‘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.