rights of key populations are protected. This is instrumental in enabling legal, social and institutional environments for Nepal to reduce the prevalence rate even further.  

On World AIDS Day on 1 December, we also have to remember that gender inequality and HIV risks are inextricably linked. Adolescent girls and young women face particular challenges that can leave them at high risk of unwanted pregnancy, violence and HIV.

Many are still unable to access the sexual and reproductive health services they need. Sexual and gender minorities face even more difficulty in accessing health and other social protection services.

Jhabindra Bhandari, a senior doctoral research fellow in global health, is presently national consultant with UNAIDS.

Qatar Police recruitment row hits Nepalis

A row has broken out in Nepal over the recruitment of Nepalis for the Qatar Police which tried to bypass the country’s foreign employment rules, and in which Qatari officials appear to be involved.

The Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE), the regulatory body overseeing recruitment of overseas workers from Nepal, last week raided three companies (SOS Manpower Services, DD Human Resources and Hope International) for conducting interviews without permission for jobs in the Qatar Police.

Hundreds of workers had lined up and had been reportedly told that they would have to pay Rs800,000 each in exchange for the job if they got selected.

Rules state that both foreign employers and recruiters are supposed to get demand letters attested at the concerned missions abroad, obtain pre-approvals to conduct interviews, and publicly advertise the approved vacancies. But the recruiters had allegedly not followed this process.

“We received a complaint regarding such interviews being conducted after which we sent teams unannounced to investigate. The recruiters did not follow any of the due processes required,” Kumar Dahal, Director General of DOFE told Nepali Times.   

Dahal added that the recruitment companies has submitted justifications which are being investigated. Meanwhile all three companies have been suspended until further notice. “This speaks volumes about the malpractices rampant in the recruitment of process and that there is collusion between different parties involved,” Dahal added.

What made the issue more suspicious and caused an uproar is that a blue-plated Qatar Embassy vehicle was parked in one of the recruitment companies premises in Kathmandu when the raid took place, and there was a Qatari official present at the premises. The Qatar Embassy in Nepal has clarified it was not involved in the recruitment of Nepali workers, and was simply providing the vehicle to a Qatari delegation inspecting the recruiters.

This is not the first time recruitment for Qatar has been in a controversy. The establishment of the Qatar Visa Center (QVC), a one stop service to simplify the immigration, had also been criticised because it had been done without due consultation with the Nepal Government.

While streamlining recruitment through a single-window for medical tests and biometrics was considered a welcome step to save time and money for migrant workers, eye brows were raised about Hem Gurung of SOS, the private sector partner chosen by the Qataris to run QVC.

SOS is one of the recruitment companies now under the scanner for last week’s unauthorised recruitment. After initial resistance from the Labour Ministry to approve the establishment of QVC, it began operations in Nepal from early 2019.

Sujit Kumar Shrestha of NAFEA (Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies) said there was speculation that all recruitment for Qatar was going to go through QVC, and they would be distributed to only 16 of the 854 recruitment companies in operation. The 16 were suspected to be forming a ‘syndicate’, which is against Nepal’s Foreign Employment regulation.

NAFEA raised concern with the Foreign Ministry, Labour Ministry and the Parliamentary Committee. A taskforce was formed to investigate the issue, which is still ongoing. 

“At that time we met QVC chair Hem Gurung and the Qatar Ambassador to Nepal and had been assured by both that that there is no syndicate. We had also raised the issue of hiring for the Qatar Police through a more transparent and competitive process which was received positively,” Shrestha said.

Nepal’s Ambassador to Qatar, Narad Nath Bharadwaj told Nepali Times from Doha that he had met Qatar Police officials last year who had expressed interest in hiring a few hundred Nepali workers. “I had advised that given the specific nature of this demand, it would be advisable to hire workers through a Government-to-Government agreement instead of through intermediaries,” Bharadwaj said.

Qatar Police had previously hired 179 Nepalis through a few selected recruitment agencies, also leading to a row. Which is why Bharadwaj had suggested the government-to-government model, since this was for the Qatari state police.

Last week, the Embassy in Doha resumed issuing demand attestation for Nepali workers, including for new ones, which had been halted during the pandemic. But there had been no demand letter for Qatar Police. Only existing workers on vacation were allowed to return.

Because it is a government job, the Qatar Police openings present a more secure employment, and besides Nepalis there are recruits from Pakistan, Morocco, Sudan in the force. The intake will probably increase because of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha.

Nepalis in the Qatar Police are paid 3,000 Qatari Riyal (Rs97,000) for three months during training, after which they get Rs180,000 a month, excluding other benefits like overtime, end-of-service benefits, food and accommodation. However, few Nepalis who got those jobs in the previous batch of 179 recruits report paying recruitment agencies in Nepal Rs600,000 each for the job.

“People confuse this job with other security jobs, but it is not the same,” a Nepali in the Qatar Police force told us on the phone from Doha. “It is a lot more professional. We have to undergo a grueling training in the initial few months when we are tested to our limits. Few could not handle it and returned. I now make close to USD3,000 a month and feel like my future is secure.”

After training, the recruits are stationed at the courts, airports, jails etc and earn much better than other Nepali workers, with good facilities. Labour activists say it is unfortunate that this potentially rewarding job opportunity for Nepalis is now being thwarted by malpractice and vested interests of politically-connected individuals, and profit hungry recruiters in Nepal.