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Unleashing Nepal: Bandhs…A Waste of Youth

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This is the sixth in the series reproducing — with permission from the author — sections from the book Unleashing Nepal by Sujeev Shakya. (Click here for the first one about the Chakari system, here for the second one about the rent-seeking mentality, here for the third one about the mishap with the education system, here for the fourth on about the education system since the 1990s, and here for the fifth one about the way we politicized education.)

This reproduced section comes from pages 69-71. All emphases are mine.

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Bandhs Galore: The Business of Closure

The successful use of chakka jams and Nepal bandhs* during the Jana Andolan had highlighted the importance and strength of street-level agitation to the politicians. The strategy of closing down the nation or obstructing traffic to make a political statement is perhaps a remnant of the power of the Indian embargo in Nepal. Whatever the cause, the chakka jam and Nepal bandh soon became an integral part of Nepali society. Political parties, labourers, businesses, social workers and even grief-stricken family members took to the streets in some form of chakka jam or Nepali bandh the moment their rights were threatened or demands remained unmet. Website like www.nepalbandh.com started providing advance information on such events, helping people to plan their days of travel and decide whether to keep offices open or shut. The popular currency of such digital representations of the bandh cycle in a nation that was not overwhelmingly tech savvy, is an indication of how deep a hold the bandh phenomenon had on the Nepali psyche.

Agitating cable operators cutting off transmission of their channels, taxis expressing grievances by parking along the Ring Road to obstruct traffic in and out of the airport, garbage piling up on the street when someone in the garbage chain is unhappy — these are all routine occurrences. Ironically, businesses and hotels which lamented the impact of bandhs on business and tourism, when upset, resorted to calling for bandhs themselves. It was as if Nepal and the bandh were a match made in heaven — once in the country, everyone seemed to welcome bandhs and revel in them. For the by now fatalist and escapist Nepali populace, the bandh was just another holiday. It was an excuse to drink excessively the night before and play cards all day long, so most Nepalis relished the many surprise vacations that the nation’s political turmoil threw at them. Simultaneously, for the business minded, it presented the ideal opportunity for racketeering and profiteering by providing more arbitrage opportunities to make that extra rupee. The vegetable vendors in Kalimati, Kathmandu as well as the adulterated fuel gas stations prayed for that landslide in Krishnabhir or a strike by any organization — as long as life came to a standstill. Businesses that thrive by capitalizing on such windows of opportunity have served to further the culture of bandhs. The business atmosphere in Kathmandu runs on the same wavelength as Kolkata, which even after all its moves towards liberalization, has yet to get rid of the image it impressed upon the world during the 1970s — as a city with more non-working days than working days. In the tourist or economic map of the world, Nepal, with its addiction to bandhs and chakka jams, has firmly established itself as Kolkata’s younger sibling.

It is very difficult to estimate how much the economy lost on account of bandhs, when the Maoist paralysed Kathmandu Valley for five days in May 2010. It was estimated that Rs. 15 billion was lost every day. The World Bank Investment Climate Report 2010 pointed out that in addition to the fifty-two annual holidays and fifty holidays because of national occasions, enterprises lost yet another forty-four days on account of such bandhs.

[Note: bandhs and chakka jams, though a regular feature of life in Kathmandu for until about the end of 2016, they have not been so for a while.]

A Waste of Youth

At the heart of the bandh and chakka jam cycle are event coordinators such as student and trade unions. In yet another perversion of economic potential, the politicization of university campuses and trade unions created the need for a large number of young cadres to take to the streets to enforce bandhs and chakka jams as a real representation of political power. The use of the youth as a means of political leveraging is, in effect, the squandering of the promise that the youth hold. Unlike the youth in China, Thailand, and Vietnam, who are driving the economic growth of their countries, young people in Kathmandu are either busy touting party propaganda or spending their nights partying. The youth who were not party material (in either sense of the word ‘party’) sought out opportunities to leave the country and work abroad. Unfortunately, having been raised in an educational system which lacked the standards that would allow its products to compete in the international market, most of these youth found their skills severely lacking and their degrees ephemeral comforts in a world that was more concerned about quality and brand than heart and intention. For parents, it became more important to provide Rs. 6000 for a pair of Doc Martens shoes than buy books for just a tenth of the amount, since Nepali society generally seemed to judge external looks only. For every ten beauty pageants held there was one quiz contest and while ever more places were available to go drink and smoke, there was no place to go and listen to a good lecture. While clubs and dance bars mushroomed, no museums or art centers got built. A business atmosphere that deterred investment for fear of militant labour, energy shortages and constant security concerns, all stifled the growth of employment opportunities in the private sector. The rise in unemployment, dissatisfaction and militancy in such a scenario is thus, hardly surprising.

 

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*Chakka jam literally means the jamming of wheels, prohibiting vehicles from plying the roads. Banda/bandhs are temporary shutdowns in all commerce, that are enforced by the organizers of street-level agitation.

 

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