In the beginning of October 2013, more than a million people left Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, for their ancestral homes in the hills and the plains for autumn festivals. Tens of thousands of diaspora Nepalese also returned home. This year, a record number made the trip because the festivals will be followed by the general elections scheduled for November. Many of these people will stay put until the polls.
The Nepalese celebrate festivals and elections with gusto. Festivals and elections make them forget for a moment the constant trials and tribulations for survival.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the Oxford Multidimensional Poverty Index, 44.2 percent people lived in poverty in 2011. Youth unemployment and underemployment remains close to 50 percent, though more than 2 million people have left for the Middle East, Korea, Malaysia and Western countries in search of jobs.
People live in extreme hardship. Take the capital city, Kathmandu. Life in the city is onerous for the poor and not easy even for the middle class. The shortage of necessities is acute. Electricity is supplied by rotation leaving much of the city in dark. Water too is rationed and comes at odd hours. The cooking gas and petrol frequently vanish from the market.
Roads are in a terrible condition. They have potholes beyond count. They become muddy in rain and dusty when dry from the haphazard demolition of houses to widen the city roads. The government has budget to demolish roadside houses but not to rebuild them to standards. Piles of rubbish go uncollected for days. Consequently, respiratory and other communicable diseases have increased several folds in the last two years.
Besides, crimes and congestion have increased. Frequent shut-downs called by political parties make life miserable round the year. It is a pleasure for outsiders to leave Kathmandu for a while for festivals and elections. It also makes life a little less chaotic for those who stay.
Life in rural areas is even more miserable. The shortage of necessities is more acute and poverty more rampant. Education and health services are worse. Only children and old live in villages, for others have left for cities or foreign countries in search of employment.
Most of those who go abroad have a precarious life. As The Guardian reported recently, many of them working in Qatar are dying due to poor working conditions and heat related complications. They do not get what was promised in Nepal, cheated by agents, intermediaries and employers . With their meagre income, many of them cannot pay back the loan they had taken to pay commission to agents and buy tickets.
Still the Nepalese enjoy every festival and election, and their average life satisfaction is above the midpoint of five. What makes them so? Festivals, elections, and a bit of fatalism.
Nepal has festivals round the year. Autumn has the biggest two of them: Durga Puja and Dipawali. In Durga Puja, people worship the warrior goddess, wear new clothes, eat good food, sing, dance, play swings, and seek blessings from elders. In Dipawali, they illuminate their houses to invite the goddess of wealth, ask for treats at night playing traditional songs, and worship brothers and sisters.
This year, these festivals are followed immediately by the elections to the second constituent assembly on 19 November 2013. For the desperately poor people, election means politicians promising the sky to make life better and some cash spent by bribe voters. Many people do not trust that the next assembly will write a new constitution. But they do think that polls are necessary to keep democracy intact.
The first assembly was dissolved without writing a new constitution due to big differences among political parties, mainly on the issue of federalism, which remains contentious. Minority groups support ethnic federalism and majority groups geographical one. Yet elections are welcome not only as an exercise in democracy also as an opportunity to renew patron-client relationship.
Elections are great occasions for people to build bridges with politicians to land jobs and other favors in Nepal. Nepalese society is so politicized that you cannot get a job or a project without the blessings of one of the major parties and influential leaders. Being in the good book of a senior politician makes a difference between miserable poverty and reasonably good life.Young people expecting such favors have to work for the election of their leaders.
So this year, many more people have gone back to their ancestral homes for the festivals than before. Many have come back from foreign countries, too, including the United Kingdom and the United States.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone is on the same page regarding the polls. The non-political election government and the big four parties overseeing it are eager to go to the vote quickly. But 33 parties, led by the breakaway faction of the Maoists, have opposed the elections, as proposed. They say they want change in government and in the polls date for their participation and have vowed to disrupt the vote if held without their participation.
Actually, the breakaway Maoists have been preventing the election campaign and harassing the candidates. If they continue doing so, the polls will be far from peaceful, credible and legitimate. It is, therefore, wrong not to try to accommodate the demands – the reasonable ones, at least – of these parties to pave the way for peaceful elections. Otherwise, the joy and hope brought in by the festivals and the elections will at best be fleeting and sterile.