Saturday, December 1, 2007

Governance with government

By Dr Ramesh Khatry

If at times you've wondered whether the Nepal government exists, you are not alone. The government seems to function a bit within the Kathmandu valley. Outside, you need a lamp during the day to look for it. I mention a few instances.

Noisy firecrackers: Before Dashain and Tihar each year, radios and TV stations echo the appeal of the Home Ministry (HM), "No firecrackers!" People have lost their eyes and houses have burnt to cinders after a few exciting seconds with these deadly toys. So, officials at the HM are on the right track. In western countries, when the government makes such an announcement, the police are busy the next day enforcing it. This means a hefty fine to the offenders. Here, you  find police personnel, like the rest, not arresting sellers and revellers but themselves enjoying fireworks: "bombs" blasting the ears of unsuspecting pedestrians but delighting giggling urchins who have laid the ambush, "rockets" soaring into the air and disintegrating with a bang, "fountains" spewing out fiery sparks into the pitch-dark nights. Both the HM and the police in our country think that making announcements and painting hoarding boards with warnings will turn unruly citizens into law-abiding ones. The only thing that works is on-the-spot pinching fines. Danish folks have to pay 500 croners, a huge amount, for just crossing the street at the wrong light. Fines will work in our country too, provided the police don't succumb to culprits greasing their palms.

Highway blockade: While travelling east to Bhorleni, I congratulated myself on having chosen a motorcycle. Beyond Lahan, buses, cars, and tempos stood idle in two places. In both, I learnt that unfortunate drivers had run over pedestrians; and thus innocent passengers trying to reach home for Dashain had to wait until the victim's relatives got their "pound of flesh." These didn't stop motorcycles, and cautiously I inched forward. However, circumstances changed a week later when I was heading for Ilam. A few kilometres beyond Charaali, youth with sticks waved me to a halt. They told me that a factory-worker had lost his arm; and I had to help their cause by returning the way I came. I replied that I had a noon-day conference in Ilam, and had to move on. "Is your meeting more important than our colleague's arm? Stay still or else!" A few moments later, quarrels among the stick-wielders moved the hooligans towards a milk-van about 100 metres away. I hastily started my bike and raced for Ilam. The agitation had begun the day before. The police were conspicuous by their absence.

November 12 in Adamghat was another story. I arrived at about 9:30 AM to kilometres of standing buses and cars. Only when I proceeded further up did I realize that motorcycles too were suffering the same fate. A dead body covered with a white cloth lay on the road, and a contingent of policeman stood helplessly nearby. Even two wheelers couldn't pass. Again, ruffians with sticks functioned as the government from ten the night before. Scores of foreign tourists headed for Pokhara or Chitwan had an overnight/early morning experience not available in their countries.

The government regularly "jokes" that anyone blocking the highway will receive severe punishment. In Adamghat, the police representing it should have cleared the corpse from the road, ensured the flow of traffic, and mediated talks between the driver's party and the victim's relatives. Sadly, the police just added to the number of spectators. For the first time, I felt the present home minister should resign, and another who can enforce government rules take his place. Returning to Kathmandu, I used the time-consuming Tribhuvan Rajpath to avoid another Adamghat.   

Passengers on top of buses: Each time people die because an over-crowded bus collapses or loses control to plunge into the river, government officials shed crocodile tears. However, the next day as usual you will see people perched on the top of buses with luggage, goats, and firewood. When the roof-top riders have been youths, I have watched them dance, enjoyed them making faces at me, and heard them scream that my motorbike's wheels are spinning.

Drivers empty these roof-top riders into their gundruk-packed vehicles when the police check-post approaches. Honest, motorcycle-riding policemen patrolling different sections of the highway could catch and punish such unscrupulous drivers.  However, some have bought immunity. In Kathmandu, micro-buses can stop where they like because bribed policemen ignore them. Obviously, severely punishing such uniformed, two-legged demons and replacing them with honest cops could ensure that our government functions.

Bicycles without lights: Buses/trucks have run over riders whose bicycles didn't have lights, and the drivers/owners have paid thousands before the irate relatives allowed traffic to resume. In such accidents, the innocent driver is always at fault. The fact is that unlit bicycles at night become invisible if another vehicle with scorching head-lights approaches from the opposite direction. While driving my two-wheeler from Nepalgunj to Butwal one night and being blinded by approaching vehicles, I missed such cyclists by inches only because the brakes worked. Had I killed a rider on an unlit bicycle, the victim's relatives would have demanded thousands of rupees from me; and would probably have lynched me at my inability to pay! Panchayati rule of 30 years had one redeeming feature—policemen apprehended bicycles without lights, as I found out twice to my own youthful embarrassment. Loktantra has given our cyclists without lights the right to get killed and their families to claim "insurance".

Many such instances come to mind: Maoist goons being arrested but released once their supporters cause havoc, Kathmandu stinking with uncollected garbage, innumerable abductions and disappearances. For democracy to have effect, people need to experience governance with government.


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