zondag 20 mei 2012

Indefinite Strikes and Bandh's... Nepal's struggle for a constitution that belongs to all

Nepal is currently going through an important time: the country's constitution is being written and it is due on May 27th.  The constitution is basically laying down how the country will be organised and run from May 27th onwards. As a result, the major political parties have to agree on a lot of issues, some of which they have very different views on. They have such different views that the writing and discussion on the constitution has already taken five years!  The political parties tend to keep on following their personal goals instead of actually moving forward and completing the constitution in a way that will benefit the country. The first deadline for the constitution draft was May 2010, the next one was May 2011 and the third deadline is in two weeks, that is May 27th. During the drafting of the constitution, if a political party feels that it is not getting what it wants, they first discuss it in parliament and, if they still don't get their way, they call a bandh.
A bandh is basically a kind of strike where the party that calls the bandh puts its people out on the streets. These people force shops, restaurants etc to stay closed. Also no cars, motorcycles or any other kind of vehicle is allowed to drive around, except for press, ambulances and military. These bandh’s basically put the whole country and economy to a stop. Nowadays people deal with it in a passive way. If they hear that there is a bandh they just stay home and wait for the bandh to be over... In the last couple of years my guess is that there have been about 40 bandh’s a year. That means 40 days of the year that people stay home and don’t work. Basically the economy is at a standstill.
Due to the deadline of the constitution, there is an increase of bandhs, the main parties have to take the last difficult decisions that have been put off for ages, agitating the smaller parties who do not agree with these decisions. And then one of these parties calls a bandh.
Lately especially parties that have a lot of influence in the Terai (southern) regions have called indefinite bandh’s. These are bandh’s that are called until the demands of the specific party is met. For this reason there was a two week long bandh in Dhangadi, an area in the far west where VSO volunteers are located. In the end the VSO volunteers had to be evacuated, not because they were in danger, but because they were running out of water, cooking gas, money and food. Also the area could be severely cut off from the west off Nepal due to the fact that busses and airplanes were not going.
As a preventative measure, VSO Nepal decided to also evacuate people from other districts where long bandh’s were expected. As a result there are now many volunteers staying in Kathmandu, until the constitution is drafted.
So what effect does this political instability have for me? Until now not as much, I can take my bicycle to work and my office stays open. It is difficult to travel to other parts of the city, but this is not necessary. And even though a bandh may sound very dangerous, it often feels like a Car Free Sunday (autovrije zondag). Children don’t go to school and play cricket on the streets, people walk and hang out at the streets and there is no noise and pollution. Also, in Nepal tourists are declared to be able to move around freely even if there is a bandh, to make sure they are not affected by the political instability. Even though Nepali people are violently punched off their bicycle while riding down the street, they happily wave me through their self build obstacle. You can see this is actually a crazy situation, where a country is in political unrest and me and a lot of expats can still feel safe. There is nothing I can do about this situation despite trying to build capacity within the job I have. Let’s hope the politicians of Nepal manage to draft the constitution in time and that at May 27 there will be a celebration for a Nepal everybody can be proud of. Until then, let’s hope and see...
The main street of Lazimpat, during a bandh, close to my house

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