Mutually assured demolition
The country lurches from one shutdown to another
JANAKPUR-From a capital paralysed by strikes to a Tarai paralysed by strikes, the long-suffering people of this country have learnt to cope.
They’ve also learnt to make hay while the sun shines.
Rickshaw fares quadruple when motorised vehicles disappear from the streets. Since the demand for pedal power far outstrips supply during a banda, it’s the provider rather than the customer who sets the fare. Our driver, Sovit, says he makes most of his money carrying children to school.
That’s the regular income on which he bases his monthly budget. He can take one or two days of banda per month in his stride. But anything more than that can push him below the poverty line.
During the Madhes Uprising two years ago, he says he endured untold hardships for prolonged periods because it was his struggle for a life of dignity. Thanks to the andolan, no Pahadi passenger now dare talk to him in a spiteful tone.
But he doesn’t know what this nagarik sarbochata is all about. “Isn’t President Ram Baran Yadav also a nagarik?” asks Sovit with the profound wisdom of a man who has pulled rickshaw for a living ever since he dropped out of school at the age of 14 to support his family.
A hartal also eliminates the most attractive source of a rickshaw-puller’s income: short trips with the possibility of tips. With businesses shut, people just walk across the street to hire pirated DVDs to spend the day at home. Buses stop, railways do not ply and the cigarette factory is shut. The quadrupled income from one or two trips to the airport doesn’t compensate.
Sovit’s economic sense is remarkable enough, but his political instincts are even more impressive. The 24-year-old looks double his age and sounds as wise, and thinks that no political force other than Forum can resist the Maoist onslaught in the Madhes. The deserted streets confirm his prognosis. There are no YCDL hoodlums visible, but the fear of their wrath is enough to force businesses to shut.
Sovit campaigned for MJF lawmaker Sanjay Sah during CA elections but considers Upendra Yadav to be a better representative of Madhesis than the opportunistic gang of Bijay Gachhedar.
Whoever says that the popular verdict that produced a hung Constituent Assembly was freak phenomenon should listen to porters in the mountains, rickshawalas in the Tarai and cabbies in Kathmandu. The Nepali voter wanted to send a strong message to its leaders: if you don’t swim together, we wouldn’t be there to rescue you when you drown. The message has been either misread or wilfully misinterpreted.
The political class in the capital is yet again engaged in mutually assured demolition of each other’s reputation even as the country descends into anarchy. Sovit is a worried man: his son is not old enough to go to Malaysia and he doesn’t want to keep him in Janakpur. He wants to know if his son can find job as a domestic in a Kathmandu household.
Everybody in Janakpur wants to move to the capital city. The once-famous RR Campus has deteriorated beyond recognition. The town is not safe anymore for girls to walk alone. When Pahadis move to safer locations, it’s big news. But Sovit insists that for every Pahadi settler who has moved out, there are at least two Madhesis who have done the same and for similar reasons. The only difference is that when a Pahadi leaves, he often sells his property never to return.
Criminality is so pervasive that all hopes of the town returning to normal are fading. Work on Dhalkebar-Bhitamod Highway is held up because every gang with a gun wants a cut from construction contracts. People don’t pick up any calls from phones with unfamiliar numbers. Motorcycles are snatched from riders in broad daylight.
Sovit wants to know whether he can survive pulling rickshaws in Kathmandu. He has been told that tourists pay more there than here and plans to move out of Janakpur as soon as his son completes school. At least that’s a point on which the entire country is one: everybody dreams of living in the capital city some day.
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