“Discrimination in Nepal Continues under New Constitution”
After a turbulent year 2015 for Nepal, we spoke with social entrepreneur Rabi Karmacharya about the stalled post-earthquake reconstruction effort and the political quagmire following the adoption of a much-criticized new constitution.
BTI Blog: Mr. Karmacharya, your NGO “Open Learning Exchange Nepal” has worked for many years to improve education quality in rural schools. How did the earthquake on 25 April 2015 affect your work?
Rabi Karmacharya: In Gorkha district, the epicenter of the earthquake, most of the 25 schools where we housed our digital-library servers were badly damaged, and many computers were destroyed. We are now using our working relationships with the district’s rural communities to help with a school-reconstruction project. As we rebuild, we also plan to design and implement a framework in which students will learn through active engagement and exploration, using digital learning resources.
BTI Blog: How did last year’s tragic events affect the country’s socioeconomic situation? What needs to be done?
Karmacharya: At the local level, homes, roads, schools and health care stations urgently need to be rebuilt. Eight months after the earthquake, there is still no plan in place for restoring the livelihoods of thousands of affected people. At the national level, infrastructure reconstruction and the restoration of heritage sites should be given priority so that service sectors, tourism and foreign investment can be revived. The earthquake has had tremendous negative effects on growth, income, and poverty. The government estimates that damages and losses totaled $7 billion, GDP growth declined by more than 1.5 percentage points, and an additional 2.5% to 3.5% of the population was pushed below the national poverty line. Agriculture was adversely affected due to heavy livestock loss, landslides, loss of food stocks and the inability to plant. Severe damage to hydropower facilities devastated productivity in a country that had already faced up to 14 hours of daily power outages. Many tourists cancelled their visits, causing enormous losses to the government, the private sector and local communities. Trade with China came to a standstill after the primary transit point was damaged by landslides.
BTI Blog: The Bertelsmann Transformation Index assessed the 2013 general elections as being relatively free and fair. In September 2015 the constituent assembly passed a new constitution. Does it provide a sustainable basis for democracy?
Karmacharya: The much awaited new constitution institutionalized Nepal as a secular, federal republic with multiparty democracy. Though 90% of the constituent assembly voted in favor of the document, much of the southern Terai population – nearly 40% of the population – felt betrayed on key issues of political representation, demarcation of provincial boundaries, and election constituencies. Their demands must be addressed if democracy is to be rendered sustainable.
“The government has used the India card to rally public support.”
BTI Blog: The ongoing blockade of the border with India has left people short of fuel, cooking gas and essential supplies during the harsh winter. Who is responsible for the blockade, and what needs to be done?
Karmacharya: The blockade came on the heels of strikes and protests announced by Terai-based Madhesi political parties and the Tharu ethnic communities, following the new constitution’s promulgation in September 2015. They felt that the new demarcation of the federal states and election constituencies would deny them the right to proportional representation, and that Kathmandu’s ruling elites would continue age-old discriminatory policies against them. The ruling parties rejected India’s request for a dialogue with the Madhesi communities, implementing the new constitution through a swift legislative vote. The Indian government appears to be tacitly supporting the Madhesi protests with an unannounced blockade, citing safety concerns for their transport trucks. India has always played a key role in shaping Nepal’s political landscape. The same political leaders who have criticized India for meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs have often sought India’s backing to further their own political interests. They bear primary responsibility for the quagmire, in part due to their abandonment of a commitment to devolve power in a federalist system. Their decisions have caused considerable suffering, crippling the economy and nurturing a thriving black market.
“The post-earthquake reconstruction process has barely begun.”
BTI Blog: Do the strained relations with Nepal’s largest trading partner exacerbate political cleavages, or have they rather created a rally-around-the-flag effect?
Karmacharya: The government has used the India card to rally public support, and the mainstream media has framed India as a regional bully that tries to wield its power on its smaller neighbors. However, these moves have further alienated the Madhesi groups. Ethnic mistrust is widespread, with some blaming the Madhesi parties for promoting Indian interests rather than standing up for Nepal. Many in the Madhesi communities feel that the hill people who dominate the political class continue to treat them as second-class citizens, and have accused the police of using excessive force during peaceful protests, resulting in the death of more than 50 protesters.
BTI Blog: In this complicated situation, Communist Party leader Khadga Prasadi Oli was elected as the first prime minister under the new constitution. What do the Nepali people expect from him?
Karmacharya: The Nepali people expected the prime minister to bring the protesting parties to the table and end the blockade. However, little progress was made during his first 100 days. Faith in the government has been undermined by the uncontrolled growth of black markets and the rise of economic cartels. Despite the pledge of $4 billion from the international community, the Oli government has barely begun the post-earthquake reconstruction process. The need of the hour is strong and visionary leadership that can rises above petty politics to unite the country, builds an atmosphere of trust, and promotes growth and prosperity. Instead of vague and hollow promises, people want to see the prime minister take concrete steps to end the culture of impunity and unaccountability, which are the main reasons behind the widespread corruption that has slowed economic growth and rendered most development activities ineffective. If there is one thing Oli must do, it is to build back people’s trust in the government.
Rabi Karmacharya is a social entrepreneur with over 18 years of experience in the private and development sectors. He established one of Nepal’s first successful software-outsourcing companies. He went on to found Open Learning Exchange (OLE) Nepal with the aim of giving all children access to high-quality learning opportunities through the use of technology in classrooms. Rabi holds electrical-engineering and computer-science degrees from MIT, and has been a member of the Transformation Thinkers network since 2012.
Interview: Robert Schwarz