Raka Banerjee

Raka Banerjee (Nepal Social Development and People's Empowerment Center - NESPEC): Raka has spent much of her student and professional life abroad. She received her Bachelors of Arts in international studies from the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She then taught English in Japan for a year and in the slums of India. At the time of her fellowship, she was pursuing her Master's degree at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, specializing in International Development and Nonprofit Management. After her fellowship, Raka wrote: "I had no choice but to let go of my previous life entirely and really dive into Nepali life without a single anchor to hold me back. I adapted to the culture in as many ways as I could – the clothes, the food, the behavior, the expectations – everything. And because of that, I feel that I really became Nepali while I was there – my mind changed from an American mind to a Nepali one, and because of that even my thought and behavioral patterns changed. The intensity of this only became clear to me upon my return to the U.S., when I found myself on the verge of tears at my first step on American soil – I felt that I’d come to a new country, leaving my home behind."

Life Grinds to a Halt in Eastern Nepal

14 Aug
Highway buses on the road

Bandhas are an unavoidable facet of life in Nepal today. While the protest strikes originally tended to be called in order to try to rectify issues affecting the general public, or particular oppressed minorities, they are now being called for much more individualized problems. It is not necessary to look far afield for examples of this – as of my unknowingly hair’s breadth return to Gaighat from Kathmandu on Monday, August 11th, the entire Eastern Terai region of Nepal had been left without public transportation (read: buses) for an indefinite length of time. The cause? The most that anybody could tell me was that a bus driver had been killed by some criminal group a few days ago.

Writing that, just now, I felt foolish – that couldn’t be the reason that public transportation across the region was shut down for what some are saying to be a week, perhaps more. I did a little preliminary research on the reluctant internet and discovered that the story checked out – the man’s name was Krishna Khawas, he was killed by unidentified highway robbers, and the Nepal Transport Workers groups are demanding Rs. 1 million in compensation for the victim’s family, upkeep for his children and the declaration of the highway as a ‘peace zone’. If demands are not met (and indeed, the Rs. 1 million demand was declined by the government yesterday), the transport workers are threatening a nationwide strike.

Meanwhile, Nepali citizens are undergoing numerous hardships due to the current situation. Hundreds of passengers were stranded on their way to varied destinations due to the sudden declaration of the bandha – bus windows were smashed and several vehicles were vandalized. Worse still, many more are facing food shortages – the bandha is hitting the ‘pahari’ (the people who live in the hill regions) the hardest, and it is they who are at the greatest risk of food scarcity and starvation. Furthermore, fuel shortages, which have already reached a fever pitch in many parts of Nepal, are creating obstacles for the provision of basic services – ambulances have been rendered unoperational, and school buses have been forced off the roads. In short, the lack of public transport has had serious ramifications in all arenas – education, healthcare, sustenance, livelihood.

With all these things in mind, it originally seemed to me that the transport workers were acting reprehensibly in creating such turmoil for their fellow citizens. Looking deeper into the issue, however, it seems to me that in this situation, it is difficult to find someone who is not a victim. Ordinary Nepali people are encountering innumerable difficulties due to the lack of transportation – at the least, inability to reach their destinations, at the worst, lack of crucial medical attention and/or food to survive. However, it is simultaneously true that the death of this man signifies the sad fact that transportation workers, while going about their already dangerous task of driving for miles on Nepal’s tortuous roads, must fear for their lives from highway criminals. They, too, deserve the right to carry out their business without fear of death – the right to safe and secure roads. Meanwhile, the decision faced by the government is by no means enviable – if they refuse to accept the conditions, the transport workers may carry on the strike indefinitely, leading to even more serious, life-threatening problems for Nepali citizens. However, if they accept, it will only bolster the already widely-held notion that the appropriate method of obtaining desired outcomes is to continue to call bandhas and gravely disrupt the life of the public in Nepal.

At present, I can think of no solution to the implicit question raised by this situation – what is the proper channel through which civil society can effectively petition the government to redress its problems? Currently, it is clear that the most effective channel is through the declaration of a bandha – and it is equally clear that it is also one of the least efficient, in regards to greater societal welfare. In order for these incessant bandhas to truly cease, the public must be made confident of another process through which it can reliably receive compensation for its issues. The Justice department seems an obvious choice, but as the Maoist party has only just failed to meet its deadline to form a government under consensus, civil justice seems a long way off.

And while the party leaders battle for power, the citizens are left to make do with what little power they have at their disposal. Fire goes a long way here: to light sticks of wood for the preparation of a meal – or to set tires ablaze for the declaration of a bandha.

Tires ablaze in a bandha in Kathmandu

Posted By Raka Banerjee

Posted Aug 14th, 2008

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