Gyanendra went on the air last Wednesday morning to praise himself for the progress that Nepal has made in the year since his consolidation of power, considered unconstitutional by most legal experts. His speech -- either a comical reinterpretation of the events of the past year or a tragic and disturbing denial, depending on the observer -- calls to mind the Iraqi Information Minister’s bold (and oft-ridiculed) denials as the US-led coalition marched towards Baghdad in the spring of 2003. The repression of the King’s government and atrocities of both the Maoists and Royal Nepal Army have reached almost every corner of this country in the past year, and the account of peace and democracy that is settling into Nepal must have come as an insult to those that have witnessed family members, neighbors, and friends arbitrarily detained, beaten, and sometimes killed, as almost every Nepali has.
On the same day that Gyanendra was making this speech, the newspapers were running front page photos of security forces ruthlessly beating students with laathis. As the King was pronouncing that "the nefarious designs to portray Nepal as a failed state a year back have now begun to unravel with acts of terrorism being limited to petty crimes," four thousand Maoists were circling the district headquarters of Palpa for an attack that left at least eleven members of the security forces dead, many more injured, and twenty three, including the chief district officer, captured. One hundred and thirty eight prisoners were freed from the jail, the police and army posts were overtaken, and important government buildings, including a historical palace, were laid to rubble. If that’s a petty crime, Nepal’s a good place to be a criminal.
The King’s claims that violence in Nepal is now minor and sporadic is probably no consolation for the parents of the four year old child who was gunned down in an air raid by the army last week. Or to Dal Bahadur Rai, mayoral candidate for a major city, who was shot in the chest in broad daylight inside the Kathmandu valley and remains in intensive care. Nor to the 524 people killed by the Maoists during the eight months in which they fought last year (with a fourth month unilateral cease-fire that the government did not reciprocate, since, like George W Bush, the King "doesn’t negotiate with terrorists"). The security forces killed 924 people during these eight months, though it’s difficult to say how many were Maoists and how many were "suspected Maoists", ie. ordinary civilians who become Maoists after their death such as to keep the Army’s civilian body count acceptable.
Nor will many of the families of the numerous "disappeared" persons take solace in these remarks; they instead might point out to His Majesty that Nepal led the world for the third straight year in the number of individuals who went "missing", a rather impressive feat for a country whose small population is neighbored by the two largest head counts in the world-China and India.
Economists aren’t as confident as Gyane about the progress their country has been making, in light of the rather significant drop in GDP growth in the past year, which has led many of them to speculate that negative growth is on the horizon. A report last week from the Institute for Development Studies gravely described the potential for economic collapse in the near future. That tourism, upon which the economy leans heavily, had its worst year in the past decade is also of considerable concern. The Royal family’s multimillion dollar splurge on an African safari can’t be said to be terribly respectful to the ten million of His Majesty’s citizens, thirty-eight percent of the population, who live on less than a dollar a day. That amount could have enabled a large number of them to stagger out of profound squalor and deprivation, but the King’s family instead spent it on looking at lions and giraffes.
Proponents of democracy might express wonder at Gyanendra’s declarations about the progress the country has made in terms of political freedoms, though their leaders would have trouble communicating this to you as they were all placed under three month detention under the Public Security Act for "defying the government ban on demonstrations." Others have been arrested for ever less clear offenses. Human Rights observers have been repeatedly denied requests to visit them and check on their condition. Representative government, the sin quo non of democracy, has been abolished for more than three years now.
Despite stressing the importance of a free media in his February 1, 2005 speech ("an independent press serves as the medium for raising the level of democratic consciousness"), two major mainstream radio stations were raided and shut down by security forces last year for broadcasting material, such as the apparently radical newscast of the BBC, that was deemed a threat to the security of the nation. Journalists and newspapers have faced similar fates; in the days following the coup, many dailies printed blank op-ed pages for fear of reprisal, which was came in the form of arrests for those who did otherwise. Sixty-four journalists were arrested on the day of the King’s speech alone and more than five hundred reporters have been jailed in the past year.
The jails are indeed filling up quickly, as security forces arrested over five hundred pro-democracy and human rights activists on the day of the King’s declaration of Nepal’s "unflinching faith" and "total commit[ment]" to human rights, for which his government has been "rectifying any shortcomings." The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, saw things a bit differently: "Torture [is] systematic in Nepal, practiced by police forces and the Royal Nepalese Army. . . the incidence of human rights violation has not decreased, disrespect for court orders and lack of response to the Maoists’ unilateral ceasefire continue, obstructing the people’s desire for peace and human rights protection."
The international community, which had stood by the King in the earlier days of his experiments with autocracy, is gradually backing away. India, the UK and the EU have repeatedly condemned the regression that has transpired over the past year. In a rare display of concern for democracy in a non-oil-rich-state by the U.S., George W. Bush excluded Gynanendra from his annual banquet to heads of state attending the UN General Assembly in New York, causing considerable embarrassment for the King and leading him to abandon his plans for the UN trip. All the while, Nepal continues to climb the list of corrupt countries, as reported by watchdog Transparency International.
In spite of these conditions, the King is pressing forward with plans for municipal elections, which are considered farcical by the political parties, all of whom, including the Royalists, are boycotting them. For the first time in the country’s history, there are more seats available than candidates, with more than half of the posts being without a candidate, leaving little choice for the voters. Many of those who are running report being forced to do so and are hidden in army barracks, rather than campaigning, for fear of Maoist reprisal. The international community, with varying degrees of discretion and openness, has been dissuading the King from pursuing the polls, which are anticipated to drive a further wedge between the King, parties, and Maoists, destroying hopes of reconciliation.
As any casual observer can see, Nepal is not in a good state, contrary to Gyanendra’s claims otherwise, and I could go on for pages about the abuses and repression of both the government and the Maoists. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, will do this far more proficiently. What concerns me, and I hope is troubling to the international community and anyone who cares about the fate of Nepal’s 26 million inhabitants, is not simply these human rights abuses and constraints on political freedoms that the Nepalese civil sector is becoming increasing adept at documenting and publicizing (and accordingly, one hopes, diminishing). I’m more worried about that which isn’t being spoken: the social and economic rights of the rural poor, which haven’t been violated because they were never there. Despite the widespread recognition that the insurgency is a result of the neglect of this population (to figure it in more formal and sterile terms: the product of a pernicious combination of vertical and horizontal inequalities-intrasociety economic stratifications, persistent caste discrimination, and, perhaps most importantly, a stark urban-rural economic divide), the political discourse, reproduced faithfully by the domestic media, is focused predominantly on the political disputes of the elite in Kathmandu, turning its attention outside this relatively wealthy, urban domain only when a bomb goes off. And then only momentarily.
I’m nowhere near the first (and hopefully not the last) writer to insist that elementary deprivations not be forgotten during the tussle for political and civil freedoms; what, then, is enabling this to happen in Nepal?
The experiences of its neighbors may shed some light. In their already classical work, Hunger and Public Action, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze pose the question: why is it that China hosted the largest famine in history but has maintained otherwise low levels of malnutrition, while India’s population is plagued by persistent, high levels of malnutrition but hasn’t had a large-scale famine since independence? The answer that they arrive at is that China took aggressive measures to provide for the elementary needs of the rural poor but suppressed the media and other forms of dissent, which enabled famine to develop unchecked by popular uproar, whereas India has a vibrant civil society and media who serve as an early warning system for acute hunger crises, but who cast less attention over chronic deprivation.
Nepal, sandwiched in between these countries, appears not to have learned the lessons of either and instead adopted the worst traits of both.
Gyanendra’s delusions and illusions recall those of Mao’s government, whose denial of local food shortages led China to export foodgrains as the largest famine in recorded history unfolded. His plan to restore peace and democracy, which he assures the country will be accomplished in three years, is likewise reminiscent of the promised "great leap forward". Like Mao’s government, Gyanendra’s coterie claims to be acting in the name of the people while devoting most of its energy to suppressing all vestiges of dissent.
Unlike pre-reform communist China, however, the Nepalese government, well before Gyanendra took the reins, chose to pursue liberalization and monetarist strategies while neglecting to build a strong infrastructure for social services, which as many development experts have now recognized, left the rural poor behind. In this sense, Nepal followed India, and most of its development statistics accordingly mirror (with a slight lag) its southern neighbor.
The UN Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific describes these circumstances: "Nepal has placed reliance on private-sector development and market-oriented reforms… on the one hand, a modern urban sector based on organized industry, trade and services are gaining ground and on the other, the majority of people living in the rural sector are eking out a meager existence without access to the minimum services and facilities."
Nepalese economist and development planner Kishor Kumar Guru-Gharana summarizes things even more pointedly:
"The experience of Nepal for more than a decade is that SAP [structural adjustment programmes] and liberalization are urban-biased, modern-sector biased and anti-rural, anti-poor, anti-agriculture, and anti-traditional sectors."
The reduction in poverty that did occur between the last two head counts (the validity of which is questioned openly by economists) has been attributed, even by the World Bank, to conflict-induced migration and foreign remittances. Consequences for the health sector have been particularly harsh. Outside of Kathmandu, there is one doctor for every 150,000 people, one of the worst ratios of any place in the world. Even this figure is misleading, as many doctors stationed outside of urban centers are rarely at their posts. Only 11% of childbirths are attended by trained health personnel, which puts Nepal above only Ethiopia in this measure. Infant and child mortality rates are likewise high; if Nepal were to attain the same rate of child mortality as Sri Lanka, more lives would be saved every year than have been lost in the ten years of the Maoist conflict.
Military expenditure, as a fraction of the GDP, more than tripled from 1990 to 2005, while proportionate expenditure on health remained constant and low, a little over a third of that spent on defense. The government currently spends $96 million a year on health, which comes out to be approximately $4 per person, far less than the $11 minimum recommended by the World Health Organization for a basic package of care. This spending, too, is plagued by an urban bias. The government continues to depend heavily on foreign aid and international nongovernmental organizations, whose services, again, are concentrated largely in the Kathmandu valley and a handful of other major cities.
The media-somewhere between that of China and India, alternately censored and preoccupied with the political crisis-is scarcely reporting the decline of the rural health infrastructure, its attention captured more by the sensational events-strikes, arrests, curfews and killings. This week’s announcement of a new ordinance aimed at "disciplining" the media, further institutionalizing repression, won’t make matters much better. Meanwhile, the political parties, more concerned with their prospects for return to power, rarely make an issue these days of the plight of the poor.
Caught between a delusional and neglectful government and a preoccupied civil society and media, the rural poor seem relegated to continue shouldering the overwhelming burden of deprivation from this conflict. And to do so untended to, unnoticed. A colleague of mine, seizing upon a term no doubt thrown around freely among Nepalese educational institutions and academic circles, is fond of referring to the rural poor as "the voiceless ones", no doubt with liberal good intentions. Every time he writes this phrase, I can’t help but recall Arundhati Roy’s perspicacious remark: "We know of course there's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard."
In Mao’s China, they were deliberately silenced during the famine. In India, they have been preferably unheard, even after Independence. In Nepal, now, they suffer both.
Jason Andrews is with Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA and SPARSHA Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal