Kathmandu Post, 2009-07-19
During the Jana Andolan time, we heard a lot about “regression.” Regression, as far as I understood, stood for “going back to a darker time and place.” With the establishment of the republic and the Constituent Assembly (CA), we haven't heard that word with such frequency. Admittedly, the peace process still has to come to a “logical end” through the fabled use of “civilian supremacy” but the more we head towards the second year of the CA, the more it appears that the end is far from logical and the civilians, instead of reigning supreme, are now suffering from having a carpet they never knew they had — a regressive carpet of feudal but still functioning bureaucracy — whisked out from under them. They are on the floor and bawling, but who's there to hear?
For instance, the fabled feudal bureaucracy of the Panchayat actually had gotten it together to do that most basic of therapies — oral rehydration therapy for those suffering from diarrhoea.
From the eighties to the beginning of the twenty first century, Nepal had carefully build up a gigantic campaign around oral rehydration therapy — salt, sugar, water — so people no longer needed to die from what is actually a fairly elementary disease. People, this is not rocket science. This is boiling a bit of water and putting salt and sugar and applying it to a person before they dehydrate enough to die. Now how horrible can the conditions be that in Jajarkot and associated districts people are dying by the hundreds of something Europe got rid of centuries ago? Why on earth is Nepal now facing a diarrhoea epidemic with fatalities in the hundreds? Knowing the mid-west, I'd hazard a guess that even salt and sugar may not be as easily available as we think it should be. And boiling water — that requires firewood. And most of all, it requires clean water. Want to guess how many of those who died had all of these four things in place?
This may be a good time to apply the word “regression” but since the Loktantriks have reserved this word exclusively to refer to evil feudals of Panchayat era, maybe this won't really work. The problem is that the evil feudals are soon going to look like heroes at this rate, if the government doesn't get into the act fast and provide at least that basic of services. If nothing else (no food, no water, no education, no employment) at least the Nepali people could always rely on Jeevan Jal, right? Now, apparently, no more. We've become so advanced the government has shut down the only Jeevan Jal factory.
The INGOs (no state presence has been witnessed, apparently) who made it out to Jajarkot to provide services are scrambling to buy up the last remaining oral rehydration salts commercially from pharmacies. Wasn't there a regressive age in which this stuff was distributed for free?
Is it possible to reverse development gains? Don't we think that certain things we could take for granted were fights already won? Hadn't we graduated to worrying about a non-existent pandemic of avian flu and stopped thinking about life threatening diseases like TB and malaria? The lesson to be learnt from Jajarkot is one we have always known — that no matter how representative the hype of government, the biggest chunk of cash is always reserved for the rich (how many Tamiflax in Kathmandu, as opposed to packs of Nava Jeevan, available? Want to bet?), and the poor will always be at risk and vulnerable from every tiny environmental factor.
With climate change, water shortages are on the rise. People don't have drinking water and sanitation in many places in Nepal. In Humla, we witnessed a grandmother take a newborn baby and wipe its ass with a sharp stone. “Don't do that,” we called out, upset. The woman just ignored us and continued to do her work. Later we realized the obvious — there was no water to be had. And apparently, even the shrubs around the overpopulated village had dried out so even a leaf couldn't be used to clean the baby.
Has the political stalemate reversed development gains that no matter how small had still made a significant difference in people's lives since the seventies and eighties? Can things get worse instead of better? In areas outside Kathmandu, state presence can feel thin if not non-existent, in much the same way as during the conflict. When the state bureaucracy is not really present, and the main body of government is missing, how can the pills the donors pop be effective? These saline dribs and drabs of donor funding which build a road here and a health post there, talk about uterine prolapse in one village and income generation in another — how useful is it for Nepal in the long run? More to the point, will it last? Or will we see the thriving income generating, gender empowered, community forestry wielding group of one area suddenly fall to the wayside when the project “phases out”?
It's not just outside Kathmandu that the state is missing. Anybody who watched the budget speech a few days ago will wonder where those highly paid 601 CA members were when the budget speech was going on. The room was empty. Where are the people representing the people? Surely they were not in Jajarkot taking care of the sick.
What other state institution like Jeevan Jal is about to collapse or be taken over by political interests? Everything from shoe factories to cement factories, from airlines to Jeevan Jal has shut down. These, despite talk to the contrary, were not evil Panchayati institutions. These were functioning state institutions that were providing a service, however basic, to the people of Nepal. This we know for a documented fact. What do we have in its place except empty rhetoric? Which way are we regressing?