Op-ed from Manjushree Thapa, New York Times
Published: May 5, 2010
© New York Times
In her 1967 travelogue, the Irish writer Dervla Murphy described my homeland, Nepal, as a country that had just emerged from centuries of isolation, and was baffled about how to be part of the modern world. Most of what the Nepalese — and she — did was to wait for something to happen.
“We waited endlessly for everything,” Ms. Murphy wrote. “For glasses of tea to be carried on trays from the bazaar, for a policeman’s bunch of keys to be fetched from his home down the road, for an adjustable rubber stamp which would not adjust to be dissected (and finally abandoned in favor of a pen), for a passport officer to track down Ireland (whose existence he seriously questioned) in a dog-eared atlas from which the relevant pages had long since been torn, and for the chief customs officer, who was afflicted by a virulent form of dysentery, to withdraw to a nearby field between inspecting each piece of luggage.”
The main wait in Nepal, at present, is for an end to the nationwide general strike that began on Sunday. The Maoists, who led our Constituent Assembly until losing their coalition partners last year, have trucked tens of thousands of party cadres into Katmandu to enforce the strike. They are trying to stage what they call a “people’s movement” to form an all-party government — with the Maoists in control.
Katmandu has come to a halt as bands of Maoists brandishing sticks march through the streets ensuring that government offices and businesses stay shuttered. Schools are closed, households are running out of food, and even money is in short supply, since all the banks are closed. Tempers are flaring. It would not take much for people’s discontent with the strike to tip into civil unrest.
Even before the strike, the country had entered an advanced state of entropy. Unable to meet demand, the Nepal Electricity Authority rations power. Most neighborhoods get only about 12 hours of electricity, mostly after 10 p.m. People must seek out alternative sources of energy, or conduct much of their work outside of normal hours. Electric kettles, ovens, freezers — even lights — are a luxury that most forgo. People carry flashlights at night and read by candlelight.
The other utilities are similarly overstretched. Katmandu’s mains fill with water only once every six days, for about three hours — often at two in the morning. Homeowners must scramble to fill their tanks then, or else truck in water from expensive private companies. The telephone networks are always busy. Calls do not go through or are reduced to gibberish: “I can’t hear you. Can you hear me?” The city’s air is rank with dust and exhaust; its rivers are open sewers that pedestrians scurry by, noses covered.
There are too many vehicles for the few tortuous roads. In the place of public transport, fleets of private vans career from stop to stop with their hapless, nauseated passengers. The existing health care facilities do not meet the needs of the three million residents. There are few jobs. To add to the insecurity, an earthquake — a big one — is long overdue. “Unsustainable” is the word that springs to mind when one thinks of the future of Katmandu.
Bad as this is, it is not the worst of Nepal’s woes. Since long before the strike, we have been waiting to discover what kind of country this is to become. Nepal was promised a new constitution in 2006, when the decade-long Maoist insurgency ended with an agreement between the insurgents and the democratic political parties to make a new Nepal, a federal democratic republic that would replace the autocracies, monarchies and struggling democracies of the past.
This Assembly has, since then, set 11 thematic committees to work drafting legislation. Unfortunately, some of these committees have drafted parallel (and irreconcilable) laws, leaving key issues unresolved. Should the new Nepal be an Indian-style parliamentary democracy or a Chinese-style party dictatorship? Should the Supreme Court be independent, or subject to parliamentary review? What should be the boundaries of the federal states, and how should these states share power with each other and the center? Should executive power reside with the president or the prime minister?
All this — and more — is undecided. A final draft of the constitution is supposed to be submitted by May 28. The deadline will obviously be missed.
And so, instead of waiting for something as constructive and exalted as a constitution, the Nepalese are waiting for more mundane things like for the strike to end, for electricity and water to return.
This is surely not the future Nepal was hoping for when Dervla Murphy came here 40 years ago. We Nepalese are still baffled about how to be part of the modern world. For this we are still, and seemingly forever, waiting.
Manjushree Thapa is the author, most recently, of the novel “Seasons of Flight.”