Driving through the Nepali capital Kathmandu is an open exhibit of what happens when there is a failure of governance. Endless stretches of city roads broken up for repair but stalled for years, kids stepping over overflowing sewers as they walk back home from school, canals brimming with waste winding through residential neighbourhoods, vans and motorbikes vying for supremacy on derelict roads – you will see them all in just a half an hour drive through the city. As we travelled from the airport to our hotel in a seemingly new ‘Hiace’ van, I thought to myself “how long will the shock absorbers on this last?”. The combined wear and tear on all Kathmandu’s vehicles must be running into billions of Nepali rupees each year.
To travel from the hotel to a nearby market we caught the only “public” transport that’s widely available – privately run mini-vans (or locally called micro buses) in terrible condition that shuttle people across the city for a nominal 50-60 rupees. Nepali citizens don’t have reliable public transport, and have to pay these private operations – essentially para-transport – to get to where they need to go. A recent study by the World Bank showed that while the city has seen a 60% rise in its population in the last decade, the transport system hasn’t kept pace, and this is causing severe difficulties for women and children especially (‘Gender and Public Transport in Nepal’). The report noted that, “Major problems include overcrowding, personal insecurity, reckless & unsafe driving, increased insecurity after dark and problems travelling with children”. I asked one of the passengers, a young woman, what she thought of the situation and she replied, “I wish there was a better way, but there isn’t. It’s not comfortable and sometimes I feel unsafe. But the government buses are not reliable – instead of waiting and waiting I rather take this uncomfortable micro bus”.
As we whizzed around the city, all of us in the van were caked in a layer of brown – the roads are enveloped in a continuous whirl of dust. It’s not unusual to see motorcyclists and pedestrians alike covering their noses with whatever they had – motorcyclists wearing proper face masks, and women walking on the street using the end of their sarees. I wondered what the prevalence of respiratory illnesses must be.
Stuck in political gridlock for years, unable to pass a national constitution, and a systemically unstable government, has left the Nepali people severely in the lurch.
As I opened up to read the Kathmandu Post on the second morning of our meetings, I began to have some hope. It announced that a new Prime Minister had finally been sworn in, two months after the general elections and after much political wrangling. Sushil Koirala was a man with no prior experience in public office and from the well-known political dynasty that has ruled Nepal before. What had clinched the deal, apparently, had been his offer of granting the Home Ministry to the opposition political party. The next day, just two days after being sworn in, I heard that Koirala had backtracked on his offer and had refused to give up the Home Ministry. I don’t know what the final outcome was. But as our plane left Kathmandu and flew over the snow-capped Himalayas, my only thoughts were – “A beautiful country, with beautiful people, cursed by a failure of governance”.