Country Profile: Nepal
‘Ke garne?’ is a ubiquitous Nepali saying. ‘What to do?’ The rhetorical question is both accepting of life’s hiccups, and an expression of dismay in the face of seemingly insurmountable power structures.
Nepal is not short of mountainous social challenges. Maoists launched an insurgency in 1996, ending with the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006. Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known by his insurgency nom de guerre Prachanda, meaning ‘fierce’) was the Republic’s first prime minister in 2008-09. Some commentators argue that the Maoists quickly took on the characteristics of the ruling families.
In 2001 the Crown Prince allegedly massacred his family, including his mother and father, and in 2008 the Shah monarchy was abolished. But in many ways one dynasty was replaced with another, that of the political elites, who are equally out of touch with common citizens – while millions remain homeless after the deadly 2015 earthquakes, the government is supporting plans to get Mount Everest online.
Politicians were widely criticized for their totally inadequate response to the earthquake crisis and apparent long-term lack of interest in helping survivors. Foreign governments and international organizations pledged $4.1 billion in gifts and loans, but the barely functioning National Reconstruction Authority is yet to disburse funds as mandated. As author Thomas Bell put it: ‘[A]s soon as the money was pledged, politicians switched their attention to power politics. The “fast track” constitution had a lot to do with forming a new government, which would control this unprecedented windfall.’
Since the constitution’s promulgation in September 2015, Nepal has been in political turmoil. Political tensions between the Madhesi population of the Terai (plains) region bordering India, and the ‘hill elites’, were reignited by perceived electoral boundary discrimination in the new federal structure. During months of strikes, more than 50 were killed in the Terai by security forces. Some were killed by fellow Madhesis for breaking the strike. A months-long border blockade, which many blamed on India, deprived Nepalis of oil, cooking gas and medicines, dealt the economy a massive hit and led to a flourishing black market.
The environment and public health were also affected by the blockade. People cut down trees in protected forests for cooking fires and heating. But Kathmandu has been choking on polluted air from ailing cars, brick kilns, burning waste and wood fires for years. Access to clean drinking water is an ongoing challenge for rural and urban Nepalis: the earthquakes disrupted aquifers and commercial operations are regularly prosecuted for selling substandard or adulterated water. Lack of electricity supply can also affect water supplies, leading to outbreaks of waterborne illnesses. Being reliant on hydropower means Nepal suffers chronic energy shortages in the dry season, while plants fail to meet demand even in the monsoon.
Lack of employment opportunities leads thousands of men and women into exploitative and abusive positions in India, the Middle East and east Asia.
While Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s appointment as President was hailed by some as a step forward for women, representation at senior levels of business and politics remains extremely low. Violence against women and child marriage are common, and chhaupadi in western Nepal – where menstruating girls and women, and those who have just given birth, are banished to a hut or cowshed – still exists, though it has been declining.
Human trafficking has been rampant since the 1990s, with children exploited in fake orphanages and carpet factories in the major cities, or trafficked as sex and labour slaves abroad. Surrogacy was taking off as India prepared to ban foreign and commercial operations, but a temporary ban in Nepal became permanent in late 2015.
|Leader||(political) Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (as of March 2017); (head of state) President Bidhya Devi Bhandari.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $730 (India $1,570, UK $43,430).|
|Monetary unit||Nepali rupee|
|Main exports||Textiles, carpets, fabrics and cardamom. Textiles, carpets, fabrics and cardamom. Tourism is a growing industry, though projections were affected by the earthquakes and the border economic blockade. Nepal imports goods worth $6.6 billion, 10 times what it exports. As a landlocked country it is highly reliant on neighbour India ($4 billion in imports).|
|People||28.5 million. Annual population growth rate 1990-2015: 1.7%|
|Health||Infant mortality 29 per 1,000 live births. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 150 (UK 1 in 5,800). HIV prevalence rate 0.2%.|
|Environment||Climate change poses challenges to the Himalayan cryosphere and agriculture, and glacial lake outburst floods threaten mountain communities. Poor air quality is a growing problem in the Kathmandu Valley as vehicle emissions increase. Water sources are vulnerable to contaminants such as animal faeces and chemicals.|
|Culture||Nepal is ethnically diverse, with more than 125 ethnic groups: Chhetree 16.6%; Brahman (Hill) 12.2%; Magar 7%; Tharu 6.5%; Tamang 5.8%.|
|Religion||Hindu 81%, Buddhist 9%, Muslim 4%.|
|Language||Nepali is the official language, but more than 120 ethnic languages are spoken.|
|Human Development Index||0.558, 144th of 188 countries (India 0.624, UK 0.909).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||As one of the least developed countries in the world, most urban and rural Nepalis live in poverty, while a minority of political and business families are (sometimes inexplicably) wealthy. 1999 ★|
|Literacy||60%. Literacy rates continue to improve, but remain low as governments fail to meet their own targets. Primary-school net enrolment is at 95%. 1999 ★|
|Life expectancy||70 years. Nepalis can expect to live 12 years longer than in 1991. Some studies rank Nepal in the top 10 for lifespan improvement, due to lower infant mortality rates. 1999 ★★|
|Freedom||The press enjoys relative freedom, although intimidation around elections has been reported. 1999 ★★★|
|Position of women||Violence against women is prevalent. Discriminatory religious practices persist. Women’s literacy (47%) is much lower than men’s (72%). 1999 ★★|
|Sexual minorities||Homsexuality has been legal since 2007 and the constitution has banned all discrimination based on sexuality since 2015. Nepal introduced a third gender option for identity documents, but transgendered people still face trouble at street level and often resort to sex work.|
|New Internationalist assessment||The revolving door of parties and leaders regularly changes Parliament, but the pool of players remains largely the same. Those in power in recent years have shown little leadership prowess. Not only do they leave citizens to fend for themselves, but they also actively disadvantage them – earthquake emergency aid was held up by airport customs for more than a week amid corruption claims, while millions have struggled through two monsoons and two bitter winters with little help. 1999 ★★|
This article is from
the May 2017 issue
of New Internationalist.
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