Nepal has been under a countrywide lockdown for more than a month. The restriction, which was imposed by the state as a measure to control the coronavirus on March 24 for a week, has been extended thrice, and it is still uncertain when the country will finally open. Fortunately, no death of a corona patient has been reported yet, but the number of corona positives has been increasing day by day.
The lockdown has heavily affected the life of the commoner, especially the poor people working in the country and abroad. Most of them are daily-wage workers, who are now out of work, and without any earnings to survive in the city, they are desperate to reach their villages. For them, it is home in the village that will ensure food along with other basic comforts for the family. But due to a ban on bus services, they have been making even a 700-km journey by foot. Most of them have faced harassment by the police on the way, and some of them even brutally beaten as well. Some of them tried to swim across big rivers like the Mahakali to reach the country from India as they were desperate to reach home. But those who reached Nepal after a risky swim were taken into police custody.
Here one could argue that the Nepal-state has denied the citizens the right to return to their home country. Along with this, questions about citizenship and concepts of home and belongingness have arisen. However, the government, especially the Prime Minister of Nepal, has reacted to the situation as if no one is facing hunger. He termed the news coverage as “media conspiracy” to show that the government is performing poorly.
While citizens are living in anxiety and facing a difficult situation, the government has been involved in a number of controversies. Two ministers have been accused of corruption while procuring medical equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the government which signed a contract worth Rs 1.24 billion with Omni Group to import pandemic-related medical equipment. It was done by escaping the procurement procedure, citing it as an urgent situation. But the intention to allow a private company without any experience was to make unnecessary profit using the crisis. Omni brought some materials, namely, PPEs, N95 masks, surgical masks and surgical gloves, portable Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machines and rapid testing kits from China but at a very high price.
Also the quality of these materials was questioned. For example, the rapid testing kits, which were brought by Omni, were said to be unreliable and showing false negative results. It is reported that doctors questioned the quality of the PPE sets and even the portable PCR machines. The government, which initially defended the procurement, decided to scrap the deal with Omni group under mounting pressure from the people and media. But the controversy did not end there.
Instead of dealing with probable suppliers through the government organs, like the embassy, the task was handed over to the Nepal Army. Why was the Army chosen by the government after so much controversy? How could the Army be the right institution to import medical equipment as it was beyond its professionalism? As these equipment have yet to arrive Nepal, another pertinent question to ask is: what will be the situation if the coronavirus spreads here as in Europe and the USA?
Another controversy was generated by the Nepali government when it tried to bring two irrelevant ordinances. While the whole world was fighting against the pandemic, the government issued two ordinances on April 20. One ordinance was related to the Political Party Act, which, if amended, would allow any party to split if 40 per cent of its central members or parliamentary party members want to register a new party. The earlier provision allowed a party to split only if 40 per cent of the members of both the central committee and parliamentary party were in favour. Eyebrows were raised when the Prime Minister defended the ordinance at the Party Secretariat, saying it was introduced to ease the split of one of the opposition parties in the Parliament.
Another ordinance, related to the Constitutional Council, would allow it to take decisions even with just two votes out of its six members. The move of the government has been opposed not only by leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, but also by the opposition parties, commoners and civil society as well.
As President Bidya Devi Bhandari approved those controversial ordinances within hours of their issuance by the Cabinet, it led many to question whether the Office of the President had become an arm of the executive. Once one of the controversial ordinances was set into motion, a chain of events occurred, eventually culminating in the alleged “kidnapping” of a political leader and the long-awaited merger of two Madhesi parties.
The media reported that the PM had deployed some leaders “to hold talks” with the leaders of the third largest party in the Parliament- Samajbadi Party – to explore a possible split. Six lawmakers had reportedly already gathered in Kathmandu as per the plan, and one lawmaker, Surendra Yadav, who was in Janakpur, was brought to Kathmandu in a vehicle on PM Oli’s instructions.
However, unable to weather the criticisms coming from various corners, including strong protests from within the ruling party, the government decided to scrap the controversial ordinance after just five days. Critics say that the ordinance was “against the principles of power devolution, checks and balances and parliamentary democracy,” and that “the government was subverting the constitutional spirit and bypassing the Parliament.”
With one ill-timed political controversy after another being created by the government, the Nepali people have not been able to concentrate on fighting against the corona pandemic. Rather they had to fight almost simultaneously against the undemocratic and non-transparent government moves. It was the time for the government to focus on arranging medicines and other required logistics to fight the virus, and make arrangements for food and other minimal requirements for the people due to the nationwide lockdown. But many Nepalis feel that the government has been insensitive, partial and discriminatory towards its citizens when it comes to distributing relief materials, conducting rescue operations or testing for COVID-19 and providing patients health facilities.
The way the government takes decisions and withdraws them after sometime makes it appear weak. Such indecisiveness erodes its image and is not good for the country at a time when it is in the midst of a crisis. The government must work with the people in a very interactive and transparent manner to win their heart and soul.